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Dealing with imposter syndrome in Indian workplaces as a woman

. 7 min read . Written by Vanshika Goenka
Dealing with imposter syndrome in Indian workplaces as a woman

As something that impedes workplace parity, here’s how dealing with imposter syndrome in the workplace can create a healthier workforce.

I was taught to aim for perfection as a child. As an impressionable adolescent, I was conditioned to a pattern of functioning that elicited perfection. And as a young woman, I grew into someone that felt the need to constantly second-guess herself when the slightest element hindered this image of perfection.

That was until I found out that this persistent self-doubt has a name. And spoiler alert: it’s not healthy. It’s called 'imposter syndrome'.

What is imposter syndrome?

In a nutshell, it’s a situation where individuals constantly undersell themselves. This situation implies a persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved, or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts and skills.

Imposter syndrome can be defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success.

Such individuals generally suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of inferiority that overrides any other feelings of success and accomplishments.

Imposter syndrome and women

Statistically speaking, women are more likely to be predisposed to imposter syndrome. More women than men tend to attribute their successes to external factors rather than to their own effort.

This predisposition comes from a strict and regimented societal conditioning that is implicitly determined to undermine the successes and individual identities of women.

Owing to the patriarchal society, the definition of what exactly constitutes success for women differs from the general definition of success. Due to this ambivalence of what success means, success in family and domestic life takes precedence over professional success.

The result? Persistent feelings of self-doubt that overshadow workplace achievements. With so much literature available on the lack of workplace parity, imposter syndrome has been attributed as both a prominent cause, as well as a consequence of workplace inequality.

With workplaces being considered conventionally male-dominated spheres, conversations on gender representation in the Indian workspace have only just begun. So, the conditioning of undermining one’s success, combined with its skewed definition and the lack of gender parity, altogether results in a majority of women suffering from imposter syndrome in the Indian workspace.

Think about it. When was the last time you celebrated your achievements? Do you remember the last time you stepped back and revelled in the glory of the work that you accomplished? Now think about the last time you walked yourself into the routine inescapable rut of self-doubt?

If your answers to these questions were something on the lines of “I don’t know.”, “I don’t remember.” and “Yesterday,” then say hello to your new old friend, imposter syndrome.

How to recognise imposter syndrome

None of this does not mean that suffering from imposter syndrome is a shortcoming. Rather, it is an inherited cultural prejudice. Since leadership is ordinarily defined in male terms, women don’t confirm to this definition of leadership. It’s almost as if women are taught to doubt themselves because the definition of success and leadership conveniently escape the female side of it.

Typically, there are five recognised types of imposter syndrome. More often than not, ‘imposters’ can identify with one or more of these types. So here are the 5 types of imposter syndrome.

The Perfectionist

Perfectionism and imposter syndrome often go hand in hand. The need for perfection manifests in setting extremely high and almost unachievable standards of work. The inevitable failure that measures up with the inability to reach these excessively high goals leads to imposter syndrome.

As the definition of success in Indian workspaces has a gendered connotation, it’s not a surprise then that the feeling of failure looms over us. Owing to the aforementioned conditioning, the internal evaluation and the standards by which women judge their own work is rooted in almost unachievable perfection.

Ever come across those memes where girls are shown lamenting over getting a 90% score report card but the boy is proudly parading his 45%? Yeah, that’s the Perfectionist in a nutshell.

The Superwoman

The term ‘Superwoman’ is problematic on multiple levels, and in this context too, it’s an extension of the ‘Perfectionist’ problem. If you’ve convinced yourself that you’re nothing but a phoney adrift in a sea of other real-deal workers, then you’re a victim of the Superwoman syndrome.

Victims of this typically push themselves to work harder than most others to measure up. But this unceasing pressure to excel stems from a place of masked insecurities, where you’ve led yourself to believe that unending dedication to work is the only way out. Work overload of this nature however, harms not just your own mental health but also your relationship with others.

Think about this for a second. As a modern independent working woman, I’m sure you’re handling multiple jobs and responsibilities, both at the workplace and at home. But do you constantly feel that you’re not good enough, despite performing so many roles and having accomplished so much?

That’s imposter syndrome.

A lot of the Superwoman syndrome also stems from the intrinsic guilt that is placed on working mothers. Domestic responsibilities like child rearing and cooking are singularly imposed on the mother, regardless of her professional success.

And from this problematic multitasking, stems the thought of feeling like an imposter—inadequate and insufficient. But more importantly, you feel incapable of success altogether.

The Natural Genius

This is typically characteristic of the shame and the under-confidence that people feel if they take a long time to master something. They believe that they need to be a natural master of a given skill. They judge their competence on the basis of the efficiency and the ease with which they master something.

‘Imposters’ of this kind set impossibly high standards. They seek their internal validation from being able to master something right on the first try.

Growing up, I remember having a rather whimsical set of interests. Like any other child, I’d wake up one morning with the firm decision of learning how to play the guitar. I’d wake up another morning with an equally strong interest in learning tap dance. And while my parents were incredibly supportive of all of these fancies – they’d look for classes and have me enrolled with tutors – I’d always end up eventually learning nothing new and dropping out of all those sessions.

Retrospectively looking at it, I remember losing interest purely because of my inability to become a pro at a given activity within the first week of engaging with it. So if it weren’t for the Natural Genius syndrome, I would have probably become a pro musician today. Maybe.

The Expert

‘Experts’ develop their self-worth on the basis of the amount of knowledge they possess. The ‘how much’ of their knowledge takes precedence over the quality of their knowledge. They fear that they will never know enough, and fear being exposed for their lack of knowledge. This assumed lack of knowledge eventually transpires into imposter syndrome.

The Soloist

Do you cringe remembering those god-awful group projects you were assigned in college? Those forced assignments that called for socialising and getting work out of people you could barely stand? Remember how you dealt with scoring in these projects? If your answer is going at it alone, then hello there, Soloist.

As the name suggests, the soloists believe in venturing into anything all by themselves. They believe in independence, and consider asking for help as a sign of failure. Setting these impossible standards of independence, more often than not, leads to an insufficient outcome, thereby leading to developing imposter syndrome.

Refusing assistance becomes the basis for proving your self-worth, and is therefore the cause of the Soloist syndrome.

Dealing with imposter syndrome in the workplace

Recall the last time someone appreciated your work and you responded with “Oh, that’s okay, it’s not a big deal.” or “I guess I just got lucky!” or even something like “Anyone could have done that.”

Yeah, you gotta stop doing that girl.

Changing the vocabulary

Using attributes like “just” or “I feel” or “I think” simply reduces your own conviction in your opinion. These words give us a sense of lethargic comfort in the space in-between. This in-between is the space where you play safe by leaving scope for an assumed eminent failure. This comfortable space also hinders your assertion and undermines your knowledge. So in the next brainstorming meeting, change your “I feel” to an “I know”.

By using self-deprecating language in workplace communication, you’re taking away your own power.

And this weak language works both ways: not only while evaluating your own accomplishments, but also in communication with your subordinates and your peers.

Own and commemorate your achievements

Success can be that major cloud of indecipherable jargon that is simply never satisfactory. But commemorating accomplishments helps find contentment and cultivate self-confidence. More importantly, it is necessary to be able to take a step back and revel in the glory of your accomplishments to avoid burning out.

Don’t hold back from delegating work – in the assertive vocabulary

A prominent characteristic of imposter syndrome is the refusal in delegating work. This discomfort in assigning tasks and expecting output from others stems from a combination of being a Perfectionist, a Soloist and a Superwoman. Since we impede ourselves with unachievable regimented standards of perfection, we doubt that anyone else would be able to function on the same bandwidth and yield the desired output for the tasks required.

It is imperative to get over these irrational fears. But it’s even more important to stop assessing work through the lens of unattainable perfection. Learn to delegate work. And if you’re an employer, trust the instincts that made you hire the employee in question in the first place. Because as Bill Gates has said, “The worst thing you can do is hire a smart person and then tell them what to do.”

Steer away from seeking external validation

Being addicted to the validation that comes from your work is classic imposter syndrome. But this validation stems not from the work itself but the act of working. Train yourself to stay away from external validation. No one should have the power to make you feel good about yourself other than you; not even your boss when they give you that stamp of approval.

As and when you become attuned to internal validation and are able to nurture your inner confidence, you’ll be able to say you’re competent and skilled. And the more you’ll be able to objectively judge your own work.

Rewire and accept that you are a work-in-progress

Accomplishing great things involves lifelong learning and skill-building for everyone. So rather than berating yourself for your failures to meet impossibly high standards, identify your specific patterns of behaviour. Reflect on them objectively and find changeable behaviours that you can improve over time.

It is alright to not know everything. Understand that you’re a work in progress, and that all the good things in life take time. Focus on the learning and the journey more than the eventual destination itself. Emphasise and try to look at your journey objectively. Failures are not obstructions, but just something that every journey will have along the way.

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