Recognise it, explore it, refute it: How I learnt to cope with imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome is something many marketers – men and women – suffer from. But there are ways to manage it, according to one former marketer.

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Hands up if you’ve ever experienced imposter syndrome…? My mentor reckons if you haven’t, you’re either a sociopath or a narcissist.

If there’s one thing most can relate to, it’s the negative, critical voice that pollutes our thoughts. To mark World Mental Health Day, I want to explore more about how marketers relate to imposter syndrome.

First off, it’s important to get one thing straight – it is not really a “syndrome”. Webster’s Dictionary defines a syndrome as “a group of signs and symptoms that occur together and characterise a particular abnormality or condition.” Imposter syndrome was originally labelled as a “phenomenon” in 1978 by Clance & Imes after identifying the theme of “intellectual phoniness” in high-achieving women.

Expressions of imposter syndrome:

A sense of intellectual fraud – “I’m going to get found out”
Chronic self-doubt – “I’m doing it wrong”
Difficulty recognising praise or proof of competence – “They don’t mean it”
Berating your performance – “I’m not good enough”
Living in fear – “I won’t meet expectations” 

At the most basic level, imposter syndrome is a manifestation of your survival instinct keeping you safe. It’s trying to stop you getting thrown out of the metaphorical pack. We are programmed to have a questioning nature – it makes us check ourselves.

It is a universal experience felt by people across all functions, from the most successful CEOs to those early in their career. If you looked “imposter syndrome” up in the dictionary, you’d read: “A feeling of inadequacy that persists despite evident success.” I take umbrage with this, as it predicates, we must be “evidently” successful for it not to be true. What happens when we don’t feel evidently successful? What happens if (when) we fall on our face?

Suffering from impostor syndrome? The cure is simpler than you think

Personal experience

I have personal experience of this as lead for EU marketing at Deliveroo during its early, steep growth. Unable to personally keep pace with the increasing demands of the role, I was demoted. I can tell you that this looked and felt like the opposite of evident success. Did that then make the toxic things I said to myself during this crisis of career confidence true and valid? I challenge that, which is why I prefer to think of imposter syndrome as an experience of inadequacy that “unfairly morphs your self-worth”.

It’s also not all bad, is it? It’s the side that pushes and challenges us. It motivates and inspires us to bring our A-game. It’s also the thing that immobilises us from speaking up in meetings, makes us freak out before a big presentation or stops us applying for a more senior role. Need I go on…?

The question is often asked as to whether it affects women more than men. Based on five years teaching it, I would say yes, it skews more intensely in women than men. But it’s also more socially acceptable for women to admit to and talk about it. And I know as many men as I do women who feel the exact same feelings.

What puts marketers more at risk? It is the specific exacerbations of how it comes to life – its “trigger ecosystem” – that create distinct idiosyncrasies for those in marketing.

Marketers and imposter syndrome

“You are only as good as your last campaign,” one marketing pal told me. Marketers feel the immense pressure of being today’s sales engine that comes with a discretionary spending line that rightly commands a high level of scrutiny. Marketers often feel they’re on the back foot, still baring scars from years of attempting to become more than the colouring-in department.

The relentless demand to prove return on investment is significant. Marketers have to “sing for their supper”. Results have always been notoriously hard to measure, but, according to Laura Jane Bull, Gousto’s digital marketing manager, it is only getting harder. Increasingly complex customer journeys and new privacy measures make reliable last-click data even more challenging.

The odds are further stacked in imposter syndrome’s favour where naively ambitious targets fail to reflect economic and social shifts that fundamentally make it more difficult for marketers to meet their business’s expectations.

My marketing pal puts it bluntly – “Marketers are expected to do magic: you need to build a brand, bring top line results, but keep in mind bottom line…while accepting budget cuts.”

Meanwhile, whether it’s advances in algorithms or technology, as a marketer, it can feel that you are always behind the trend. There will always be a knowledge gap, especially as you get more senior or if you’re responsible for more channels. As a discipline, failure is built into how we operate – we’re expected to test, fail, and learn in our campaigns in a way no other department does, apart from perhaps tech or product, where innovation is second nature.

And marketing is also at the coal face of macro changes, be it the first to get budget slashed, or having to react to external factors.

These factors create a turbulent environment in which imposter syndrome thrives.

Also, can you think of another department that is as matrixed as marketing or that must bring along as many stakeholders to its way of thinking? Can you name another discipline that puts its work so overtly on display to invoke potential critique? I can’t. Whether it’s the “wince and send” of approving artwork for print, or the fact “everyone has an opinion” on what good likes like, our craft is out there for our colleagues, consumers, and the world at large to judge. This gives the imposter ample ammunition to ruminate around.

How then can marketers cope let alone overcome the myriad of both comprehensive and unique challenges raised by imposter syndrome?

Recognise it

The first step to do something about it is being able to see it in the first place. Self-awareness is paramount to becoming conscious of the harmful inner monologue. Top tip – next time you notice the negativity dial turn up, acknowledge, and address it. Say: “Hello imposter, thanks for trying to protect me, I’ve heard what you wanted me to do, but I disagree.” Then, push on past it.

Explore it

Imposter syndrome is informed by our life experiences, for example, having pushy parents, competition with a sibling, bullying or a terrible boss. Likewise, we each have different triggers depending on this experience and who we are as people. My top tip? Seek clarity on how your special blend of imposter syndrome comes to life and where it comes from. Personally, more than three years of therapy has been life-changing in understanding my imposter syndrome.

Refute it

There is a perpetual “angel and devil” conversation going on in your head throughout the day. Do your best to take control of it. You don’t have to take what the imposter says lying down. You can talk back. Top tip – regain control of the imposter by taking your thoughts to “court” – what evidence is there that what it thinks is even true? One of the best antidotes for fighting imposter syndrome is to practice an attitude of gratitude. Focus on your “ta-da” list – a list of reasons you should believe in yourself and the blessings in your life.

Talk about it

The more we can normalise this phenomenon, the better. Imagine if we were like cartoon characters where we could see each other’s internal thoughts like speech bubbles above our heads. Then we’d realise we’re not some weirdo for having these thoughts – we’re just like everyone else, be it our boss, peer, client, or best friend. Find a forum you’re comfortable sharing your experience about imposter syndrome with – this could be with a colleague at work or a community group. We each have an active role to play in normalising this phenomenon, so share generously to help others feel less alone.

While imposter syndrome continues to darken my doorway, I have taken strength from my experience at Deliveroo. It was because of my crisis of career confidence, and my demotion, that I discovered that I wasn’t playing to my strength. Nothing to do with marketing, I hasten to add. By defiantly overcoming my imposter gremlins to follow my passion for personal development, I found a space that allowed me to make my spikes (and those of others) spikier.

And while the inner critic hasn’t gone away, we are much more at peace with each other now.

Alice ter Haar is founder of Badass Unicorn, a training and coaching consultancy serving teams and individuals at brands like Bumble, Bloom & Wild and Tesco. She formerly spent 10 years as a marketer before demotion and redundancy led her to pursue a career in personal development.