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The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It by Valerie Young Ed.D.
The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It

Your Memoir Mentor, May 14, 2013

"If we knew each other's secrets, what comforts we should find." ~ John Churton Collins

Though we've clearly "come a long way, baby," we have a long way to go if we're to feel authentic about our well-earned success. In "The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It," Dr. Valerie Young honors those of us who have oodles of measureable evidence for our accomplishments but little conviction of our competence. Through years of experience and well-honed research, she's uncovered vital information for women (and the men who can relate to this phenomenon). This work helps those wondering what's stopping them professionally and why. She shows us exactly the "what" and the "why" of this "syndrome" and gives us tools to make big shifts that make a difference not only for us but our world.

Young finds that far too many of us respond sheepishly when we've been rewarded for "a job well done!" Instead of saying thank you, we more likely to shoot down the compliment by saying, "It's just dumb luck." In my own case, complimenting me for winning an academic award or for any kind of accomplishment, I've answered such praise with a nervous grin, "Don't look to closely; it's all smoke and mirrors!" I wish I were kidding or at least feigning modesty but my motives were the same as the women Young speaks of here.

By giving the reader myriad examples of people who can't quite believe they've arrived to their position on their own merit, we find comfort and resonance. For example, as a professor of philosophy, I drove to and from work -- a 70-mile commute each way -- mentally chanting, "I'm such a hack; I won't be able to hide it much longer!" In that one sentence I enacted the very things Young calls "Impostor Phenomenon." She describes this peculiar experience as including one or more of these feelings:

* a deep conviction we are frauds to the core of our being no matter what we've achieved
* no sense of genuine accomplishment (regardless of contrary evidence)
* chronic and exhausting self doubt
* the urge to keep our feelings about this to ourselves
* stuck in a puzzling loop of self-sabotage (as we get close to taking on riskier challenges, we bail)
* doomed to a life of running like a fugitive certain of our disastrous fate
* using excuses for how we got here: "dumb luck," "somebody made a careless error in hiring me," "I have no clue how I got here," etc.
* in no way might we be perceived as women without confidence or low self-esteem.

In the early 1980s, while in graduate school, Young pursued her doctoral degree with much trepidation and doubt. She had come from a long line of family who'd made their living as housecleaners, homemakers and custodians. Many first generation students pursuing a college degree can feel this ambivalence.

At first she took on academic challenges with excitement and curiosity but as time drew near to start the dissertation, she felt stymied and baffled as to why. In search of explanations, she first came up with "I must not have it in me." She ended up believing her sluggishness toward taking on over one thousand pages of research was due to "academic laziness." After coming across the "Impostor Syndrome" work of sociologists Dr. Pauline Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes, her life changed forever. She now was fired up to give greater visibility to this issue and took the first step with the title of her dissertation, "A Model of Internal Barriers to Women's Occupational Achievement."

Young builds on and updates Clance and Imes's to illustrate this ongoing trend among women who still feel trapped in the struggle to believe their contribution is real. She also refers to the diverse stories told to her over her 30 years of offering leadership training in Fortune 200 companies. Her first workshop entitled, "How to Feel as Bright and Capable as Everyone Seems to Think You Are: Why Smart Women (and Men) Suffer from Impostor Syndrome and What to Do About It" packed the house with a broad swath of self-questioning achievers. From that moment on she continued to gather extensive research and hundreds of testimonials on the topic since 1982.

In the first part of her work, I kept nodding and shouting "Yes!" I eventually ran out of ink while underlining her key findings. Readers drawn to this title will do the same. As much as I hate to admit this, for most of my life, I've experienced my successes as if they were pennies sliding off Teflon; nothing lasted more than a few seconds. Like the majority of women in this book, we didn't know we could help ourselves and each other question why we feel this way. In my case, no matter how many competitive awards I'd won by age 30, how many Ivy league degrees accumulated and worked for (4), how many languages passed in graduate school (5), or how many feminist essays read (and even written) by that time, I was convinced that all of my work was due to one fact: "I'm a great bluffer." I said none of this to put others at ease; I was certain. I thought I was a true fraud. Philosophically I knew such a moniker was oxymoronic but I could not shake these haunting feelings. I'm convinced that others will identify with Young's findings. Reading this book will give both women and men hope that feelings like these can change in lasting ways. She gives us myriad tools to lessen the power of our false convictions and lets us witness how this change works.

As Harvard Law School's first female graduate (and co-founder of NOW) Bella Abzug said so clearly, "Our struggle today is not to have a female Einstein get appointed as assistant professor. It is for a woman schlemiel to get as quickly promoted as a male schlemiel." According to Young's research, around 70% of us feel like frauds and most "type A" people to feel like skillful actors. But, in the case of most women achievers, when they act as if they are qualified, they feel more like liars putting one over on others.

One would never believe how many of us walk around feeling guilty and doubting that we are just as capable, if not more capable, than any other person in a similar position. Young quotes Oscar winning actor Renée Zelwegger who says, "Oh, damn! Here we go again! What were they thinking? They gave me this role; don't they know I'm faking it?" After reading these testimonials, I'm left wondering: "If most of us are "acting the part," are the other 30% watching the show?"

As an author and professor interested in gender and power, I love to read and even write books that encourage women to uncover the societal "isms," norms that have them doubting their abilities. I'm often sorely disappointed that the most popular books on women and "success" place responsibility for this squarely on the individual woman's shoulders without situating the problem within its wider social context -- the petri dish where the social-psychological toxins multiply and thrive. This particular work has much more to show us and more secrets than one could ever predict especially for someone whose read everything on the topic.

Chapter-by-chapter, I've found compelling stories rendered in thorough and accessible ways. In the second half of the book I came to understand that truly "successful" women define success in surprising broad ways, not quite as they did at the beginning of the women's movement, (equal pay and access to jobs formerly held by men). Their "secrets" are multiple but one of them empowers the rest of us to savor the truth of our unique style, one that often includes championing the success of others.

The best of her work has us seeing the why of our sense of fraudulence within the larger system of American values, gender stereotypes and unconscious beliefs. By the book's end, we learn to perceive mechanisms at work that help us have compassion for ourselves, workable tools and practical tips that help any reader begin breaking the chains that keep us stuck professionally.

"Personal awareness and change take time. There will be moments of profound clarity and abject confusion. There will be victories and set backs." ~ Valerie Young

In no way is this book a "Women are from Mars and Men are from Venus." No need to make universal claims; there are always exceptions. Yes, one can find men who feel this way too, especially men raised outside the gated walls of the white, hetero-elite. But somehow of all the work on the "why" of the "Imposter Phenomenon" only 2% of them have been conducted by men. Now either men being studied are lying in great numbers or they don't care enough to conduct research in the area. My guess "acting" as if you're as qualified as they think you are has never stopped most men from taking advantage of most profitable opportunities.

Young respects diverse motives women might have for doubting the authenticity of their accomplishments. My favorite section in each chapter gives the reader a chance to reflect on her own relationship to her findings (neatly summarized at the end). Her work has the reader asking herself, "Do I believe I'm unworthy of this CEO position or do I simply want a life with greater work-life balance?" The old "Lone Ranger" corporate model for success is untenable. Chasing the status quo method of success hurts both men and women who want to remain awake to each other and present to their lives.

Is it in our nature to always want more success? Physically, spiritually, financially, materialistically we push ourselves to the extreme and don't seem to appreciate what we have achieved along the way. Maybe this is due to self-doubt, maybe the cause is our narrow definition of success as the only thing that matters.
Still, why are we so fundamentally unsatisfied with our hard-won accomplishments?
Perhaps we are trying to reach a goal that we did not set ourselves - it has been set by society, by the media, by commercialism.

If you still feel baffled, reading "The Secrets Thoughts of Successful Women" will help you uncover the roots and not just the weeds (that symptom called "Imposter Syndrome"). She'll unearth the sources of these recalcitrant feelings of disbelief. She gives us the framework we need to examine what, why and how we feel such recurring self-doubt in our achievements. By showing us multiple methods that help us move out of the ditch of despair, we can begin to bloom wherever we are. One thing's for sure, if you practice nothing this book suggests, that's exactly the amount of change you'll experience.
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Called Back: My Reply to Cancer, My Return to Life by Mary Cappello
Called Back: My Reply to Cancer, My Return to Life

Your Memoir Mentor, January 23, 2011

Award-winning author Mary Cappello is not only a unique poet, she’s a trenchant activist—the kind of artist that makes you see something you thought you knew very well as if for the first time.

The title, "Called Back," comes from the tombstone and last words of Emily Dickinson. The book’s jacket cover makes an x-ray morph into an impossibly beautiful flower of sorts. Will it bloom or whither? We cannot tell. Thus, before the reader even opens the book to read page one, she encounters the way this gifted writer thinks, feels and sees the world after hearing that she’s been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Learning that you have cancer would wake up anyone but Cappello turns this “journey” in to a wake up call for her readers. Inspired by the way she frames her experience of being “called back” after her previous breast exam, we learn more about the world not only in and around her but in and around all of us. We cannot help but feel with her as she is handled in all kinds of ways—frightening, infuriating and at times with tender care.

"Called Back" is unlike any other book about “living with cancer”—there’s no “cancer is a gift” message, no search for a new age, karmic cause, nor is there any romance with corporate pink ribbon “activism” toward “cancer awareness.” What does cancer awareness even mean or produce?

As author Megan Sullivan says, “'Called Back' is for all of us—those of us who do not have cancer, those of us who do, and those of us who will someday.”
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