Recently I contributed to an article which appears in the October 2010 issue of SHE magazine, looking at “Contender Syndrome”. This is a new trend in women, which is characterised by some of these behaviours or feelings:
– constantly defining yourself by what you’re not, and focusing on what you haven’t achieved,
– getting depressed by the plethora of amazing deeds everyone else seems to be doing, rather than appreciating your own successes. (Apparently this is exacerbated by Facebook and social networking sites filled with everyone else’s amazing achievements).
– dreaming of your big break, when the job, man, family dream all comes together (e.g. the perfect life other people have) rather than seeing how fantastic your life already is.
I found this very interesting, and was amazed at the degree to which I could empathise with the feelings above and, dare I say it, identify times when I could probably have been considered to be “suffering” from Contender Syndrome myself.
I think my feelings of Contender Syndrome started at University – having gained a place at Oxford, I felt an immense amount of pressure to make the most of that opportunity, and “deliver the goods”. My overall experience of University was not particularly positive, and I think this was due in no small part to constantly comparing myself and my achievements to those around me – exacerbated by the fact that I was at an all women’s college, so was surrounded by high flying women with whom to compare myself!!!
I had a couple of very non-directional years after Uni, unable to commit myself to a career path, knowing the sorts of jobs that many of my friends had taken in accountancy, PR, marketing etc weren’t for me yet feeling bad and inadequate as I saw them land high salary contracts. I finally decided to train as a teacher.
To be honest, the “Contender Syndrome” continued strongly as I fought to work my way up to a position as Head of Department in a successful London comprehensive school. I felt I was being pushed by some “inner conditioning” / “inner voice” constantly telling me that I SHOULD be going for promotion, SHOULD be moving up the career ladder, SHOULD be doing as well as or better than colleagues who hadn’t been to Oxford! I also felt a compulsion to reach a certain (high) point in my career before even considering marriage / children in order to prove to “society” that I was a serious career woman.
I believe that a lot of my unhappiness stemmed from expectations – not necessarily REAL, but certainly PERCEIVED by me. Expectations as to what intelligent women should achieve, what constituted a successful career for a woman with an Oxford education, what “serious career women” looked and acted like, and high expectations of myself due to constantly comparing myself with my contemporaries. At the age of 33, having landed that elusive management job, I remember being overcome by a sense of wondering why on earth I had spent so long striving for this promotion, and a realisation that I didn’t really even want it. I actually left that Head of Department job after just a year, started a family whilst working part-time in a job with no pressures, and took the time to stand back and look at what I really wanted from life.
During my years as a stay-at-home Mum, the feelings of “Contender Syndrome” subsided, only to rear their head again when my children started school, and I again fell foul of those “expectations” that I should now re-enter the workforce. If anything it was worse then, because I felt GUILT at the fact that I had fallen so far behind many of my friends who didn’t get of the career ladder to have kids. I was looking at part-time teaching jobs to fit around school hours and holidays, whilst my best friends from Uni were on six-figure salaries in the City, or had landed fab jobs abroad and married high flying diplomats (TRUE!!!)
This was the point at which I decided to get myself a life coach. I had been through counselling at various points (most notaby at Uni, and when I left the Head of Department job) and it hadn’t worked for me. But coaching was about re-designing your future as opposed to analysing your past, so I thought it was worth a go. In brief, what my coach helped me to accept was that I didn’t need to VALIDATE myself against other people, I didn’t need to “keep up” or prove my worth to anyone. She helped me to actually accept and even like myself as I am, and to take life’s choices and opportunities as they came along, evaluate them in relation to my own life (not other people’s) and run with the ones that would make me HAPPY, as opposed to the ones that I felt I was expected to take!
The greatest testimony to how effective coaching was in helping me to overcome the feelings of inadequacy associated with “Contender Syndrome” is that I subsequently chose to train as a coach myself, and to specialise in helping women LIKE MYSELF, to ease up on themselves and appreciate themselves as they are, rather than comapring themselves to others and constantly looking for external validation of their worth.
I have a couple of pieces of advice for women suffering from “Contender Syndrome”. The most important is that they need to get off the treadmill / merry-go-round / ladder or whatever, and give themselves permission to take a break (doesn’t have to mean resigning your job like I did – a couple of days at a spa could be enough!). Think about the things in life that are TRULY making them happy, and the things they are doing because they think they SHOULD. (I hate the word SHOULD! I think many of us would be a LOT happier just by eliminating that word from our vocabulary!!!). Create a vision of what they would like in their lives – gather up a pile of pictures form magazines etc and stick them in a sort of collage so that you get a picture of all the things you REALLY want in your life (some material, some emotional etc). Then start replacing the stuff you do because you SHOULD with the stuff in your picture that you do because you WANT TO, and watch your happiness and fulfillment levels rise! Or get a life coach!
In sum, I think that women need to be wary of falling foul of societal pressure – Women have been made to feel that having fought do hard for “equality”, they are doing their sex a disservice if they don’t jump on every opportunity that comes their way. Women have been told that they can “have it all” – career, family, money, love, happiness – and feel a failure if they don’t achieve it all with bells on. We women MAY be able to HAVE this stuff, but we need to stop and consider do we really WANT it, and accept that there’s nothing wrong with us if we make different choices from those around us.