9th June 2020 Blog

Overcoming imposter syndrome as a peer researcher

Peer research •

I wonder how many other people experience ‘imposter syndrome’. It seems to be particularly prevalent for women in our society, and something that I experienced when I was working as a Regional Peer Researcher with the McPin Foundation on the evaluation of Women’s Side by Side.

This is a women-led peer-support programme, run by Mind (the mental health charity) and Agenda, the alliance for women and girls at risk.

We live in a patriarchal world, where women and girls are systematically put ‘in their place’. Mind your tone. Don’t sit like that. Girls can’t be astronauts. All so that we grow up to fit happily into the gendered-shaped mould created by generations before us.

Perhaps it is these learned ideas, that women cannot or should not do certain things, that makes women more likely to experience imposter syndrome. Indeed, studies suggest that men are far more likely to apply for a job that is above their expertise level, compared women of equal experience.

Measuring experience

When I saw the job vacancy for a Regional Peer Researcher on the Women Side by Side evaluation team at McPin last year, I didn’t feel I had the necessary experience.

However, the advertisement stated that being a woman and having lived experience of mental health issues was essential and valued. It felt like a weight lifted.

Somehow the pain of the experiences I had encountered in life was worthy of something. I wondered whether I could use this knowledge to create something positive – and so I applied. But how do you measure your experience as a woman or someone who’s lived with mental illness?

This ‘imposter syndrome’ didn’t diminish when I was offered the job – it only became worse, especially when I was observing certain peer support groups, as part of the evaluation.

Asylum seekers and refugees, mothers with experience of postpartum psychosis, or women with learning difficulties – these are experiences I have never faced. So, how could I call myself a peer?

How could I connect with these women, when I wasn’t able to share meaningful lived experiences with them? Anxiety and self-doubt crept in further. I felt like a fraud.

I began regularly visiting a handful of groups. One of these was a domestic violence peer support group for women in refuge and survivors of domestic abuse.

The first time I met them was at an open event. After a wonderful guided meditation, we moved on to a poetry reading.

Women read out the stories of their experiences in rhymes. Their words were flooded with the pain they had experienced, and the hope and promise that the peer support group had given them.

I was unable to contain my emotion. I sat crying amongst the group – I wasn’t the only one. None of the other women knew, but I too was a survivor of abuse. Before leaving, we hugged and wiped away our tears.

My story

As time went by, I continued my observations and grew closer to the women. But, now a new kind of imposter syndrome surfaced. I felt like a fraud for having not shared my experiences – especially when I had sat beside them for weeks, listening to their stories and learning about their lives. Because I was a ‘professional’ in that situation, I didn’t want to overshare or take the spotlight. 

But the truth is, I was in fact a ‘real’ peer in this group. Having survived an abusive relationship meant I had more ‘in common’ with this group than any other.

One day, I told them my story. I explained, too, that being a researcher almost came second to my experiences when I was observing this group. I guess the survivor in me wanted desperately to belong – I had finally found a group of women who deeply understood what I was telling them.

In past situations, for example with friends, it hasn’t been unusual to be confronted with comments such as “really?”. It’s a short question, yet speaks volumes.

Unfortunately “really?” is something that survivors regularly encounter. Too often, revealing abuse is met with disbelief. The doubt we face over our truth is why so many women and victims of abuse do not speak out. The fear of the response “really?” is why I avoid discussing this issue.

But I knew I was safe amongst these women. I didn’t worry about proving myself and my experiences to them. For once I felt that I could share my story, safe from judgement and question; I could just tell it my way. I finally felt like a real peer.

Peer research and belonging

As my peer researcher role developed, I realised that I did belong, not only in some groups, but with all of them. I found that in every group I observed, there was common ground. In fact, far more bonded us as women, than our traumas or lived experiences.

Rather than focusing on our differences, I began to notice all the similarities we shared. Similarities like wanting to feel accepted, overcoming loneliness or addiction, parenting difficulties, financial struggles.

Not only that, but there were countless cheerful similarities that helped build friendships too: shared love for hobbies, crafts, dancing, cooking, bowling, music, TV shows.

I discovered that being a ‘peer’ in this research role wasn’t a linear journey or one set in stone. Sometimes I had to search a little deeper for the commonality I had with certain women – but there was always something.

It also lead to unexpected experiences. I expected to study peer support, but being a recipient of that support and feeling a sense of involvement and acceptance was unforeseen, and at times, overwhelming.

Finally, having once felt like an imposter, I learnt that my fears were unfounded. Everyone has unique experiences, each with their own story.

Connecting with women who are from so many different backgrounds made me realise that it’s our similarities that join us. However, the glue that bonds us over time is our ability to listen, connect, empathise, and support each other through our differences.

This is the second of four blogs in our series this month looking at the value of collaborative working and peer research in the evaluation of the women-led peer support programme, Women Side by Side.

This author wishes to remain anonymous.

The evaluators of Women Side by Side were a group of peer researchers at the McPin Foundation. The team was brought together specifically for this project along with five regional peer researchers recruited to work alongside the commissioned programme hubs in England and Wales.

This meant that the evaluation was carried out by people who had similar lived experience to the women the projects were supporting, and experiential understanding of the structural and social challenges experienced by women, as a result of their gender. These experiences provide a level of insight that may not have been possible with researchers without lived experience.

Our report from Women Side by Side will be launched soon. For more information please visit this page.

Other blogs in this series:

Women Side by Side shows what can happen if women are given the space to grow