Returning to work? Don’t let Imposter Syndrome hold you back

Do you sometimes feel that you don’t deserve your success or that your achievements are flukes that can be put down to just good luck? Do you feel that it’s only a matter of time until you are ‘found out’?

If you do then you’re certainly not alone. These feelings are so common they have a name – Imposter Syndrome.

Imposter Syndrome was first identified by psychologists in 1978. There are three defining features: a belief that others have an inflated view of your abilities, a fear that your true abilities will be found out, and a tendency to attribute your success to luck or extreme effort. There have been many studies into Imposter Syndrome since then, including one in 2011 that found that 70% of people will experience the phenomenon at some point in their lives. And it’s not just a ‘women’s issue’ –  research now suggests that men are just as likely as women to experience impostorism. 

Imposter Syndrome is most common when we’re moving out of our comfort zone and facing periods of change or uncertainty … such as returning to work after a long career break.

If Imposter Syndrome strikes, here are our tips to help you tackle it:

1. Remember these feelings are normal. Imposter Syndrome can affect anyone, even people who seem to be the most confident and capable. Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg has been quoted as saying: “There are still days when I wake up feeling like a fraud, not sure I should be where I am.” And even Albert Einstein considered himself an “involuntary swindler.” 

2. Avoid putting your successes down to luck. Write down all your career and personal achievements to date, and think about the role that your abilities and hard work played. It will become clear to you that your successes were largely due to your hard work and abilities – not ‘just luck’. Read this blog for advice. 

3. Reconnect with your professional self. If you’re doubting yourself because it’s been a while since you were in the workplace, remember that you are the same professional person you always were, you are just out of practice. Aim to reframe your time outside the workplace as a positive not a negative.

4. Ask friends and family for feedback on your strengths and skills.
 Listening to what others say about what you do well will help you challenge your negative thoughts. Remember – you’re often your own harshest critic.

5. Keep a feedback log. Once you’re back in a new role, keep a log of all the positive feedback you receive – via formal feedback sessions, thank you emails or verbal compliments. If Imposter Syndrome does hit, look at this log to remind yourself that you are a competent and experienced professional who deserves to be where you are.


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Why your career break is a positive not a negative

There are lots of reasons for a career break – to care for young children or other relatives, for health reasons, to study, to travel or simply to recharge your batteries.


Far from being something to try to hide when you want to return to the workplace, there are very good reasons why you – and your potential employers – should celebrate your break.

We know from experience that returners re-enter the workplace with a fresh perspective, together with renewed energy and motivation. Employers value this too. At our Women Returners ‘Back to Your Future’ Conference 2019, O2’s Andrea Jones told the audience:

“There’s so much experience the returners have before their career break and they’ve gained so many skills on their career break. They come in with a really fresh pair of eyes….they can look at our processes and our systems and the ways we work quite differently. I think it’s a real breath of fresh air – and that’s what we hear from our managers.”

Other employers spoke about the enthusiasm of the returners they had hired, the fact that they are incredibly efficient as time management comes more naturally to them, and their desire to contribute more broadly to the organisation rather than just doing their job. Returners were also valued as role models for younger employees of people who had taken a non-traditional career path.

Dependent on the reason for your career break, you are also likely to have developed a variety of new skills. For example:

  • If you’ve taken time out to care for others you will have honed your communication, time-management and organisation skills. And nothing improves negotiation ability more than getting to a compromise with a teenager! 
  • If you’ve done skilled voluntary work you will have developed both teamwork and leadership skills – managing volunteers is much harder than paid staff.
  • If you were travelling or studying, this can signal an openness to experiences and a motivation to learn and develop. 
  • If your break was because of a personal trauma or health issue, you will have developed resilience and fortitude.

When writing your return-to-work CV and cover letter and preparing for interviews consider everything you’ve done during your break. Make sure the skills and experience you’ve acquired come across – they are an important part of who you are now. 

Switch your focus. Rather than seeing your career break as a negative to employers, focus on how it differentiates you and makes you a better employee,  gaining maturity, perspective and many new skills. You will be an asset to your next employer because of, not in spite of, your career break.

Sign up to our free network for more advice, support and job opportunities.You’ll find much more help and advice on our website.

Tips and tools to boost your professional confidence

At our 2019 Women Returners ‘Back to Your Future’ Conference last month, Anna Johnstone, senior coach at Women Returners, led a session on how to boost professional confidence. Here are some takeouts from that session.

One of the recurring themes we see when we coach returners is lack of professional confidence. The women we work with may be very confident in their personal life, but often doubt their self-worth when it comes to returning to the workplace. They may think “What have I got to offer? Will I be able to do the job? What value can I add? Will an employer even want to hire me?” We hear these doubts again and again.

Our senior coach, Anna Johnstone, focussed on tackling a lack of professional confidence head on at our recent Conference by focussing on three key areas – 1) internal feelings of worth and self-belief,  2) outer confidence – your gravitas, the impact that you have, and 3) reframing confidence as courage.

1) Inner confidence – feelings of worth and self-belief

Some people refer to self-belief as having backbone. But Anna says that improving your self-belief is a bit like strengthening the muscles around your backbone which may have become a little weak during a career break. Self-doubt – your inner critic or gremlin – may be telling you that you’ve lost your skills, you’re too old or that you’ll never get back up to speed with technology. 
Here are Anna’s tips for dealing with your inner critic and boosting your self-belief:

  • Try reframing the way you think. Instead of thinking, for example, “I will never get back up to speed” say to yourself – “my inner critic is telling me I will never get back up to speed”
  • This is a subtle, but effective, change which will make you question negative assumptions. It may also bring out the fight in you so that you think “someone is telling me that I’m not going to get back up to speed – but I am going to get back up to speed.”
  • Remember that you also have another internal voice – your inner mentor. This is the voice of someone who cares about you – it’s calm, kind and supportive. Learn to listen to this voice and to dial it up so that it becomes louder than your inner critic
  • Remind yourself of the things you are good at – it’s a great way to boost self-belief. Remember that you have a wealth of skills and experience developed throughout your career and your career break – write these down and practise saying them out loud

2) Outer confidence – how do you act more confident even if you have doubts on the inside?

  • Think about your body – if you change how you sit and stand this will change the way you think. For example, putting your feet firmly on the ground so that you feel solid can really help if you’re about to go into a situation that makes you feel stressed
  • Roll back and lower your shoulders. This will take the tension out of your shoulders and allow you to breathe better 
  • Breathe deeply from your diaphragm – in through your nose, out through your mouth – five times. This will help dissipate doubts and anxieties and strengthen your voice – particularly important just before an interview!
  • Watch Amy Cuddy’s Power Pose TEDTalk – and practise ‘power posing’  every morning and before facing any situation you find stressful
  • If you hear yourself speaking quickly make a conscious effort to slow down. People will hear more of what you say and speaking slower has the added bonus of giving you more time to think
  • Feel more confident at interviews and meetings by wearing something that makes you feel good about yourself and gives you a boost

3) Reframe confidence as courage

  • The problem with thinking “if only I had more confidence I would send this email, apply for that role, phone my contact etc” is that you end up waiting to feel more confident, which can stop you from taking action
  • Instead of focusing on having more confidence, try focusing on having more courage
  • Courage is when you decide to do something difficult even though you may have doubts, even though you feel afraid
  • Courage is a much more positive word – aim to dial your courage up a notch to help you to take action despite your self-doubts.

Sign up to our free network for more advice, support and job opportunities.You’ll find much more help and advice on our website.

How good posture can improve your return to work confidence

This week’s guest blog is by Abi Wright, who explains how maintaining good posture can help you to feel calmer and more confident when you’re returning to the workplace.

There is one habit that nearly all women share and that is the habit of making ourselves smaller. It’s something that is conditioned in us from a young age and it can have a huge impact not only on our posture, health and happiness but also on how we’re perceived. It wasn’t until I was in the position of returning to work after a maternity leave that I realised just how much this habit was impacting my confidence and presence and therefore impacting the ease of my return.

Being a posture specialist I’m only too aware that as women we need to start owning our space more in order to be seen and heard. This is especially important if you’re attending an interview, a networking session or starting at a new organisation. If we become aware of our posture, making a few small changes can be a huge support when returning to work.

There are three tips I want to share with you that have helped me time and time again. They are simple and you can begin to use them straight away.

1) Look up. Your head weighs approximately 11lbs, similar to the weight of an average cat, so if there happens to be one close by pick it up. It’s heavy, isn’t it? If you find yourself looking down, then the weight of your head will start pulling your shoulders forward and will impact your posture and presence. It will also hinder your breathing so you won’t feel as relaxed. If you walk into a room looking up, your posture will be better and you will have presence. You will feel more confident – and if you can see everyone in the room, it means they can see you.

2) Love your armpits. This might seem an odd request but bear with me. If you find you’re making yourself smaller and feeling tense then the likelihood is you’re squeezing your arms in and your armpits have no space. This quite simply means you can’t breathe fully because the movement of your ribs is constricted by your arms and so your lungs can’t fully inflate. If you bring awareness back to your armpits and allow space to be there then not only will you fill your full width and own your space but you’ll also be able to breathe so you’ll feel calmer and more confident.

3) Ground both your feet evenly on the floor – don’t put more weight on one than the other or sway between the two. When you allow both feet to release down you will naturally have better posture and feel more present and grounded.

So I invite you to give these simple tips a try and see how you get on.

One final thought I want to leave you with is to consider how to enter a room. This can massively impact what follows – whether it’s an interview, meeting or networking session – because we can make a first impression in as little as seven seconds. So, walk into the room looking up, breathe into your width and ground yourself through your feet.

Something that has really helped me is my ‘entering the room’ theme tune. We all have a song that makes us feel really energised when we listen to it. Well find that song and listen to it or sing it to yourself before entering the room. I promise you will notice a big difference.

By allowing yourself to stand tall and to own your space not only will you feel more confident and in control, but others will perceive you to be these things too. You deserve to stand tall. You deserve to own your space. And you deserve to be where you are. So hold your head high as you play your theme tune and step into the room. You’ve got this.

Abi Wright is a Posture Specialist and Alexander Technique practitioner with a background in business, performance and wellbeing. She goes into organisations working with the female workforce to increase confidence and visibility through posture. She is also passionate about raising awareness around the importance of women owning their space within the workplace and society  www.inspiringmargot.com

Sign up to our free Women Returners network for more advice, support and job opportunities. You’ll find much more help and advice on our website.

Boost your confidence for a successful return to work

Ask one of our career coaches what they believe to be the number one personal barrier to a successful return to work after a career break and the chances are they will say “lack of professional confidence”.

Women on a career break may be very self-assured when it comes to their home and social life, but the thought of returning to the workplace can bring on a crisis of professional confidence. One of the ways this lack of confidence is often expressed is in negative thoughts around the prospect of returning to work – “I’m too old”, “things have moved on in my industry”, “I’m not the same person as the one who did that managerial job” etc, etc. 

When we consider that much of our identity is tied up in our work, it’s not surprising that when we’ve been away from the workplace for any length of time, we can find our self-belief gets eroded. If you’re feeling under-confident, don’t let this hold you back – take steps to give yourself a boost and you’ll be setting yourself up for success.

Top Tips for Boosting Your Confidence

  • Remind yourself of your achievements – Think about all you have achieved, year by year, both before and during your career break. It doesn’t matter how long ago it was, or whether it was a big or a small achievement, so long as it feels satisfying to you. To help, look out old copies of your CV to remind yourself what you achieved in past roles. Bringing your successes back to the front of your mind can give your confidence a real boost.
  • Identify your key strengths and skills – Rather than focus on what you lack, focus on what you can personally bring to an employer. It can be a hard exercise to list your own strengths, so get feedback from your friends and family, and think about what skills you demonstrated in the achievements you listed. Don’t minimise what you’ve done during your career break – for examples, caring and volunteer work create valuable new skills. Read our blog on setting your career compass for other advice. 
  • Adopt the right mindset – Your attitude has a powerful impact on your likelihood of success. We find that returners who work on their patience, persistence and positivity are more likely to make a successful return than those who give in to frustration and negativity. We discuss how to adopt a mindset of ‘realistic optimism’ in this blog and a growth mindset, in this blog.
  • Brush up your knowledge and skills – Don’t let feeling that your IT skills or industry knowledge are out of date sap your confidence. Upskill yourself. Find courses locally through Floodlight and look at the free online MOOCs (Massive Online Courses) to help bring yourself back up to speed. Use industry events and professional associations to find out what’s been happening in your field and meet ex-colleagues to get an informal update.
  • Update your image – If you look professional, you’re more likely to feel like a professional again. If you can afford it, it’s worth investing in a new outfit (and maybe a new haircut) for networking and interviews. Read our step-by-step advice on updating your wardrobe for your return. Establishing a regular exercise routine can also make you feel and look better, as well as boosting your energy levels.
  • Volunteer – If you’ve had a very long break, strategic volunteering can be a good way to ease you back into your ‘professional self’ and to refresh your skills and experience at the same time.
  • Body Language – Focusing on looking more confident through the way you walk and talk can actually make you feel more confident. Read more here.

Get more advice on re-connecting with your ‘professional self’ in this blog. And don’t forget to take a look at the Success Story Library on our website – reading the wealth of stories of a wide range of women who have successfully returned to work after multi-year breaks can help you to believe that you can do it too!

Join us for our Women Returners ‘Back to Your Future’ Conference in London on 13 May. Find out more about our Conference and book your ticket now at the Early Bird price of £90 – but hurry – this offer ends at midnight 31 March.

How to look more confident than you really are

Self-confidence – if only we could create and bottle it we would make our fortune! The reality is that many women who have taken a career break suffer from a lack of professional confidence. And it’s really not surprising – it’s natural for confidence to fade when we take a long break from an activity that formed a large part of our identity.

The good news is that your professional confidence quickly comes back after a successful return to work. However if you’re struggling with your self-confidence at the moment, take heart from the fact that neuroscience and psychology show that our actions can change our thought patterns to build self-belief. So ‘faking it until you make it’ can often lead to a real increase in confidence.

Top tips for appearing more confident than you really are

Appearance

Body language

  • Walk into the room positively, make eye contact and smile to help build rapport and convey confidence.
  • Avoid fidgeting with pens or rings – gently closing your hands can help with this.
  • If you’re standing, stand up straight with your feet apart. If you’re sitting, adopt a wider posture with your feet on the floor.
  • Avoid crossing your arms as this can make you seem defensive.
Speech
  • Speak more slowly and deliberately.
  • In interviews, don’t be afraid to take your time when answering a question.
  • In a networking situation, instead of being preoccupied by what you want to get across, concentrate on listening to what the person you’re talking to is saying and show interest in them. For more tips read Are you missing the point of networking at an event?

And if your confidence needs a quick boost – here’s what to do:


The Power Pose

  • For a quick boost of confidence before a stressful event try Amy Cuddy’s two-minute ‘Power Pose’. In her 2012 TED Talk, Cuddy asserted that adopting a dynamic physical stance can make can make us feel more confident. And we can personally attest that the Power Pose works!
For more help and advice on increasing your professional confidence, we’ve a range of articles on the Advice Hub on our website.

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Updating your wardrobe for your return to work

As well as updating your professional knowledge and networks to prepare for your return to work, think about spending a bit of time organising and updating your work wardrobe. Feeling good in what you’re wearing can help to boost your confidence and to shift your identity back to your professional self. If you’ve had a very long career break, workwear/styles may well have moved on and we sometimes change shape too!
Organising your Work Wardrobe
  1. Consider the culture of the organisation/industry you will be, or hope to be, working in. How formal/informal is it? What type of clothes would be most appropriate? Dress codes may have changed since you left – many sectors are less formal now – so do some research to update your knowledge.
  2. Think about how you want to be perceived and choose a few key words to sum this up, eg professional, competent, approachable.
  3. Take all your potential work clothes and shoes out of your wardrobe. If you have a rail you can use/borrow, even better.
  4. Select all the clothes that meet the first 2 criteria.
  5. Try them on to check they still fit you well and that you feel good in them. If not, sort them into piles for giving away, altering or storing.
  6. Group the remaining clothes into potential outfits. Make a note of any gaps, eg shoes, tops, and what colour would be a good match. Turn this into your shopping list and prioritise what’s most important.
  7. If you have space to store some of your clothes, such as under the bed or in a spare wardrobe, put away anything that’s not suitable for the current season. The fewer items you have to choose from, the quicker the process!
  8. I’m not a fan of selfies, but this is the exception: take photos of whole outfits (preferably with you in them) so that you can either print out a sheet of outfits or flick through your phone the night before work or an interview for inspiration and time-saving.
  9. Draw up a table (if this appeals – it may not!) and list outfit ideas on each row, eg:

Updating your Work Wardrobe

Once you have your shopping list, bear in mind the following points:
Colour: try to avoid falling into the ‘black trap’.  Black really only suits people who have ‘deep, cool and bright’ colouring, otherwise, it can be very draining, especially close to the face. Grey, for example, is a good alternative, there are many shades to suit different people and, when it comes to more expensive items like coats or bags, it will go well with many other colours.
Materials: I have a personal preference for natural fibres and avoid anything made from fabrics like polyester. Although these fabrics are often cheaper and wash easily, they can cling and feel unpleasant when it’s warm. Also, if you’re heading towards, or already in, hot flush territory, synthetic fabrics are not your friend! You might also want to avoid structured dresses with sleeves which you will feel trapped in during a hot flush unlike a jacket/top where you can quickly remove a layer if you need to. For those of you who are fortunate enough not to have reached, or been affected by, this stage, enjoy the freedom of choice!
Brands:

  • Any good department store will cater well for different shapes, styles and budgets.
  • For more formal/reasonable quality workwear, look at these high street brands: Cos, Hobbs, Jigsaw, Massimo Dutti, Zara, Reiss, Gerard Darel, Jaeger, M&S, Boss. A few good smaller brands, mostly online, are The Fold, Pinstripe and Pearls, Libby London and Rose & Willard.
  • For less formal/more contemporary workwear, consider Whistles, Top Shop, Finery, Baujken, Me+Em, Uterque, Joseph. For shoes, try websites such as Zalando or Sarenza.
  • If you’re on a tight budget, keep an eye on the sales (you can set Sale Alerts for items if you use websites such as Shop Style), look at shops such as H&M and Uniqlo and browse the charity shops in upmarket areas. If you are from a low income household, you may be able to get a referral to the charity SmartWorks which provides free interview clothing.
Prioritising: Good quality workwear is usually quite pricey but I encourage you, if possible, to buy fewer, better quality items to get a good ‘cost per wear’ ratio. Buy the key items (dresses, skirts, trousers, jackets, suits) in fairly neutral tones (eg black, grey, blue, taupe, burgundy), so you can easily change the look with more affordable tops, accessories and different colours. For inspiration on reducing the amount of clothes we tend to own, have a look at this TEDx Talk by Jennifer L Scott.
Help! If the thought of refreshing your wardrobe for work feels daunting ask for help from a friend whose advice you trust and style you admire, or take advantage of the ‘Image and Impact’ coaching session we offer at Women Returners.
For more ideas about what to wear for work, have a look at this earlier blog post: What to wear to interviews.
Posted by Natalie Hunter, one of the Women Returners Coaching Team and a trained Colour/Style Consultant. She offers these services separately, or together, for clients. Please contact coach@womenreturners.com if you’d like to find out more.

8 tips for confident communication when returning to work

This week’s guest blog is by Sophie Clark from Denison Clark

Communicating with confidence and impact
consistently in meetings, on conference calls and during presentations can be a
challenge when returning to work.  As a
workplace communication expert I help people to build their confidence, polish
their skills and avoid some the common pitfalls when speaking. I have put
together 8 tips and tricks to remind you how to communicate with greater impact
when returning to work.

Give
me time to think
Speaking too fast is a credibility
disaster. Pause. All the time. Break up what you’re saying. If you speak how I
am writing now, if you pause often, it’s the cheapest trick in the book to look
calm and authoritative. Yes, it really is that simple. Watch Condoleezza Rice
to see it done well and steer clear of Tony Blair’s pausing style.
Audience
first
There are people who say 93% of your
message is body language and voice. This has been taken out of context for
years. Getting your content right is critical and so stop naval gazing and first
think about your audience. Lead with why your audience should listen to you?
What should they know? How will it impact them? What do you want them to do?
Please
don’t put on a ‘show’
We are often told to “fake it till you
make it”, but this advice is better targeted when taking on a new role, not with
your communication style. News flash – you are most likable when you are your
warm, authentic, natural and professional self. I spend my life removing the masks
from my female clients, so don’t wear a mask thinking it will help you appear
more confident when you speak. Pretending to be someone you’re not is not only
exhausting but it makes it harder for others to trust you.
Power
pose
This term was coined from Harvard
professor, Amy Cuddy. If you don’t know who she is, take 20 mins and watch her
35 million times viewed TED talk. Taking time to make yourself ‘big’ before you
speak has been scientifically proven to reduce cortisol (the stress hormone)
and increase testosterone (the confidence hormone). This uses your body’s
natural hormones rather than play acting being someone else. If you haven’t
watched this talk I cannot recommend it highly enough. Find a spare board room
or empty bathroom and ‘wonder woman’ your way back in.
Put
your hands up
Put your hands (and forearms) on the
table in meetings if you want more presence. If your comfort zone is to place
them in your lap, then please, change your comfort zone! This matters
particularly for women. 70% of my female clients show this behaviour and it can
make them look small and under confident. Only about 5% of my male clients do
this and the perception difference is huge.
Practice
how you introduce yourself
Humans judge each other. Naturally, sub
consciously, all the time. You will likely have an opinion of The Queen, Barack
Obama and Sheryl Sandberg even though you may not have met them. I’ve met
returning colleagues who have said “Hi, I’m Alex. I’m back after maternity
leave and am working 3 days a week now”. What I take away is the external
side of Alex’s life and their working hours. What I am missing is what is Alex
is doing in her role and what impact that is having to the firm. E.g. “Hi,
I’m Alex. I’m back after maternity leave and I’m working mainly on X project X for
Y client.” There’s nothing wrong with talking about your time out or
your children, but be careful if that’s what you lead with
or the only thing I know about you.
Speak
up and be counted
Perhaps your comfort zone is to sit,
watch and participate later, particularly as you catch up and build confidence
back. Whilst no one likes the over talker in a meeting, be aware that
repeatedly saying nothing can be career damaging. A sage piece of advice I was
once given was by a senior female investment banker who said “don’t speak
unless you have something worth saying, but don’t let people judge your silence
as a distinct lack of interest or ability”.
And
finally..  stop the negative chatter in
your head
Internal communication matters just as
much. Mentally, many of us have “obnoxious roommates in your heads” as Ariana
Huffington calls them. Voices who say – you’re not good enough/ you’re brain’s
been a little mushy since the baby/ technology has moved on so quickly/ people
are going to know I’ve lost my edge/ I can’t give it the time it deserves…. I
even had clients who refer to themselves as “has-beens’”. You have the power to
stop these thoughts, especially if they are not helping you. If this is
happening, it’s time to get some control back and park them.
Good luck. Power pose. Pause. Think
about your audience and please be your authentic, polished true self.
About Sophie
Sophie is a communication expert at Denison Clark. She coaches
small groups and individuals to speak with more confidence, clarity and impact across
their work conversations and presentations. 
 

Kick-starting your Career Courage

Anna, one of our Women Returners coaching team, suggests ideas and exercises to build your return-to-work confidence and courage.

You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face Eleanor Roosevelt

In my coaching of women returning to work, the theme of confidence (or lack of it) is a common one. If someone is trying to build their confidence, I first ask some questions to understand where it is they want to be. Some typical responses are:

‘I want to put myself out there and network but I’m not sure people will want to meet me’
‘I want to go for that job but I don’t think they’ll be interested in me’
‘I want to go for interviews without worrying about sounding stupid and out-of-touch’

Digging underneath these responses, it is very often fear that is making these talented women hesitate. Fear of ridicule, of others’ opinions, of failing, of judgement, of stupidity, of being found out. Simply trying to be more confident doesn’t address the underlying fear.

Confidence to Courage

I often work with women to reframe confidence as courage. Courage implies feeling some sort of fear but going for it anyway. I also find women perceive courage as something positive they can aspire to. Ask them to say, ‘I am a courageous woman’ and they sit up a little bit taller.
So, in your own returning to work journey, how can you overcome your fears and build up your courage? Here are a few exercises and ideas:
  • Reframe fear as simply what happens when you are pushing your boundaries. I watched my 5 year old son stand on the steps of the swimming pool paralysed with fear. Yet he splashed in and took the first steps towards swimming. To become a better swimmer he will keep feeling fear but it’s a sign he’s trying something new, not of weakness.
  • Think about a time when you have been courageous. How did you nourish your courage and starve your fear? Taking a moment to think about your strengths and achievements can help in building feelings of courage.
  • Fear tends to grow if you don’t address it. Let’s say your fear relates to getting your opinions heard. On your return to work, you’re sitting in a meeting, time is ticking by, you haven’t said a word, and your throat is getting dry and your palms sweaty. Next time, get your voice in early. By doing something, anything, to move things forward you are demonstrating courage.
  • Imagine an area of your life where you do feel courageous – maybe it’s experimenting with new recipes, running long distances, setting boundaries for your growing children (believe me, it takes courage!). Think about the preparation needed, the consistent planning, the bit-by-bit improvement. Courage at work is the same – preparation and practice are needed. There isn’t a quick fix for courage.
  • Often, fear relates to others judging us – and in returning to work you’re likely to be hyper-sensitive to this. If someone does offer some critique, remember that they are commenting on your work and not you as a person. Often, we take ‘your views lack coherence’ to mean ‘you lack coherence’. Women, in particular, tend to internalise criticism ‘it’s my fault’ and externalise praise ‘it was good luck’. Try to separate one instance or piece of work from your overall view of yourself.
Remember, fear is a natural part of growth and progress. It takes courage and confidence to face your fears and move forward. It takes a big dose of courage to face some of the doubters and commit to making that return to the workforce. Sometimes, it can help to simply ask yourself, ‘What would I do if I wasn’t afraid?’

Posted by Anna Johnstone, Coach & Facilitator, Women Returners

You’re not a fraud! Tackling Imposter Syndrome

I first learnt about the impostor syndrome when I was studying for my psychology masters. I remember feeling hugely relieved that it was normal to be asking myself “What are you doing here?” as I sat in the lecture hall and started working with clients. Although not naturally plagued with self-doubt, I had found that retraining and practicing in a new profession after a long career break made me question my abilities. I felt like a fraud when I introduced myself as a psychologist, and wondered if I would ever truly feel like a competent professional in this new field.

The Imposter Phenomenon

It was reassuring to find out that even highly successful people can feel like frauds, and that these feelings are so common that they have a name. The ‘imposter phenomenon’ was first identified in 1978 by two clinical psychologists, Pauline Clance & Suzanne Imes*. They interviewed 150 successful women who, despite their qualifications, achievements and professional recognition, still considered themselves to be impostors in their fields. Clance & Imes drew out three main aspects: a belief that others have an inflated view of your abilities, a fear that your true abilities will be found out, and a tendency to attribute your success to luck or extreme effort. Since then, there have been many follow-on studies supporting the findings of this research, with mixed-gender samples across a range of occupations finding that up to 70% of people have feelings of impostorism at some point. Unsurprisingly, researchers have found that these feelings are most common when people are making a move outside of their comfort zone, such as starting a new job or taking on new responsibilities. Although it’s not an area that’s been studied, it’s clear that returning to work after a career break is also a likely trigger for this irrational fear of incompetence, even if you’re returning to the job you did before.

A decade ago, the impostor syndrome was little known outside of psychology, so I’ve been happy to see that it’s now more broadly known & discussed. A recent article on the topic in the New York Times quoted Maya
Angelou, “I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going
to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me
out.’”

There is sometimes a misconception that this is another ‘women’s issue’ – lumped in with low self-confidence as something that holds women back more than their male colleagues. In fact, despite the initial focus on women, research now suggests that men are just as likely to experience impostorism. But maybe they are less likely to admit it?

How can you tackle Imposter Syndrome?

One of the most useful steps is to recognise that these fears are very normal & that many other people have them. Nobody knows everything and even the people at the top of your company or your profession probably have times when they too feel out of their depth. Don’t blindly believe your self-doubts or let them hold you back.

If you’re coming back to work after a long break, understand that you are more likely to doubt your abilities in this time of change and give yourself a boost. Spend time identifying what you do well and the part you played in your achievements, both in your pre-break career and during your career break. And remember that no-one’s successes are just down to luck!

* Psychology research ref: Feeling like a Fraud, Christian Jarrett The Psychologist, May 2010

Posted by Julianne