The Secret Thoughts of Professional Women


The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts. —Bertrand Russell

Valerie Young, author of  The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It starts her book with the quote from Bertrand Russell above. I’ve written about Impostor Syndrome before – the feeling that no matter what you’ve accomplished or what people think, deep down you’re convinced that you are an impostor, a fake, and a fraud.

Young writes that many highly-accomplished people doubt themselves, despite years of evidence to the contrary. When they succeed, they attribute their success to luck, timing, charm, or the low standards set by the challenge or the people praising them. Even Meryl Streep, the most Oscar-nominated actress in history, doubts herself. She once told a reporter, telling a reporter, “You think, ‘Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie?’ And I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?” If Meryl Streep feels that way, it’s no wonder that many of us do, too.

Young offers this quiz to determine if you might be feeling like an impostor.

  • Do you chalk your success up to luck, timing, or computer error?
  • Do you believe “If I can do it, anybody can”?
  • Do you agonize over the smallest flaws in your work?
  • Are you crushed by even constructive criticism, seeing it as evidence of your ineptness?
  • When you do succeed, do you secretly feel like you fooled them again?
  • Do you worry that it’s a matter of time before you’re “found out”?

Young directs this book at women because, in her experience, women suffer more from Impostor Syndrome.  Research indicates that men feel very differently about their performance; men often feel that others underestimate them. Young writes, “…It really is funny how so many presumably intelligent, capable men exude this level of confidence while as many equally bright, competent women struggle to do the same. How women find it so hard to recognize their own competence while men feel unacknowledged for their brilliance by others. …Research consistently finds that in fields ranging from finance to teaching to athletics, males regard themselves to be more knowledgeable, secure, or capable than women rate themselves.”

Young also writes that it’s not just all in our head. “Research has found that people are more likely to attribute a man’s success to ability and yours to luck. In other words, when he achieves a positive outcome it’s because he has “the right stuff,” but when you pull it off it’s because you just got lucky.”

It took me months after following writer James Chartrand, owner of the blog Men with Pens, to figure out that he was a woman.

Young cites her post “Why James Chartrand Wears Women’s Underpants” and writes that “the implied credibility and respect meant less negotiating over fees and even having the same bid submitted as a man win out over the one submitted as herself.” Writing under a male pseudonym, “opened up a new world. It helped me earn double and triple the income of my true name, with the same work and service. No hassles. Higher acceptance … Business opportunities fell into my lap. People asked for my advice, and they thanked me for it, too.”

You may not want to pose as a man, but it might help to think like a man.

Back to you: have you suffered from Impostor Syndrome? How do you get past the negative feelings? Leave a comment and let me know.

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