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Why do successful women feel insecure?

    Self belief issue: Natalie Portman
    Self belief issue: Natalie Portman

    Let me share something with you: I'm not sure why the JC asked me to write this article. There are people who know far more than me about this subject, those who could write it better, and those who are probably much more deserving. The only reason I'm here is was because I was in the right place in the right time. I just got lucky.

    If my self-deprecatory confession hasn't put you off reading further, then please bear with me. I don't really believe what I've said - or, at least, not entirely. And yet I (and many other perfectly capable women) have felt this sentiment frequently, usually when I've been asked to do something that requires putting my head above the parapet, whether it's public speaking, going for a job promotion, or asking for a payment.

    Imposter Syndrome - the lack of self-belief that makes you doubt your abilities and potential - is the scourge of today's women. Never mind the glass ceiling, it's often our own brains that stop us achieving.

    First identified by psychologists in the 1970s, even Facebook's Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg isn't immune to the syndrome, admitting in 2011 that she'd felt like a fraud for her whole life. Barbra Streisand suffered from such terrible stage fright she didn't perform live for decades. And actress Natalie Portman has said that she felt anxious when she went to Harvard, just after the release of Star Wars: Episode 1, fearing people would assume she had got in because she was famous and think: "I wasn't smart enough to be in this company, that every time I opened my mouth, I would have to prove that I wasn't just a dumb actress." She took classes in neurobiology and Hebrew literature to prove her worth.

    Clinical psychologist Deborah Golend, who has a background in trauma and now specialises in helping women to overcome confidence problems, knows exactly what I'm talking about. She has suffered from it, too, while growing up in a north-west London Jewish home, where she felt inferior to her father and brother - both accountants. "Research shows there's a big divide between a woman's perception of her abilities and her competence," she says. "Women are as competent and skilled as men, but they do not judge their abilities in the same way. They suffer much more self-doubt in all areas - academia, business, science and personally.

    "Functional MRI scans show that empathy, self-control, intuition etc are more active in women. But these things are seen as soft skills and not valued. In fact, emotional intelligence is extremely important and we should be cultivating it."

    An internal study at IT giant Hewlett Packard illustrates her point perfectly. It found that, while male employees applied for promotions when they had only 60 per cent of the qualifications and experience required, female workers would apply only if they met 100 per cent of the essential requirements.

    So why don't we women believe in ourselves? Sociological factors like gender bias and discrimination don't help. After all, as Golend says, "if you're told something often enough you start to believe it."

    But, she adds, there are additional reasons, which have not been widely discussed: our hormones and brain chemistry.

    "The male/female confidence discrepancy begins at the onset of puberty - something I noticed personally with my daughters. Studies show boys and girls at primary school age have equal amounts of self-esteem but, when puberty hits, it plummets far more for girls. And they never quite recover to the same level as boys.

    "Confidence is made up of an interplay of life experiences, thoughts and beliefs, lifestyle habits and hormones. In order to feel confident, there's got to be a balance of certain hormones and neurotransmitters. You need chemicals such as serotonin, which helps you feel calm, dopamine which allows you to go out and do things, and oxytocin, which promotes bonding, to be in balance alongside testosterone (risk taking) and oestrogen (social skills). But hormones fluctuate greatly across a woman's lifetime, particularly at three critical key times: puberty, after having a baby and at menopause."

    Although there's no specific data to support it, anecdotal evidence suggests Jewish women - often feeling pressure to succeed in education, work and family life - are even more likely to fall victim to the scourge of self-doubt.

    "In addition," says Golend, "we shouldn't underestimate the impact of trans-generational trauma, the unconscious pressure to live the lives our ancestors were robbed of. The rise of antisemitism today leaves people feeling insecure and on edge, and it's very hard to feel confident when you're on edge.

    On the positive side, a strong sense of belonging to a community can provide a lot of support."

    The good news, for those of us who suffer from Imposter Syndrome, is that self-esteem issues can be treated. Scientists now know that brains aren't static, they're plastic, which means neural pathways can be rewired and ingrained beliefs changed.

    "If you have pathways that are making you feel anxious and under confident, we can weaken them and start to strengthen more positive ones," says Golend. "Research shows that taxi drivers who learn 'the Knowledge' actually grow their hippocampus - the area of the brain used for mapping.

    "In the same way, things like meditation and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can help improve self-confidence. It's about training yourself to catch negative thoughts and challenging them. Hormonal fluctuations can also be kept in check with good nutrition and exercise. To develop confidence from the inside out at the 'brain' level is about taking a holistic approach that includes both therapeutic strategies and lifestyle changes."

    Golend runs confidence-building workshops for women, which combine several therapeutic techniques - including psychological techniques such as visualisation, sessions with a nutritionist and yoga.

    What she'd really like is to find a way to stop girls losing their confidence in the first place. "It would be fabulous if we could get into schools at the critical primary school transfer time and do work around confidence with girls," she says. "There is so much pressure from social media now, which makes it even tougher for them. We need to help them find things that make them feel good about who they are, and develop their resilience and positivity."

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