Trying to be Superwoman by Hannah Roberts

When I was eight years old, I begged my Mum and Dad for a science kit for my birthday, shortly followed by a telescope and all the ‘how my body works’ books. After career day, I came home and announced, “I’m going to be a doctor.” I didn’t have the vocab back them for “making a difference – helping others.” There was also a status attached to wanting to be a doctor and naturally my parents reaffirmed my decision.

The choice of an eight-year-old informed all of my academic subjects all the way up to A-Level. I liked the sound of psychology and had a notion of studying art alongside the sciences but after a quick chat with one of the teachers and my parents I was easily persuaded that art was a hobby and maths would be much more beneficial to the sciences.

I applied and received a place to do Medicine at The University of Manchester. 

The evening after our A-Level results, everyone was out congratulating each other. I went home early because I could not enjoy it at all. It took three days for The University of Manchester to confirm that I had lost my place by one grade and wouldn’t be accepted. I had been deemed as not good enough, by the university, but by myself too. I was consumed by feelings of failure but what I have now come to realise is that the emotion behind the failure was fear. I now had evidence that this fear was the truth: That I really wasn’t good enough. This was the seed of displeasure that activated my Superwoman.

Once at university, I went to study the subject I enjoyed most – Chemistry. However, while I felt that others were breezing through their studies with natural talents and capabilities. I felt would only get through by using sheer grit and determination. I felt a constant striving to be more, be better, succeed and avoid failure at all costs. I pushed through and ended up with a 1st class 86 % average. I don’t say this to show off.  On the outside I looked like the heroine of my own story – inside the cracks of pressure I was putting myself under were already visible.  

Scoring 4th highest in the year didn’t equate to feeling confident. If anything, it only served to increase the internal pressure and the silent expectations and standards for myself. I certainly recognise perfectionism was a huge driving force at this point in my life. When I didn’t reach arbitrary expectations, I would feel sub-standard and that’s when my inner critic hammered me the most. Pre-empting, worrying, ruminating and catastrophising events. So much so that in one of my final exams, I opened up the exam paper to find I instantly didn’t know how to tackle the first question. Number 1 of 5.  Already my mind had deducted 20% off the score, I had worked out the impact on my overall average and suddenly I was experiencing panic. It took me over 5 minutes to get my breathing back under control to the point where I felt I could stay in the lecture theatre and actually finish the exam. Interestingly, once I had completed the other four questions and went back to the first the answer popped out easily.

Superwoman-Induced Imposter Syndrome

Trying to be in control made things difficult. I remember during the final project presentation of my undergraduate degree, two eminent Professors laughing and joking with each other turned to me and said, “put your notes down and tell us about your project.” It completely threw me. I felt exposed and like I didn’t know enough. My Superwoman induced imposter syndrome manifests as  a collection of limiting beliefs, that I am not good enough, that I must do better, and I had just added another one to my list. I don’t know enough.

The dread and panic of the gravity of the situation drained through me.  I wasn’t prepared for this. I gave one-word answers and couldn’t get out of there fast enough. I ran down the corridor crying, and something switched that day. I developed an emotional aversion to delivering presentations which ended up shaping my whole career. 

I spent the next four years flitting from a prestigious graduate development scheme in industry to research business management then a teaching qualification. None of it was right. It felt like my peers and friends were all moving forwards and I kept starting and restarting over and over again. How could someone with so much potential end up like this?

Overachievers’ Anxiety

While I was working after graduation, anxiety and panic attacks took over. My world became smaller as the people, places and activities I felt comfortable with narrowed. On the outside, you wouldn’t have been able to tell as I was high functioning. On the inside, a daily internal struggle was taking place. I got up and went to work every day but it felt like in order to leave the house I needed to put my armour on, a brave front… be the superwoman the world thought I should be. Live up to expectations.

I’ve always enjoyed meeting friends and going out. This was the point in my life when I started to make excuses and pull away from all but essential meet-ups. I could do it, but I spent most of the time in my own head and trying to moderate the rising panic hijacking my amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for emotional processing), resulting in me losing some of my diplomacy. One time my friend even made the off-the-cuff comment, “I think you’re autistic or something.” I left that interaction feeling pretty down about myself.  

I’d like to say there was pressure from someone else, but there was never any external pressure from my parents or anyone else. At the end of the day, I created my own expectations to be Superwoman and I wasn’t living up to them.

To manage my growing anxiety, I tried yoga, meditation, CBT and counselling. They all helped in their own way. They got me to 60% okay. Making up the remainder was much harder and has taken much more time.

Noticing the Leaky Pipeline for The First Time

When I started out as an undergrad in Chemistry 43% were women. I didn’t even notice there was a ‘leaky pipeline’ until this moment in time. I looked ahead to those in positions two steps ahead of me and I found exactly 5 female professors at my institution in a department of over 200.

Figure adapted from Royal Society of Chemistry Breaking the Barriers report

When I took my next big career leap and embarked on a PhD, it was not until my final year when I married my husband Mark and started to look ahead I asked the big question I had been avoiding: What next?

Only three of those five female professors had children and none had a part time Professor role.  This was the kind of role that I had conjured up as ideal for me, so I could be both an academic and a hands on parent. It was the first time I realised that there weren’t many people like me where I was heading. Already suffering with low self-esteem coupled with a lack of role models made it feel like an academic career was impossible. My mental health took a dive.

My lack of self-esteem plagued me throughout this time and made me question my abilities. When a colleague recommended me for a postdoctoral position, although I was the one that showed up for the interview, I felt that the only reason I got the position was because of my connection. I believed that it was unearned. Superwoman swooped in the save the day. Superwoman tries to perfect me so I never have to feel unloved, judged, not enough ever again. The only problem is….she can’t ever quite get there. It’s a never-ending cycle.

When two weeks into my postdoc I fell pregnant, this took my imposter syndrome to a whole new level. Now I believed that I needed to not only prove myself but also become indispensable so that my contract would be extended and I would have a job to go back to.

Imposter-Induced Superwoman

Whilst pregnant, I became the “go to” person to get things done. I said yes to everything and operated at 200 mph to ensure that I met those silent expectations. As I was approaching maternity leave with a contract now secured for a further 12 months, I was met with advice from female academics.

“I hired a nanny two weeks after giving birth and went back to finish my fellowship,” said Professor X. “I wrote my fellowship in the first twelve weeks after giving birth. Babies don’t do much until they start crawling,” said Dr Y. 

I felt like I should be doing something on maternity leave. In fact, five days after giving birth and suffering a 1L haemorrhage Superwoman was back answering emails and directing a collaborative project review report. I tried to write a fellowship but I couldn’t think straight, as my baby fed every three hours a day and night. I continued to work all my projects remotely. I was concerned that if I let go, I would be easily replaced by someone with less responsibilities, who was able to work long days and weekends and more intelligent than me. There’s always a feeling that you are very expendable and replaceable in academia.

This behaviour continued into my second maternity leave. This is Superwoman. Look closely at my face. I was oh so tired that my face ached.

Superwoman was at an all-time high when I returned after my 2nd maternity leave. No matter what I was doing, I did it at speed. This included working, eating, cleaning, and walking. I felt like I was rushing and being pulled in a million different directions in a constant state of adrenaline fuelled by fears. I kept comparing myself unfavourably to others and worried about the long-term security of my role. 

Superwoman is the archetype of our times and if her standards seem unattainable, they probably are. But it doesn’t stop Superwoman from trying.

It’s taken time for me to realise: Superwoman is fine for 15 minutes in an emergency but I was living there not just for weeks or months but years. I have learnt that operating in this way impacts our health, relationships and stalls careers. I am the asset in my career, I must come first.

Trying to “have it all”

On the “PhD to Postdoc” career conveyor belt I had been tasked with additional responsibilities like project management and outreach. I’d stretched and expanded that role as far as it could go, even starting a spin out company with three other female academics. Before long, I had been subtly shaped and moulded to fit someone else’s purpose. I felt simultaneously stuck and lost.

On a professional development away day I attended a session on Talent Dynamics and took the profiling tool. When it came back, I was shocked. It sounded nothing like me. During the debrief, we dug into why.  I came to realise that this was because I was answering the questions in the context of my work role and responsibilities rather than from my natural preferences. It turns out that my job role was the complete opposite of my natural talents. No wonder it felt like hard work.

I came to learn just because we can do something, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we should.

Unexplored Value

In my scientific project manager role, I was trying to get the research to where it needed to be as fast as possible but I didn’t feel fulfilled.  As Superwoman, however, I was spinning so many plates it felt impossible to stop. If I did, surely they would all come crashing down around me? It was through coaching and personal development that I started to let go of these thoughts and beliefs that no longer served me and examine my unexplored value.

As part of this, I spent time thinking about five key areas:

  • Vision – Understanding what is important to me about the legacy I am leaving. What really fires me up.
  • Purpose –  the specific what I will be doing and why this is important to me.
  • Mission – the measurable criteria which explains how I will know when I have reached that vision.
  • Natural Talents – ensuring that I use my natural talents and capabilities to put my mission into action so that I can access increased flow and get better results.
  • Values – understanding the style with which I will conduct this mission. 2 different people can go about a mission in very different ways.

This may seem vague at first,  but writing down what you want and how you can get there can really help find your next step. I used a range of exercises and tools to define these criteria and found that once I owned my own value, I found true self confidence and no longer needed validation from external sources. Being coached gave me the elusive 40% of myself back, whilst simultaneously unlocking a whole new set of skills and resources I didn’t know existed within me. It’s not always easy to hold a mirror up to your own innermost fears and limitations but what lies on the other side is well worth the journey.

From Scientist to Coach and Professional Skills Trainer

I found the tools so uncomplicated yet profound that I went through a rigorous 12-month qualification to coach and teach these exact tools. I am now a fully regulated coach with the International Coaching Federation, trained in Talent Dynamics with over 100 gold standard coaching, leadership and NLP-based tools to support others on their journey. 

I learned to find what I value and to let Superwoman go. It can feel (relatively) easy to leave something that isn’t right for something else. It can be much more challenging to leave something that is good, for something more. I chose more. 

My mental health has changed dramatically since 2014. Counselling gave me the space I needed to voice my fears and emotions. In doing so, much of the sting was taken out of them. Coaching helped me identify more specifically patterns of behaviour keeping me stuck and helped me release them and move forward better resourced for challenges ahead. The premise of coaching is that we already have all the resources available within us, we just need to be able to access them. The very self-esteem I was missing those years ago was there all along.

It’s not easy to hold up a mirror to yourself and embark on this kind of self-exploration, but I implore you to try. It’s only by understanding who we are, our limits, and our values we can truly be happy.  I think of it a little like peeling the layers of an onion. Each layer shed means you can be more of yourself than ever before – a fully authentic version of you where everything is possible. 

Hannah Roberts

Hannah Roberts is a career coach and professional skills trainer. During her extensive academic and industrial career, she took research from concept to start-up. Since 2018, she has been a qualified and regulated coach; trained in Talent Dynamics profiling. Specialising in team dynamics, career planning, online networking and social media skills, research planning and funding, commercialisation and management tools. Hannah has a particular passion for diversity and inclusion and women’s leadership development. Access her free guide ‘The Overachievers Guide to a Meaningful Career: How Anxiety Has Successfully Shaped Who You Are’.