Louise O'Neill: 'Give yourself the pep talk you'd give a child'

Louise O'Neill: 'Give yourself the pep talk you'd give a child'

I was at FemFest recently, a conference organised by the National Women’s Council of Ireland for young women between the ages of 16 and 25. Siobhán McSweeney, who plays Sr Michael in Derry Girls and is, most importantly, a fellow Cork woman, was the keynote speaker and a discussion followed her speech; the panel included a journalist, the president of the Second Level Student’s Union, two campaigners from direct provision centres, and me.

I was honoured to be included, and to hear these inspiring women share their thoughts on sexism, mental health, refugees, violence against women, rape culture, and much more. In the Q and A section afterwards, a young woman in the audience stood up and asked us about Imposter Syndrome.

I’m paraphrasing, but she said something along the lines of: “How do you walk into rooms such as this one and feel confident to tell your story?” The term Imposter Syndrome was coined in the 1978 article by Dr Pauline R Clance and Dr Suzanna A Imes titled: ‘The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women.’

The researchers interviewed a sample of 150 high-achieving women, all of whom reported feeling like a fraud despite having been recognised for excellence in their academic or business environments.

They explained away their achievements by saying they had been ‘lucky’, or that others had overestimated their capabilities and intellect. (The study found the phenomenon was less prevalent in men but noted further research was required.) It’s a term that has become popular in the last decade, a throwaway term for what is a very real issue.

It was interesting timing to be asked about Imposter Syndrome because I had been struggling with it that morning. When I arrived at the venue, a group of young women approached me. They wanted to talk about my work, telling me how much my books meant to them, how it had led to their feminist awakening.

It was incredibly kind and flattering, but as I listened to them, I didn’t feel happy. I didn’t feel proud. Instead, I felt deeply uncomfortable, accompanied with a creeping sense of dread. I joked, “well, I can only be a massive disappointment in real life” and turned the conversation quickly around to safer ground.

Part of this deprecation is motivated by self-preservation — I’m not sure I think the idea of ‘role-models’ is a good one. Human beings are imperfect, they can have bad days, they can have a bad take on an issue you really care about.

They make mistakes, and should be allowed to do so. But if I’m being honest, my discomfort with their praise was really rooted in a sense of being an imposter. It brought up feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt, that old internal message about failure rearing its ugly head. This isn’t new to me.

I often have Imposter Syndrome when I sit at my laptop, and I’m staring at the blank page, hoping the words will come. Who do you think you are? the voice whispers. You can’t do this. And then I procrastinate by reading an article on how wealthy women got dressed in 18th century England or making sure every picture frame in my writing room is perfectly straight, because all of that time-wasting feels safer than having to face the fear that I’m not good enough.

SO, WHEN that young woman was brave enough to raise her hand and ask for guidance on how to overcome Imposter Syndrome, I had plenty of advice to give her. There was an element of fake it until you make it, I told her. That sometimes, weirdly, I felt more confident speaking in front of a crowd than I might in a one-on-one situation because I found the latter more intimate.

I did a lot of drama as a child and a teenager, and that definitely helped; sometimes, at large events, I feel as if I step into a role when I walk up to the podium, and it’s not really me who is speaking anymore.

Practice is key, I told her, the more often you raise your hand in class or share your opinion at meetings or say yes to the scary but exciting opportunity, the easier it becomes. The more prepared you are, the more confident you will be too. But I also think it’s important to acknowledge the part that feels like an imposter, rather than pretending it doesn’t exist or trying to silence it.

Acknowledge it, but don’t act upon it. Treat the voice which tells you that you don’t deserve to be in that room or that space with compassion and understand that it is merely fear in motion. (Kristen Neff’s work on self-confidence versus self-compassion is transformative, I would highly recommend checking her out.)

Be gentle, give yourself the pep talk you would give to a small, frightened child because that’s all any of us are, underneath it all. Remind yourself that you can do this, you are worthy of being here you are good enough, just as you are. Louise Hay once said that “you do not need to earn the right to breathe. It is god given because you exist. So too, is the right to love and be loved.”

Claim your space. It is yours to take.

Louise Says

READ: Daisy Jones & The Six was one of the biggest books of 2019 and after finishing it, I decided to read Taylor Jenkins Reid’s back catalogue. I was particularly struck by The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, which tells the story of an old Hollywood star who gives one, final interview before she dies.

WATCH: Schitt’s Creek. I am late to this show but what an absolute delight it is. When the wealthy Rose family lose their fortune, their only remaining asset is a small town called Schitt’s Creek, which they bought as a joke in the 90s. It’s sweet and funny and it’s on Netflix.

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