Kirsty Marrins: We need to talk about impostor syndrome

Don't feel you have to know everything at once, writes our digital columnist

Kirsty Marrins
Kirsty Marrins

Inspired by my own blog post on impostor syndrome, my editor at Third Sector thought I should write about it from a charity perspective. At first I thought it was a bit left-field, but then I realised that it’s so important to talk about this openly because everyone experiences impostor syndrome at some point in their career.

Those of us who work in digital are particularly prone to impostor syndrome. Why? Because most of us didn’t study "digital". We’ve had to learn on the job and supplement our knowledge with books, courses, conferences and perhaps a qualification in the past few years when they became available.

When you work in digital you need to be agile: a lot of it is still new and constantly changing. However, we need to be seen as experts in order to get buy-in from colleagues and leadership teams, and this can lead to a crisis of confidence.

And it’s not just within our own organisations, as Mark Morton, digital manager at Epilepsy Action, explains: "Imposter syndrome rears its head when you go to a conference or even go onto Twitter and read what your peers in other organisations are doing. Your brain tells you that everybody else is doing better work or leading the way or raising more money more easily, and everything they do is more successful."

I am still learning, but being realistic with myself has enabled me to perform in this post, with quick wins and longer-term goals for me and the organisation that I can feel good about."

Nicola Miller, SH:24

Morton believes that we don’t talk enough about failure, and I absolutely agree with him. He says: "In the office, we fixate on the things that go badly. But conferences tend to be about presentations such as 'I’m showing how we made a success of Campaign X'. People should talk about the challenges they had to overcome to achieve Campaign X."

Jo Eden, senior social media executive at the British Heart Foundation, shares her example of impostor syndrome when she had to stand in at the last minute for a speaker at a conference and give a 20-minute talk with no preparation on how brands use social media.

"I panicked and walked to the stage, thinking there was nothing I could possibly say that a room full of social media professionals would find interesting," Eden recalls. "But I took a deep breath, joked that improvising was a vital part of working in social, and started talking about a recent project and our learnings. The feedback afterwards was great and, surprisingly, people said how fluid and natural it was, as well as interesting."

Eden’s experience very much fits in with one of my favourite mottos: feel the fear and do it anyway. Her advice is to "trust your knowledge and make that your mantra. When I worry about getting found out, I take a deep breath and remind myself that I know what I’m doing."

Impostor syndrome can shake even the most experienced people, particularly after a major life change, as Nicola Miller, head of engagement and communications at SH:24, discovered after returning from maternity leave – something I’m sure many mothers can relate to. Digital can have changed significantly in a year.

Miller says: "There's nothing like starting a new role, for a new employer, in a new sector area, after taking a year out to have a baby, to shake even the most capable and confident person to the core. I am the digital comms lead for a sexual and reproductive health CIC and the social and digital approach is a refreshing and appealing part of the job. But despite significant experience behind me, it was easy to feel out of my depth.

"I quickly realised the best way to tackle it is to arm yourself with a little perspective and as much knowledge as you can muster. It takes time to be a subject expert, and I can't expect to know everything about it in my first fortnight. I revised my expectations and, crucially, communicated this with my line manager, so they understood that for them to benefit from the expertise they had hired me for I needed time to become an expert."

If I could give one piece of advice, it would be to be that person who can change your opinion based on the facts you're faced with, rather than dogmatically defend a point of view".

Paul de Gregorio, Open

I’m a huge advocate of learning for professional development and, in this field, it really is imperative. I think the sector is great at sharing learnings through blog posts, seminars and conferences, but we do need to speak more about failures and challenges. We need to be more transparent.

Mandy Johnson, chief executive of Small Charities Coalition, speaks openly about her impostor syndrome. She does so because it allows her to connect with people who live with it and to learn how it manifests itself differently in others.

Johnson says: "I hope that, through sharing what I am honestly experiencing, I am laying the path for others who feel the same to go on and achieve the great things that their impostor is trying to stop them from doing. We can’t let impostor syndrome hold us back."

I love Paul de Gregorio’s attitude to impostor syndrome, which is to own up to when you don’t know something, rather than pretend that you do. De Gregoriois is director of digital engagement at Open and offers this advice: "Imposter syndrome is an awful feeling to have; I've felt it many times in my career, but have come to realise that it's caused by me putting undue pressure on myself to appear to know everything. I just don't do that any more.

"Technology changes so quickly – and opinions change even quicker – that it would, in my opinion, be foolish to proclaim that you know everything about everything. Much better to genuinely recognise the massive array of talent around you and go on a digital voyage of discovery with your peers."

Impostor syndrome affects even the most confident and experienced person. If you’re feeling it coming on, arm yourself with a mantra, take a deep breath and remember that you are not alone. You’ve got this.

Kirsty Marrins is a digital communications consultant and a trustee of the Small Charities Coalition

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