Imposter syndrome Archives - Wildflower Fire Coaching

Why are the poppies so tall ?

Why do I have a beautiful poppy as part of my Wildflower brand ?

A few years ago I was working in a public sector organisation having recently returned from maternity leave. I had come back to find that my job had changed and that there was no clear plan for what I was going to do. I was told by my manager “I haven’t got anything for you, go and find yourself something to do”. This was against a backdrop of central government policy shift which meant huge organisational change was looming.

I was a senior manager, well paid and had felt highly valued before I had left to go on maternity leave the previous year. I had been pleased to come back to work, but daunted and conflicted, leaving one important job at home to come back to work to do what I had thought was another important job at work. To return to find that there was no clear plan in place and that I had to find my own was at first disheartening and disappointing but soon became exciting and liberating as I thought about what I could do.

I started working with other partner organisations, including the one that we were going to be merging with in the near future. I started preparing for the changes ahead, learning what the new organisation was like, who the key players were, what the culture was like. I set about developing a place for myself, organised meetings with key people, got a sense of where the land lay and what the gaps were.

Fast forward a few months and I’m still working part time, still breastfeeding my 1 year old before I leave and when I get home from work, looking after my 3 year old and 1 year old on the days when I’m not at work. At the same time, I’d been contacted by the university I had started a masters degree at some years (and 2 children) previously. They told me that if I wanted to complete my masters then I had a time limited chance to finalise my dissertation and hand it in. My time and chances to complete the thing I’d not even started were about to run out.

My then husband is sharing the parenting and working, with us both working part time. It’s a strange time, having had 2 maternity leaves in relatively short succession and knowing that this was to be my last child, I wanted to enjoy every second of motherhood, while as the main wage earner needing to work. There were lots of women like me at work, closer to 40 than 30, with young children, and I’m sure we all had broken nights, colic, nightmares, sickness and lots of early mornings but despite knowing somewhere deep down that we were all exhausted, we never spoke about it. Somehow there was some unspoken badge of honour of no matter how tired and broken you were, the game was to put more lippy on and even higher heels and just carry on.

I’d been back at work around 8 months and in that time I had well and truly done what I was told. Found myself something to do. Developed new networks, a whole new role and was starting to get involved in lots of interesting work. I had found a gap and was beginning to fill it. I think I might have even invented a new job title for myself. All of this in answer to the “go and find yourself something to do”. I had filled the vacuum.

Some people might have taken the opportunity to rest, sit back and let the management sort itself out and find a new role. I was incapable of doing that. Partly because I was leaving my most important work at home, my babies, but mainly because I was ( and am to this day) absolutely driven. I could not envisage being paid and not feeling as though I had earnt every last penny. I was the type of person who would ask myself every Friday evening as I left the office “did I earn my money this week ?”

While I was enjoying myself, feeling useful and finding things to do and inventing a role for myself, I started to attract the attention of my other colleagues in the organisation we would be working in. Mostly, this was good attention, I was seen to be getting on with stuff that needed doing, and had needed doing for quite some time. However, I had, completely inadvertently, grasped a nettle and in doing so was about to stir up a hornets nest that I hadn’t even realised was there.

One day I came into work and was called aside by someone from HR and a senior manager. I was told to go into a meeting room where I was presented with an anonymous letter. The anonymous letter was primarily about me, about how I had adopted a role for myself, how I was back from maternity leave and incapable of working efficiently and effectively because I was part time, how I didn’t have any useful skill, didn’t know what I was doing and lots more asides. The written form of “who does she think she is ?” It was a complete character assassination and was like having a bucket of cold water thrown over me. I was deflated and defeated, humiliated and ashamed. Worse than all of that was the fact that it was as though someone had seen inside my head, had listened to the imposter voices and had written down everything they said. Professionally, it was my worst nightmare.

I was devasted but determined. Determined not to show how much the contents of the letter had got to me. I turned up for work the next day and the next and the next with a permanent grin on my face, dressed better than I ever had been, wearing even more armour than the day before. I talked it through, obviously, and received all the reassurance you’d expect about how valued I was, how important the work I was doing was, how much this was out of character of the organisation, how this behaviour would not be tolerated. Even the chief executive got involved at some point. Despite all of that, I cried as I drove to work and I cried as I left work for months.

Obviously, being the quiet, hyper vigilant and observant type that has always been able to read the people and the room long before I knew how to use that skill carefully, I’d known exactly who and where the letter had originated from as soon as I clapped eyes on it. I never let on, as it was a battle that would never be won, but quietly, slowly, definitely and defiantly I let karma have its way. Which it did. In the end.

In the months that followed, as I reassessed and carried on, it became clear that the work I had been doing was no longer the right work to be doing, things had changed politically, the promises and reassurance I had received previously had turned to dust and so I returned to my original manager and asked for something to do, a new role, a place to use my skills and talents.

A couple of years later, I started to work with a coach to try and help me unpick my time since returning from maternity leave, what I’d learnt, how to deal with my raging imposter syndrome and what to do next. I had completed my masters but was lost at work, exhausted at home and at nearly 40, trying to take stock to try and work out what to do next. The coach talked about something which I had never heard before but completely resonated as she described it. It was called “tall poppy syndrome”. An Australian cultural term that refers to people that grow too tall for their environment.

The idea that is something, or someone, grows too tall, that it needs to be cut down to size. Someone who needs to be brought down a peg or two as them rising above the pack generates hostility and elicits a host of behaviours that seek to undermine and reduce. Cutting down the tall poppy.

So, if this resonates and you think that you are at risk of being undermined or diminished at work, what can you do ?

1. Always do the right thing and take the high road rather than the low road – I remember in the situation I was in that there was lots of micro aggression, mainly on email. Rather than get involved in spats in writing, I might have been ranting inside, but always tried to respond in a polite and non emotive way.

2. Find your radiators – make sure that you ask for feedback from people who value you, keep a note of your achievements and try and surround yourself with positive and supportive people.

3. Remember that its not about you – remind yourself why you are doing what you are doing. Remember that the haters are going to hate because you might be doing something that causes them to reflect on stuff they don’t know about or ways of working they wish they could adopt. Its not about you, its about them.

4. If you feel as though you are being bullied then speak out, go to HR, find a supportive manager, talk to a union, see if you can get some mentoring or coaching. If you feel as though your mental health is starting to be affected then talk to a counsellor, GP or try and access occupational health or staff support services.

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