Do I really know as much as they think I know?
Maya Angelou, Michelle Obama, Tom Hanks, me - what do all these people have in common?
That feeling that says, “I’m a fake.” It is the impending fear that at any moment now, you will be found out as a fraud. For those who suffer Imposter Syndrome, this little gif hits close to home.
I remember the first time I gave a presentation at the PSU MacAdmins conference. The attendees are IT Admins I’ve known forever. They are my friends and my colleagues. I am in awe of the knowledge and talent of these folks. I was just thrilled they knew my name. I wanted to grow up to be like them and found myself wondering what to do to increase my visibility. Apparently I felt invisible. I wanted to be one of those speakers who get return audience members each year. But I felt so much less qualified than others. I felt that I had nothing new or life-changing to offer, that my knowledge would be deemed as just “meh”. In reality, I was just less experienced in presenting than they were.
Imposter syndrome is what happens in our heads when we are MORE than capable of doing the job but we have overriding self-doubt. Maybe we feel that what we have to say is something that is common knowledge. Or, conversely, that it is so unique as to be eye-rolling ridiculous. Whatever it is, we are “sure” someone will point us out as the fraud we think we are.
By the way, that session (Ageism in IT) was a spectacular success as were many more over the years. I even had some folks tell me they specifically chose my sessions. And, yet, while I did believe them, I continue to have Imposter Syndrome. Sigh. I am a work in progress.
We Are Not Alone
Roughly 70% (!) of all people experience Imposter Syndrome. Not surprisingly, that figure is higher for women and even higher again for women of color.
But what if you actually aren’t suited for the gig you’re doing. We often confuse this with imposter syndrome. However, in this case, the feeling isn’t fraudulence. Instead it’s more of a feeling of misplacement or misalignment with our guiding principles. Square peg != round hole. To be successful in this situation, we need to listen to our authentic self. This is quantifiable and, therefore, simpler (but maybe not easier) to solve.
It Might Not Be Imposter Syndrome
Same conference, different year: I partnered up with another woman to do a tech workshop. I knew I was stretching for this, but no woman had given a tech session there and I wanted to break the ice for others. We chose a topic I had learned about, but was day-to-day inexperienced. I could have (and should have) changed my mind. But I didn’t want to disappoint my colleague and I didn’t want to feel like a quitter. It’s like staying at the craps table one throw too long.
Y’know what happened? It was awful. I was unpracticed in the topic, I had terrible screenshots, I was unable to answer questions. Thankfully, my partner was a total rock star. She pretty much handled everything while I was trying not to collapse in a puddle of embarrassment. I should have stepped back early on. This was NOT my skillset.
BUT, the other sessions I was presenting were amazing...the topics were just right for me and, while I was pretty sure what I was saying was common (Imposter Syndrome), the reviews I received were spectacular and the comments said things like “opened my eyes” and “never thought of it that way” and “thank you.”
You Are Not Stuck
How do you fix being the square peg? You lean in and march on, right? Well, maybe that works for a bit. One thing that helps is being nice to ourselves. I don’t mean “buying expensive toys” kind of nice. I mean “talking yourself up” (maybe a superhero pose in the bathroom mirror!) kind of nice. I mean “treating yourself with the kind of love and acceptance you get from your dog/cat/best friend.” This means if you make a decision that isn’t right for you, change it. Yes, I said it. You can change your mind! You are not required to suffer! I give you permission to recognize you made a bad choice and to change your mind!
With Imposter Syndrome, however, simply changing your mind isn’t the solution. Changing your mindset is.
I recently sat in a meeting that talked about women’s journeys to success and the importance of allyship from the men in our circles. What we heard were stories of how women had to stand up and speak out in order to be taken seriously. They spoke about how women are often in a battle to be seen (women get passed over for input), to be heard (women get interrupted and talked over), and to be respected (compensation is roughly 80% of their male counterparts, women make up less than ½ of leadership opportunities). Panelists also talked about how others can help create change by challenging old behaviors.
After a lifetime of struggling to be seen and heard, it is no surprise that we suffer imposter syndrome more acutely - even though we are smart. And capable. And qualified. Is it any wonder that we internalize those outside influences and worry that, in spite of our excellence, we aren’t worthy or able? We must do better by encouraging others - especially women - and lifting them up.
Moving Past Imposter Syndrome
When we don’t know the answer, we go to Google, right? Sure, for most things that’s ok. But when we’re talking about our brains and our emotions, Google isn’t the expert we need. But Dr. Valerie Young, Ed.D., is the expert in the field of Imposter Syndrome. In her book Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to... lists the following tactics (with descriptions) for overcoming the problem:
- Break the silence.
- Separate feelings from fact.
- Recognize when you should feel fraudulent.
- Accentuate the positive.
- Develop a healthy response to failure and mistake making.
- Right the rules.
- Develop a new script.
- Visualize success.
- Reward yourself.
- Fake it ‘til you make it.
You might like her TED Talk - I know I do.
Most recently, I’ve been using a combination of #2 and #4...specifically here at JumpCloud. I am amazed that I’m working with such a great team and I regularly worry that they - or you, Readers - will find out that I can’t write, or that I don’t know tech. But, you see, I can write and I DO know tech. And I do both fairly well - I’m a storyteller, a thought leader, a champion for those less fortunate, and one doesn’t “do tech” for 25 years without knowing something. Those are the positives (#4). And, honestly, the fact is that I had 8 or 9 interviews PLUS a writing sample. If I wasn’t any good at this, these amazing people would not have hired me. I’ve seen the work that gets done here and I have yet to meet anyone who is less than incredibly capable and talented. Therefore, I must not be a fraud. Today I can say this...tomorrow the doubts may float back in. But that’s for tomorrow’s agenda. Today, I’m ok.