“Okay, now freeze the top header row. We’ll input data from Salesforce in the bottom of the sheet,” my co-worker instructed while motioning toward my laptop screen. The fluorescent overhead light illuminated a collage of filth: fingerprints, dust, particles of food, and other unidentifiable materials impeded our view. Why didn’t it look this disgusting while binge watching Netflix shows at home? God, why did I say that I was proficient in Excel on my resume?
Now she knows I’m not qualified for this. I sat frozen, not ready to admit to my new coworker that I didn’t know how to complete her simple request. Noticeably exasperated, she commandeered my computer and froze the top row for me. I was a fraud and she knew it.
I traded in my multiplication flash cards for professionally designed business cards two years ago, transitioning from a career as a teacher into the non-profit education sphere. I taught for four years and loved it. I was confident in my abilities as an educator; I had great relationships with my students and their families, and my kids’ academic growth from year to year was exponential. However, I wasn’t ready to commit to the classroom forever and wondered what else existed beyond the school boundaries for me. I took a job at an education technology nonprofit as a member of the marketing team, pushing myself completely out of my comfort zone. I immediately regretted my decision. Even the most basic office tasks felt foreign to me. I didn’t know how to schedule a Google calendar meeting, I didn’t understand the nuances of office relationships, and I wasn’t used to creating PowerPoint presentations that didn’t include engaging slide effects. I felt like Robert De Niro in The Intern—that older, slightly out-of-touch member of staff who is humored by others, but not fully valued or accepted.
“Shut up and get it together,” my friend advised ever-so-compassionately over a mid-day bowl of froyo. “You’re experiencing impostor syndrome. That’s all it is. You are qualified, or they wouldn’t have hired you. End of story.” She was right, and it turns out that I was in good company. Impostor syndrome was first informally diagnosed in the 1978 psychology paper “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention,” published by Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes who studied its symptoms in over 150 business women. Clance and Imes define sufferers as “believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise,” regardless of previous accomplishments. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, has admitted to feeling this way. So has Maya Angelou, along with countless other admirable women.
While women aren’t the only ones with feelings of insecurity and false deception in the workplace, we are far more likely to suffer from impostor syndrome than our male counterparts. As Ann Friedman of Pacific Standard writes in her article on the subject, “It’s not that women don’t want to succeed, it’s that, despite their education and experience, they’ve internalized messages about their lack of qualification. This is also true in the earliest stages of a professional career, when the difference between a polite rejection and a modest salary is mostly luck and connections, it can be hard to tell yourself that you earned this entry-level job and that you were qualified above and beyond all of those other applicants.”
I was committing a well-documented and studied form of self-sabotage. Despite all of my past accomplishments (that I rattled off so persuasively to land my new job), I simply couldn’t own up to the fact that I deserved this opportunity and could do well with it. It felt good to be able to name this behavior and call it out in myself; I already felt less isolated. “Research shows that one of the best things we can do is name impostorism,” notes Jessica Collett, associate professor of sociology at Notre Dame, “to give students the sense that what they are experiencing is more common than they believe.”
So my feelings had a name. That was progress, but it didn’t solve my day-to-day struggles with self-doubt stemming from my job. I had developed a habit of devaluing myself on a daily basis. I spoke less frequently at meetings, believing that I had nothing of value to contribute. I shied away from staff social events, unwilling to build relationships on false pretense. The anxiety and depression that permeated my 9-to-5 existence began to seep out and poison my personal relationships, too. My crumbling self-esteem needed major overhaul. A year after starting this new gig, I summoned the energy to renew my confidence in myself and in my career.
I took inventory of my past five years’ work experience, truly acknowledging my growth and accomplishments. This powerful exercise in self-reflection reminded me that I am a valuable contributor to my environment. Beyond that, though, I took the time to reconnect with myself on a deeper level. I meditated every morning and night. In the morning, I centered myself: I thought about who I am as a person, what I value, the love and support that I receive from others. At night, I reflected on the day: what went well, what could be done better next time. I made it a point not to blame myself for things or feel paralyzing guilt around small failures, but rather see them as learning opportunities. I challenged myself to speak up at least once in each meeting. As scary as it was at first, it helped, like taking baby steps into a deeper pool.
While I feel more confident in my career now, feelings of self-doubt still surface from time-to-time. Wondering if they’d ever truly go away, I went to my mother for advice. She’s an incredibly brilliant woman who has succeeded at every job she has ever taken. A couple of years ago, she transitioned from a career as an award-winning fifth grade teacher to a new position as her school’s literacy coach. “I had somebody who believed in me, and I believed in myself. That made it easy to try new things. However, reality set in afterwards,” she said, reflecting on the early days in her new position. “A lot of my colleagues thought I had an easier job since I left the classroom. They suddenly felt threatened by me—folks didn’t understand why I got it and they didn’t. It took time to prove myself to others; I had to recommit to believing in myself.” She offered some great advice to combat future feelings of insecurity, tried and true from her own experience with impostor syndrome. “Stay positive and keep running with it,” she offered. “Keep pursuing enriching education opportunities and experiences to grow personally and professionally.” My mom is right (as always). My career isn’t stagnant; my resume continues to expand as my skillset grows. There will always be things that I don’t know, and that’s okay. I’m allowing myself to fill the space rather than shrinking away, and I’m embracing the challenges as they come.