Preview: The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women

Young, Valerie. The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It. New York: Crown Books, 2011.

I am terrible at dealing with criticism. Constructive criticism, evaluations, feedback, honest judgements—these all send me into panic mode fearing my biggest weaknesses will be exposed. For example, I have yet to open the envelope with my summer course evaluations. This blurb from the book’s promotional website caught my attention because I had not considered putting my paralyzing fear of criticsm into perspective with imposter syndrome.

While the impostor syndrome is not unique to women, they are more likely to agonize over tiny mistakes and blame themselves for failure, see even constructive criticism as evidence of their shortcomings; and chalk up their accomplishments to luck rather than skill. When they do succeed, they think ‘Phew, I fooled ‘em again.’ Perpetually waiting to be ‘unmasked’ doesn’t just drain a woman’s energy and confidence. It can make her more risk-averse and less self-promoting than her male peers, which can hurt her future success.

Several months ago I received some strong criticism that touched this nerve—my fear that I really just don’t belong in academia because I’m not smart or skilled enough. The comments were valid:  I am a slow writer and from the outside it looks like it will take me 10 years to finish the thesis. The remark left me speechless, angry, and practically paralyzed when I tried to return to my thesis writing.  All around me I saw colleagues doing fantastic things: finishing chapters, finishing their theses, defending, getting grants and fellowships, publishing. But I couldn’t even get my head clear enough to revise a chapter.

My only coping mechanism is to say, for the time being, that yes, I am a slow writer, but I can learn to be faster. I am smart enough to do this project, but at the same time, the project isn’t nearly as big or complicated as I fear it is.

Taking ownership of my success is still a long ways off; what does that even mean?  True, I did recently post something about how it is up to me to be and become the best I can be.

Overcoming self-doubt sounds just about impossible.

Learning to feel as intelligent and capable as others think I am by rewiring my brain and thought patterns takes me back to that place where I am just pretending—fake it ’til you make it.

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