Event planning has always been stressful. But with the challenges of the pandemic, event professionals are now experiencing more feelings of self-doubt, leading to growing concerns about imposter syndrome. Fortunately, planners are not alone, and there are ways to cope.
mental health within the event industry has been in the spotlight, and for a good reason.
Event planning has long been considered one of the most stressful jobs around, even before the pandemic disrupted any kind of predictability within the industry. Planners are expected to wear many hats, take responsibility for peoples' safety, plan a budget, manage challenging situations, incorporate new technology, and develop creative solutions to meet event objectives on a deadline. Even under normal circumstances, it's a lot to juggle.
And when we factor in the impact of the pandemic on the industry (think cancellations, job losses, new safety protocols, remote working, and general long-term uncertainty), it can seem almost unbearable for those who count on the sector for their livelihood.
With the rapid changes and increase in pressure to adapt to new tech, event formats, and stressors — all while learning new skills — many planners have been left with crippling self-doubt and asking themselves questions like: Can I do this? Am I qualified? What happens if people find out that I am not competent? What right do I have to be here, when others that are better than me have lost their job? Have I ever been a "real" event planner, or was I faking? After all, everyone else is adapting and coping, so why can't I?
There is a term that encapsulates all of this self-doubt: imposter syndrome. Fortunately, planners are not alone, and there are strategies for overcoming it.
Feeling like a fraud: an introduction to imposter syndrome
Imposter phenomenon (IP), now commonly referred to as imposter syndrome, first appeared in 1978 in a study carried out by Pauline Rose Clance & Suzanne Imes called: The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women. Later studies have shown that men can also experience imposter syndrome just as much as women. The phenomenon does, however, exist disproportionately higher in racial minorities, likely owing to external factors.
Although the definitions of imposter syndrome vary, there seems to be an underlying theme — an irrational fear of being exposed as a fraud.
Individuals that grapple with the syndrome experience self-doubt and insecurity around their capabilities, competence, and intelligence and often feel undeserving of recognition, especially in the workplace. In most cases, there is also a cognitive distortion (error in thinking) of minimization and frequently negative comparison — minimizing achievements based on feelings instead of facts and comparing ourselves to others that we have placed on a pedestal for whatever reason.
Mathew Grounds, a practicing counselling psychologist, confirms this line of thinking: "There has to be a significant element of comparison involved with imposter syndrome. The type of comparison would, most likely, be an 'upward' comparison — this is when we compare our whole life to one (or two) of the finest, most notable, and enviable aspects of another person. We will always lose with this comparison as we are comparing a general feature to a specific feature. It is, therefore, an illegitimate comparison." In other words, we are comparing our general performance (often with an emphasis on the negative) against someone else’s best qualities or achievements.
While the core theme of imposter syndrome is the same, people may experience it differently and to varying degrees. Its effects could be significant and hinder a person's ability to grow professionally.
What imposter syndrome is not
It may be reassuring that imposter syndrome is not a formal clinical syndrome but rather a descriptive term, meaning it is not a psychiatric diagnosis.
While many people battle to silence their inner critic, feeling unsure or experiencing self-doubt doesn't make you an imposter — it makes you human.
Because of this, the term “syndrome” shouldn't necessarily be applied when individuals experience feelings of inadequacy in response to rapid changes like starting a new job or learning new skills — it is natural to feel uncomfortable and out of our depth as we acclimatize to new environments and expectations. It is only when an all-encompassing fear of being found out to be a fake is experienced that we should start to question if we are suffering from a bout of imposter syndrome.
Externally-imposed exclusions and biases can also foster a feeling of being an imposter, but it’s important to realize that the issue is created by societal pressures and prejudices and is not a product of actual shortcomings among individuals and minority groups.
Organizations should focus on creating more inclusive, diverse, and accessible environments and on embedding these values in the company culture while celebrating different leadership styles. Taking these kinds of proactive initiatives can prevent employees and colleagues from unfairly or unduly labeling themselves as an “imposter.”
Imposter syndrome and event planners
Event planners may find themselves particularly vulnerable to experiencing imposter syndrome. Besides typically being high achievers that are multifaceted, there is pressure to perform in the public eye at a moment’s notice.
Planners have been dealing with change and disruption on a mass scale due to the pandemic, which may well compound stress and potential mental health challenges.
Julius Solaris, VP of Marketing Strategy and Events at Hopin, confirms this experience:
"Learning new skills in a job when you have been 10, 20, or 30 years in an industry takes an inevitable mental health toll. It's easy to second guess ourselves and not to feel up to par. The current challenge is that the market demands hybrid events — meaning the industry up-skilling process is nowhere near the end. With tight budgets and even tighter lead times, the pressure to deliver is on.”
Learning new skills certainly seems to be an ongoing area of struggle. For event professionals like Anh Nguyen, CMP, Head of Community Engagement at Twine, learning to be a beginner again has been challenging, especially after being in the industry for an extended period and having mastered many skills over the years. To combat imposter feelings, Nguyen has had to learn to ask for help and be vulnerable with team members — a battle in itself due to the shift to remote working. "When I can talk myself into embracing the challenge and growth, it is exciting, but there have been lots of low moments,” she explains. “I have relied on my team a lot, and am learning how to be vulnerable and asking for help — all things that don't come naturally."
Event planners are also used to working with people in high-energy settings with ample opportunity to connect. But as a consequence of working remotely, some planners report feeling cut-off from colleagues and clients, resulting in an increase in self-doubt.
Anca Trifan, CMP, TEP, and Founder of Tree-Fan Events, says that she never knew what imposter syndrome felt like until Covid struck and believes it has been due to the isolation and limited feedback she has been experiencing: "The only voice to provide you with a subjective evaluation of your progress, growth, and performance is your own, and it becomes a breeding ground for insecurity to fester, even if you are, or were by all accounts, the most confident person out there."
For others, imposter syndrome is something they have dealt with long before the pandemic, like Abi Cannons, Product Marketing at Grip. Abi's experience with imposter syndrome has affected her public speaking to such an extent that she no longer gives solo presentations even though she is an experienced organizer with 14 years under her belt.
However, some event professionals have experienced positive growth during the pandemic. Fiona Pelham, CEO of Positive Impact Events, has found that by focusing on self-development and a purpose greater than herself, she has discovered the antidote to combatting years of imposter syndrome. Pelham says that the pandemic also removed activities that led to her previous imposter syndrome symptoms, like greater autonomy to decide who she connects with and more opportunities to increase her global network.
Changing the narrative: eight tips to working with your inner critic
Regardless of whether you are experiencing what you believe to be imposter syndrome or more general feelings of self-doubt, both can impact your overall wellbeing and ability to perform.
By implementing eight simple tips based on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) techniques, it is possible to reduce the self-doubts associated with imposter syndrome and work towards positive change:
What you resist persists
True acceptance is a powerful catalyst for change, as is admitting where you are struggling. We cannot grow as event planners professionally and personally unless we identify the areas where growth is needed. This process comes with accepting that we are human, including meeting our inner critic and approaching our perceived shortcomings as opportunities for self-improvement. This acknowledgement can also be the first step in asking for outside help. Is there room in the budget for a course in new digital skills? Can your event tech provider offer training? The biggest examples of success in the industry likely have teams of people behind them.
Separate fact from fiction
"Imposter syndrome stems, at least in part, from an overreliance on feeling, as opposed to careful and thoughtful appraisal. Because feelings are so compelling, they can easily convince one that one is inadequate, insufficiently qualified, etc. for whatever the task," says Grounds.
A crucial aspect to consider when working with your inner critic is identifying and ultimately separating fact from fiction. When thoughts of inadequacy crop up in your mind, challenge them — is what you are thinking based on evidence, or is it based on feelings? Even if you are embarking on a new career path within the industry, ask yourself: Have you adapted to unfamiliar circumstances before? What do past achievements say about you? Unpack your journey logically and factually.
Crafting a new narrative
As we grow as event professionals, we must learn to respond to perceived shortcomings (like “I am not qualified,” “I am a fraud,” etc.) instead of reacting to them. By shifting our narrative, the process will allow us to look at things from a factual point of view rather than clouding our perceptions of ourselves and situations with potentially false and limiting beliefs. One strategy is to think about how much has been accomplished over the past year instead of what hasn’t. In other words, trust the evidence that you are adding value rather than second-guessing your worth.
Fake it till you make it
Act the part until you feel you are the part. There will be moments when you feel totally out of your depth but, by learning from others you admire, you can train yourself to integrate these qualities or skill sets — like mastering the art of effective virtual engagement or learning how to set up branded live streams.
When we relate to ourselves more compassionately, it increases our ability to show compassion for others — a win-win situation. Part of behaving in this manner towards ourselves includes being gentle. It is okay to fail. This understanding is a part of the human experience, as nobody is perfect. And while failure can be a great teacher, it can also hurt (let's not sugar-coat the pain of failure). But you will have an opportunity to make it right — if you make a mistake, ask yourself: What can I do differently next time?
Another tip to combat imposter syndrome and self-doubt is to empower yourself through learning a new skill, taking a course, or something as simple as reading a blog post about a topic you feel is out of your depth. By permitting ourselves to be a beginner again or brushing up in areas, we alleviate pressure and help curb anxiety by taking action.
Make friends with your inner critic
Although unpleasant, your inner critic could come with some unexpected benefits. At times, having “imposter” doubts could lead a person to work on their perceived shortcomings and grow. Think about it: If we went into everything with complete confidence all the time, we would never have opportunities to learn in areas where we may be lacking or come up with innovative solutions and uses for tech in our industry.
Often we feel so alienated from others in our struggles that we forget that others have or are experiencing something similar. When we speak to our feelings and give them a voice and name, we often find we are not alone — engaging with and talking to someone you trust, like a mentor, friend, or colleague, can help you overcome self-doubt.
Julius Solaris agrees that support for planners is critical and is needed on an organizational level: "Event professionals need senior management support now more than ever to feel confident to deliver engaging programs. They also need mental health support to feel empowered with their new role."
However, if you find that your life is being severely affected by imposter syndrome, or you suspect there may be underlying conditions, seek support from a qualified health professional. It is time to end the stigmatism around mental health and wellbeing.
“Shame dies when stories are told in safe spaces.”
Event professionals are under enormous pressure at present. Coupled with the effects of imposter syndrome and self-doubt, the current challenges may feel insurmountable. By becoming aware of what this means and working with it instead of against it, we can begin to heal and grow.