When I first heard about Imposter Syndrome, I didn’t identify with it. Nothing in my conscious thoughts was holding ME back. I’m a go-getter, I make things happen and if I want something, I usually figure out a way to achieve it. But what made me want certain things and not others? How much does knowing that I will not be good/ perfect at something, put me off? I’m going to talk about writing -it’s the story of my life; talking but not writing…
When I was younger, I was not much of a reader and I don’t remember my parents reading to me much past the point where I could read to myself. I didn’t appreciate reading for pleasure until my late teens and early twenties. My primary education took place in the pre-national curriculum eighties and I was quickly made painfully aware of yawning gaps in my grammatical knowledge, especially when talking to or playing scrabble with my traditional, Chambers dictionary-abiding granny. I remember questions at school like ‘does the spelling count?’ being dismissed in favour of a more creative outlet. When I wrote stories at home, my mum would lament the many made up words littering my sentences. As I got older, my mum’s dedicated editing was more vehement and frustrated and she would use fixed language regarding my abilities. According to my mum, I was not a writer and I only later realised she may have been projecting her own frustrations with writing onto me. My brother, on the other hand, was a writer and is now an associate professor at LSE.
During my A-levels I had a spiky profile achieving and A in Speaking Spanish but a D in writing. I sat and actively participated in my Classical Civilisation A-level class and my teachers suggested to my parents that I should consider applying to Cambridge. But I had never been taught how to write under pressure (I’m not sure I was ever really taught how to write at all) and I was a sharp contrast to the other girls in my class, who had come to college after private school. I bombed in my exams which dragged all my grades down.
I still made it to University but the difference between my verbal and written skills became evident quickly especially after one disastrous hand-written essay which I was called in to discuss with my favourite lecturer. She took it in her stride and gave me some tips but I was ashamed she thought I was bright in tutorials and then she read my work. I remember reading other well-written essays and thinking, is that it? Is that all they are saying? Understanding complexity was not the issue but clarity and a well-structured argument was lost on me. I decided that I would not allow my problems with working in timed conditions to drag down my degree too. I diligently re-worked practice answers into plans and posters which I memorised and then sat practicing under timed conditions. It paid off. I got better and better.
In my language tests for my PGCE, I was told I would have to improve my written skills if I wanted to teach A-level Spanish. This feedback did not spur me on to get better, but I rather decided I would not look to teach A-level as I was no writer. When I became a Head of department, I was cajoled into taking on a Masters. I had very little time for study in that first year as the promotion was a big step up and the Languages department I had inherited were at war with each other. I remember the university link at school telling me to just hand in my first module and that everything would be fine. It wasn’t. He had to argue with tutors that I was actually very academic (based on my verbal skills) because the grade they wanted to award me was a borderline fail. I scraped through and never ‘just’ handed anything in ever again.
Now I find myself writing essays for coaching, unpicking limiting beliefs and feeling that it is time I unpicked some of mine. I was never taught to write well or under pressure and was never made to read. My verbal skills far out-stripped my written skills which became a source of shame like being found out as a fraud. The shame was spurred on by parental messages which implied mysterious ‘born lucky/unlucky’ messages. Messages which my parents most certainly endured themselves. This has led to the perfectionist notions that can hold me back; If this is not going to be a ground-breaking, viral blog, what’s the point? Although I am an educationalist who fully understands Aristotle’s ‘we are what we repeatedly do’, my subconscious holds that I should just be perfect from the get go or give up, snake off and find something I can be perfect at.
I know what I need to do now. I will do what my brother did years and years ago and has been doing ever since; practice the art of writing in his little notebooks. I am going to find some writing workshops. I’m going to study the art of written communication and I’m going to blog. Lots.
Part of Imposter Syndrome is about the fear of being ‘found out’ and another part is negating your success i.e. if you can do it, it can’t be that difficult. It’s time I acknowledge that my strong verbal skills got me to where I am today; a successful coach, leader and linguist. My skills have been honed over years and years and are not just a lucky break or a product of my privilege.
I didn’t just wake up to this all by myself aged nearly 40. I had a rather magnificent coaching call last night with a fellow Barefoot coach, Rob Kenning (www.robkenning.co.uk). He artfully took me through a timeline of my limiting beliefs and brought to the surface thoughts that were lurking just past my conscious and he exposed them for what they are; ways of protecting me from growing and the hard knocks that come with failing forward. At one point I smiled during the session and remembered being 7 and not being able to tell the time. My strategy then had been, ‘oh well, I’ll never wear a watch’
I didn’t have much time after my coach session for my thoughts to percolate but I had a dream; I had to meet Rob at a train station and I was trying to climb a concrete, near vertical drop to get to the station by hanging on to bizarre plastic leaves. I was late and saw him look out from the station to see if he could see me. He couldn't see me so he boarded the train which left the station. I let go of the plastic leaves and fell back down to the ground only to realise there was also a staircase to the station round the corner. I’m not usually alive to the metaphors and messages in my dreams but this one is not getting away; get out of your own way and if you can’t levitate which is how you perceive others get there, then find the stairs and take it one step at a time!