Why even high flyers can feel like a fraud

At just 26, Poppy had a hit fashion line, a TV career and an A-list housemate. But like so many today, she was crippled by ‘Impostor Syndrome’. In a new book she explains: Why even high flyers can feel like a fraud

  • Poppy Jamie from Leamington Spa, moved to LA at 24, after a Jude Law incident
  • Interviewed celebs including Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz and George Clooney
  • Also opened a fashion accessories business with best friend Suki Waterhouse 
  • The 30-year-old became physically ill from burnout and Impostor Syndrome

The time was 5am and I was sure I was seriously ill. I lay in bed in my flat in Los Angeles, in pain and unable to move, my stomach so bloated I looked six months pregnant.

It felt as though I was wrapped in an iron blanket. As though my mind and body had both given up.

Several hours later, I took myself to hospital, not knowing where else to go or what to do.

I remember sobbing my heart out, convinced I had a terrible disease. The truth was more mundane and yet equally as life-changing.

Poppy Jamie, 30, (pictured) from Leamington Spa, who has interviewed celebrities and co-founded a fashion accessories business, vowed to change her life after becoming psychically ill while battling burnout and Impostor Syndrome

‘You have burnout,’ said the doctor, when a raft of medical tests came back negative. ‘Three quarters of the people I see have stress-related conditions. You need to rest, eat well and slow down.’

At the time, I barely believed him — the pain in my stomach had been so severe, I thought I was at death’s door. I was almost embarrassed by my diagnosis. Burnout? That wasn’t a real illness.

Now I know better. Stress releases the hormone cortisol, which causes inflammation and in chronic cases can cause bloating and pain (as well as being a risk factor for cancer and diabetes).

I had been stewing in cortisol for years and I recognised every side-effect in myself: weight gain (check); exhaustion (check); depression (yep); insomnia (what’s sleep?); infertility (no? Maybe? Cue hyperventilation).

The irony was, it looked like I was living the dream. Here I was, the girl from sleepy Leamington Spa, partying with my best friend and flatmate, movie star Suki Waterhouse, by night and rubbing shoulders with the Hollywood great and good as a fashion designer and social media talkshow host by day.

At 26, I had an Instagram feed full of filtered, curated images of glamorous me, living my #bestlife. Yes, it took 300-plus attempts to get the shot, using multiple angles and editing tools, but it didn’t matter. I was ‘A Success’.

Except, beneath it all, that was the last thing I was.

In reality, I was gripped by Impostor Syndrome — I thought of myself as a dislikeable fraud of a girl punching above her station. The way to make myself better, I thought, was to work harder and harder until people liked me and I was happy.

Poppy said she was fired six months after falling flat on her face during an incident involving movie star Jude Law. Pictured: Poppy, far left, and her best friend Suki Waterhouse at the launch of their Pop & Suki brand in LA, 2016

Secretly, I was an anxious, insecure wreck — but projecting the ‘I’ve got this’ life as though everything was just fine and effortless. The amount of faking terrified me.

Burnout, it seems to me now, was inevitable.

At 24, I moved to LA after an incident with the movie star Jude Law, which still haunts me online.

While I was studying politics at the London School of Economics, I’d talked my way into a job at ITN making the tea, which then turned into the occasional spot on air, interviewing actors.

When I got the chance to talk to Jude at the press junket for the film Anna Karenina, I couldn’t believe my luck. However, I was late and sweaty from running — so when I reached out to shake his hand, I stumbled, missed the interview chair and landed flat on my face on the floor at Jude’s feet.

My miniskirt rode up, exposing half my rear end to him and every other person in the room.

Caught on camera, my tumble quickly made it on to the internet. My bosses were livid at my lack of professionalism — while also secretly delighted that I was a mild online sensation, a sort of cut-price Bridget Jones.

I was fired six months later — not for that, but for getting caught on camera at a film premiere tucking into a chocolate fountain that I only learnt later was purely decorative. I had wondered why I was the only one.

Poppy (pictured) said she was about to return to England from LA, when she was given a gig on MTV International covering award shows and red-carpet events

My career in TV appeared to be over before it had begun, but I was sure LA would be different. Surely La La Land would meet my insatiable need for approval where London hadn’t?

For a secretly insecure person, Hollywood was just about the worst place on earth to pitch up. I emailed and pestered every casting director and producer I could find, yet I was always ‘not quite right for now’.

I felt like Goldilocks’s rejected bowls of porridge. I was either too nice, too enthusiastic, too English, too fat, too thin, too intellectual, too ditzy, too loud, too boring, and/or too unattractive. I was never ‘just right’.

Just as I was about to return to England with my tail between my legs, however, I got a break. A big one.

A woman I’d got chatting to on a train turned out to be high up at MTV, and I was given a gig on MTV International covering award shows and red-carpet events.

In quick succession, I interviewed Tom Cruise, Angelina Jolie, Cameron Diaz, George Clooney, Harry Styles and whoever else was big and starry in 2015 — and suddenly, other opportunities started opening up for me, too.

Poppy also landed a job as the host for Snapchat’s first-ever talk show, Pillow Talk With Poppy. Pictured: Poppy and Suki 

After a few months, I landed a job as the host for Snapchat’s first-ever talk show, Pillow Talk With Poppy, where I interviewed celebrities in my pyjamas on a set that looked like a bedroom from the 1980s after a bubblegum explosion.

I built an audience of millions with an on-screen persona that was relentlessly upbeat and happy — and wondered whether the teens watching me could tell I was a seething ball of anxiety beneath it all.

While I was hosting Pillow Talk, I was sharing a flat with Suki, who was shooting her first major movie. Our house was a tip; clothes everywhere and both of us too knackered to tidy it, but we giggled our way through the chaos.

We’d been introduced by friends a few years earlier at a party and it was love at first sight. She was like the sister I never had. Two Brits living in a foreign country, we moved in together and bonded over dancing, adventures and dressing up.

Before Suki headed off on night shoots, we’d make dinner, rehearsing her lines or dreaming about the future.

That’s how we started our fashion accessories business, Pop & Suki, in 2016. We were a big hit — our bags and jewellery were worn by Lady Gaga and Beyonce — but it was a full-time job to add to the other full-time jobs I had with MTV and Snapchat.

Poppy who grew up in Warwickshire, said she was never having more than five hours sleep while living the dream. Pictured: Poppy and Suki

Soon I was running around like a madwoman, driving myself so hard it hurt.

When I wasn’t working, I was partying. When I slept, it was never for more than five hours, then I’d get up at the crack of dawn to start working again.

I was living an objectively glossy, successful dream I’d spent every waking minute working to create — but all I could hear were my raging insecurities. My inner critic told me: ‘You’re totally unqualified. You’re ridiculous.’

Not for a moment did I feel the confidence anyone thought I had. Underneath the smiley face was someone stuck at war with her insecurities.

Looking back, with all my hard work I was copying my father.

My childhood in Warwickshire was loving but often unsettling, with an ominous threat of financial insecurity hanging over our family. Between us — my small business-owner father, my psychotherapist mother, my two brothers and me — we could have won an Olympic medal for worrying.

My older brother Thomas would stay awake at night, listening to my parents’ tense discussions about money through the floorboards. He would then repeat what he’d heard to my little brother Edward and me, making us think we were only days away from homelessness.

Poppy revealed her childhood fear of bankruptcy and looking fat stayed with her for 20 years. Pictured left to right: Poppy Jamie, Immy Waterhouse, Colin Firth and Suki Waterhouse

The idea that money was the route to feeling safe and loved became ingrained in me at a very early age. We all became micro-entrepreneurs by the age of ten, washing cars in the neighbourhood and setting up illegal sweet shops at school.

I learnt early on that work was painful and endless — if I wasn’t in pain, it meant I wasn’t working hard enough.

Getting good grades was equally vital. I would cry after bad ones and wouldn’t stop working until they improved.

And yes, it truly seemed like, growing up, I was the only average child in my class. Claire had the voice of an angel. Charlie had the coolest ponytail. Nick was great at swimming. Ellie was slim and gorgeous, while I was plain.

I had no obvious superpower to attract friends and was especially hopeless with boys. I had a sense that if I were just better, maybe people would like me.

My heart breaks for my younger self. At 12, I was worried about bankruptcy and about looking fat — two fears that stayed with me for 20 years.

Whenever I felt any pangs of insecurity, I would soothe myself by thinking, just wait until I’m happy and successful, then it will all go away. It took a breakdown to make me see how destructive that was. It was the workaholism and perfectionism that made me physically ill.

Poppy said it took her months to recover from burnout, as she didn’t have the energy to leave the flat. Pictured: Poppy and Suki

Lying in an LA hospital, gripped by shame and guilt, I vowed to change my life.

Burnout flattened me like a bulldozer and it took months to recover. I didn’t have the energy to leave the flat and had to keep lying down. None of my clothes fitted and my legs wobbled like those of a newborn pony. As I slowly came out of it, I enlisted the help of dozens of experts — many of whom feature on my mental health podcast, Not Perfect, and the Happy Not Perfect app and in my new book of the same name.

Over time, with their help and that of my therapist mum, I gradually got better and in the process devised a set of coping techniques and strategies that I now call The Flex (see box below). The Flex quite literally saved me. It challenged all my negative thoughts about myself and helped me to understand that life is about exploring grey areas rather than seeing the world in harsh black and white.

It’s about listening to our bodies and consciously choosing to step away from fear.

It’s a new, flexible way of thinking that rejects self-blame, anxiety, Impostor Syndrome and the disease to please.

For me, learning to reframe negative thoughts is an ongoing process. My personality hasn’t changed; I still love taking on challenges and making stuff happen. But I feel more in control of my emotions than ever before. Tense conversations don’t trigger panic and my relationships feel more relaxed.

Poppy (pictured) said understanding that anyone can suffer from Impostor Syndrome was a major Aha! moment 

Now 30, I can laugh at that Jude Law interview and understand that anyone can suffer from Impostor Syndrome.

Even at a dazzling Hollywood event such as the Vanity Fair Oscars party, where everyone is genuinely more beautiful than their pictures, I’ve seen A-listers anxiously circling, looking for someone to talk to.

I’ve seen them nervously readjusting their dresses and secretly checking their breath. They talk too loudly, too fast — just like me.

I’ve known many women who are conventionally stunning and make a good living on their appearance, and I’ve heard them say, ‘I look like s***.’

For me, realising this was a major Aha! moment. Contrary to what I’d thought, happiness doesn’t reside in external approval. It’s in the strength that arises from challenges, and the ability to value myself before needing others to.

Happiness can be as painful as it is joyous. It’s bittersweet; it pulls and prods; it’s up and down. And it doesn’t always include a big smile for the camera.

How to beat burnout with flexible thinking 

RELEASE YOUR FEARS

1. Many of us ignore scary, upsetting feelings and ‘power on through’. But emotions are not a nuisance — they are a sign that we’re alive.

Every time you feel something strongly, pay attention and relax into it. Try to locate it in the body — do you feel it in the gut or the chest, for example?

2. When you notice an unpleasant emotion or spiralling thought, ask questions. Is this thought true? Or am I being negative because that’s just what I do? Who would I be without this thought? Be curious about the patterns of thought you fall into and consider who you would be without them. The root of our suffering is usually within our thoughts.

3. When you think flexibly, you know you are always in the driver’s seat. You may not be able to choose what you’re going through, but you can always choose to be kind to yourself. You can choose whether to listen or to muzzle that inner voice telling you you’re an impostor.

4. Change requires effort — new neural pathways aren’t blazed overnight. Commit to flexible thinking in the long term and you’re well on the way to liberation from anxiety and self-doubt.

LET GO OF BEING A VICTIM

A victim mentality causes a stubborn belief that ‘bad things always happen to me’ and craves the sympathy it gets from others. I wasted years choosing to remain a victim — but if anyone had accused me of having a victim mentality, I’d have rejected it. FYI: defensiveness is another sign of a victim mentality.

Often it’s learnt in childhood. ‘Blaming others’ and ‘not being to blame’ kept us safe once, and our mind likes to repeat anything that achieves this. But if you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to learn. Victimhood is a state of arrested development. It’s far better to take responsibility, admit when we’re at fault and learn to let go of defensiveness, resentment and blame.

FLEXERCISE: RED BUTTON, GREEN BUTTON

This exercise is designed to help you overcome lingering resentment towards someone you are struggling to let off the hook. Imagine there’s a red button to your left and a green button to your right. Picture the person you resent.

If you press the red button, nothing will change and you will stay stuck with resentment, anger and pain for the rest of your life. If you press the green button, you can move forward without the offender’s influence, free from hurt and bitterness. Hit that button hard. Smash it. Feel the impact on your palm.

Hopefully, most of the time you’ll hit the green button — but on the rare occasion you want to hit red, accept that you are choosing to stay with anger and resentment this time. Make a conscious choice to hold on to past negativity or let go of it. We don’t control what happens but we can control how we choose to respond.

Adapted from Happy Not Perfect, by Poppy Jamie, published on June 10 by Hodder at £16.99. © Poppy Jamie 2021. To order a copy for £15.12 (offer valid to June 30, 2021; UK P&P free on orders over £20), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193.

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