You Can’t Die of Impostor Syndrome, Right?

Like a good old millennial I was Gchatting with a friend, a fellow old millennial, and asked, “Can a person die of imposter syndrome?” And yes, I did misspell “impostor” in that question.

I was met with a “hahahahahaha” and some emojis, along with a much needed pep talk. No, it didn’t end that feeling of panic that was making my shoulders ache and my throat tight. I still felt my stomach flipping and my face heating up. My particular flavor of Impostor Syndrome manifests physically, and is a strong mix of embarrassment, anxiety, shame, and excitement. I once asked Library Twitter if it ever goes away, and was met with a resounding NO from the women I idolize. It may change, but it never goes away.

I’ve been told to own my expertise, fake it ’til you make it, and remind myself that I belong here. I’ve tried to replicate the actions and approaches of colleagues and friends I greatly respect in hopes that I’ll manifest some of their confidence and air of authority. It’s not me. It feels false and a bit painful, honestly.

Articles and books abound to help women and people of color, my own intersection of identity, thrive despite impostor syndrome, deal with it, and even cure it. I’ve tried them all, but the feeling persists, and I am starting to wonder if it really is such a terrible thing.

I mentioned shame making its way into my Impostor Syndrome expression, and I think that shame is less related to “feeling like I’m not good enough” and more related to feeling the Impostor Syndrome. When I teach I try to encourage students to embrace confusion, ask questions, and generally feel ok not knowing answers to things. I need and want to do the same, but often feel as though there is no room for this kind of “novice culture” for women of color in the workplace. Our Western workplace culture tends to conflate vulnerability with weakness, a desire to learn with incompetence, and questioning with a lack of knowledge. So when self-doubt and “not knowing the answer that I feel like I should know” make their way into my brain, I feel weak, unworthy, and even more down.


My work brain chimes in with: You need to be more confident or no one will take you seriously.

But then I think back to some of the leaders and colleagues I’ve most admired, and what stands out is their ability to say, “Wow, I don’t know anything about that. How can I learn?” Or, “You know I am feeling a lot of self-doubt today and could use some encouragement.” They were/are strong enough to fully own and express those feelings and use them to grow as people. So maybe it’s not Impostor Syndrome that’s the problem, but the way that it is vilified. Yes, it’s important to not continuously drown in a pool of your own self-doubt and anxiety, but part of swimming out of that pool includes sharing those feelings and acknowledging that it’s ok to feel that way. It was so encouraging to hear expressions of “me too!” and “same here!” from my heroes online, and I want to do better about expressing those feelings, too. I want to stop worry about it impacting my professional image (whatever that means) and embrace the range of emotions I want all learners to feel. Feel your feelings, y’all.


Weaving It Together

Image from "Technology of textile design. Being a practical treatise on the construction and application of weaves for all textile fabrics, with minute reference to the latest inventions for weaving" by E.A. Posselt is in the public domain. Courtesy of the Internet Archive via Flickr.
Image from “Technology of textile design. Being a practical treatise on the construction and application of weaves for all textile fabrics, with minute reference to the latest inventions for weaving” by E.A. Posselt (1899) is in the public domain. Courtesy of the Internet Archive via Flickr.

I recently finished writing my narrative statement for my second year tenure review file. It felt like pulling teeth. The statement required me to weave together the aspects of my work as well as my research and service to tell a meaningful personal story about my professional purpose and goals. The other sections of the file–the description of accomplishments, presentations and publications, committee work, etc.–were a piece of cake by comparison. I’m not sure why the statement felt quite so difficult, but, boy, did it ever.

All my teeth-gnashing about my narrative statement made me think about a program I developed with colleagues this semester, a series of panel discussions that we called “From Concept to Creation: Uncovering the Making of Scholarly and Creative Accomplishments.” We developed this program in order to celebrate the work of our faculty and staff. Even more importantly, though, the idea for this series grew out of a desire to share stories within our campus community about how we engage in research and creative work. We wanted to host conversations about process, not just product. In sharing a behind-the-scenes look at their work, we were hoping panelists would reveal their steps and stages, but also the information literacy and digital literacy skills, habits, and attitudes that were important to each project. I was excited about the potential of this panel series because I think uncovering process is not just interesting, but empowering. And by increasing the transparency of their component parts, we hoped these kinds of research experiences might feel more approachable to our students.

In conversations with panelists as we prepared for the series, we offered guiding questions they might consider as they prepared their remarks like the following: How did you take your first steps?, How did you ask questions?, How did you identify a path for your research?, How did you engage with other scholars’ work on the topic to develop your own?, How did your work change course during the process?, What attitudes were important to your process?, What skills and tools were key to your process?, How did you gather/organize/analyze data?, How did you draw conclusions?, and What did you learn along the way?.

I had imagined panelists would likely select a particular publication or project and discuss some aspects of its development. Instead, most chose to talk about their undergraduate experiences and their entry into graduate work or their field. Panelists described choices they made, challenges they encountered, and how their paths changed over time. Embedded in each of their stories, too, were practices and perspectives related to information literacy that seemed to me to have been crucial to their process.

What strikes me most now, though, is how each panelist interpreted the program theme and the guiding questions and how they chose to tell the story of their work. When my collaborator and I asked our colleagues to talk about their research processes, I didn’t give much thought to how personal their stories might be. As I reflect on the difficulty I felt in drafting my narrative statement, I’m thinking about the balance I, too, was trying to strike. I’m thinking now about how we weave together process and purpose, personal and professional to help focus and understand our work.

How to Make it to Winter Break

It’s finally here: Finals Week. I’ve been reflecting on the emotional state of our students – I see a blend of exhaustion, procrastination, and shame that forms a vicious cycle in the last month of the semester. And although I’m not facing exams or major papers, I can relate. In fact, the general atmosphere of the library this time of year can make those emotions pretty infectious. Here’s how I’ve coped with the cycle of weariness and urgency in December.

Am I exhausted or burned out?

“Burnout” is a word I throw around, and sometimes I conflate actual burnout (chronic exposure to workplace stress) with ordinary fatigue. Kevin Harwell wrote an article called Burnout Strategies for Librarians that helped me understand the difference.

A key element of burnout is depersonalization, where you start to see your library patrons as “queries, questions, or cases, rather than people.” When students approach the desk and my first reaction is dread, that’s when I know it’s time to take a break and recharge. For me, this increased cynicism is the major symptom, but it’s not the only facet of burnout. The other two major pieces of burnout are overwhelming exhaustion and “a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.”

So if you’re dead-tired, you’ve started to see your daily responsibilities as irritating stressors, and you can’t remember why you signed up for all this in the first place – congratulations, you have something in common with students at finals week. But for students and librarians alike, there may be a remedy!

Of course the long-term remedy is to take meaningful breaks and adjust your workload. But it’s December; many of us just need a solution to get us to the winter break. These are the strategies I’ve use when I feel like my resources are all but used up. My recommendations come in the form of two mental exercises:

  1. List your accomplishments
  2. Practice compassion (for others and yourself)

List Your Accomplishments

I happened upon this exercise by accident, but I found it surprisingly meaningful. First, make a list of the things you’ve achieved this year. It can be as granular or as general as you’d like. I focused on professional accomplishments from 2018, but you could incorporate your personal achievements or progress you’ve made on creative or financial goals as well.

Then I found someone who was willing to hear me read off this list of accomplishments. Maybe you already have some kind of check-in with your supervisor at the end of the year, or maybe you can pull your best work friend aside for a few minutes while you toot your own horn. I read my list to my husband, and it was meaningful to share how much I’d learned in one year.

Creating a list of your accomplishments might offset how motivation seems to dry up in December. This exercise helped me say to myself, “I know you don’t feel motivated and you just wish it was Winter Break already. But look at all you did get done this year.” The burned-out feeling of inefficacy, the sense of diminished personal accomplishment, can be counterbalanced by an objective list of things you did indeed achieve.

While I haven’t assigned this exercise to any of my students, I’ve been able to informally remind them of the ways I’ve seen them grow over the semester. Being reminded of how far you’ve already come may be a useful jolt to help you cross the finish line.

Practice Compassion

Shame is a major emotion students are feeling this time of year. Shame prevents them from moving forward on projects, even as due dates draw perilously near. It discourages them from asking help. I’ve been thoughtful about how I contribute to an environment of shame, and how I can instead encourage self-compassion.

I’ve talked with faculty who believe that intense pressure can force better academic results from students. After all, if they’re just “lazy” and carelessly procrastinating all semester, then the “tough love” of a scary deadline could be an effective motivator. However, I’ve read some blogs and essays by educators who insist that a shaming approach is counterproductive. Instead, Leslie Bayers and Eileen Camfield call for “academic empathy”:

“Brené Brown offers a definition of shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love” (60). She observes that shame produces fear, risk-aversion, and the creation of a negative shame spiral. In Brown’s description, shame has no prosocial effects: “Researchers don’t find shame correlated with positive outcomes at all—there are no data to support that shame is a helpful compass for good behavior” (72)…shame not only hurts students but in fact also creates barriers to equitable teaching and learning.”

In fact, even the “lazy student” trope should be interrogated. Devon Price critiques the myth of the lazy student better than I can in this piece on Medium:

People love to blame procrastinators for their behavior. Putting off work sure looks lazy, to an untrained eye. Even the people who are actively doing the procrastinating can mistake their behavior for laziness. You’re supposed to be doing something, and you’re not doing it — that’s a moral failure right? That means you’re weak-willed, unmotivated, and lazy, doesn’t it?

For decades, psychological research has been able to explain procrastination as a functioning problem, not a consequence of laziness. When a person fails to begin a project that they care about, it’s typically due to either a) anxiety about their attempts not being “good enough” or b) confusion about what the first steps of the task are. Not laziness. In fact, procrastination is more likely when the task is meaningful and the individual cares about doing it well.

Most librarians react with compassion when we watch students ride the procrastination/shame spiral. But is it as easy for you to be compassionate to yourself? Shortly after graduating my therapist advised me to let go of the need to be perfect, to strive for personal excellence instead. (This is the grown-up version of “Just try your best.”)

So the message I want to communicate to my colleagues and my students this time of year is: be gentle with yourself. Shame makes us isolate ourselves and berate ourselves for not doing enough, but it’s counterproductive. Take your time. Take breaks. Ask for help. You got this.

Let It Go: A Non-Frozen Story

Editor’s Note: We welcome Hailley Fargo to the ACRLog team. Hailley is the Student Engagement & Outreach Librarian at Penn State University, University Park campus. Her research interests include peer-to-peer services in academic libraries, critical librarianship, digital and information literacy, outreach, and undergraduate research.

I’ve always had a hard time letting things go. I remember when I was in high school, I was the Student Council (Stuco) president. I got elected as a junior and ran for re-election as a senior. At the time, it was unheard of for someone to be the Stuco president twice. In those two years, I got a lot done, put a lot of things in place, and documented the heck out of what I did (I was using binders before Leslie Knope). I was proud of what we were able to accomplish and was so excited to see where my predecessor would take the group next.

When I came back from my first year in college, my younger brother (who was still in Stuco) filled me in on what had been happening. My predecessor hadn’t followed any of the documentation and took the organization in a completely different direction. I got physically worked up, annoyed and frustrated that all I had done was for nothing. My mom, who always had the right things to say, told me, “Hailley, you need to let this go. You did your best and you don’t have any control over what happens after you. And that’s okay.”

While I reluctantly agreed at the time, I still have a hard time letting projects go, especially the ones I invest a lot of time in. I’ve spent almost 10 years trying to be better at this skill, and I can’t say with full confidence I’ve got remarkably better. This story is all leading up to the fact that even though I had to give up projects when I left graduate school, I had this weird idea that projects in my professional life might be different. That I might be able to hold onto everything I created, organized, and ran.

Boy, I was in for a surprise. Just like high school student council and graduate school, priorities change. People change. Job descriptions evolve. You might spend months or years working on an idea or writing in niche and then, suddenly, you stop doing that. You change directions and move on. Sometimes you ask other folks to step in, to take it forward, other times the project ceases to exist, and sometimes you don’t get the choice and the project is given away. This task of letting projects go doesn’t stop just because you’re not in school anymore. And unlike the luxury of graduating (and therefore moving on to a new location), in your professional life, you might have to watch your project evolve right in front of your eyes. For someone who has a hard time letting things go, this can be tough (and a time suck).

With two years at Penn State under my belt, I’ve had to give up a few projects. My job position has changed, as well as some of my priorities for the job I’m currently in. I can’t say it has been the easiest process for me, but I’ve had good bosses to help me navigate this new terrain. In conversations with them, they have reminded me that when you give up a project, it should be able to be carried on without you. You want to have created a project that people can get fired up about, and have left the project in such a way that folks feel empowered to make it their own. I just have to stop letting my perfectionism get in the way of their work once I hand over the reins. I’ve also been lucky in the fact that I’ve had plenty on my plate, so giving up a project is tough, but does open the door for me to devote my time on something new.

Recently, I’ve felt myself go back into my old habit of getting all worked up about a project I’ve given up. In some deep reflection (and channeling my mom), I came to a realization about projects like these. At the end of the day, projects are just made up a bunch of ideas strung together. These ideas might be connected by a vision, by a context or history, or by a person with some serious spunk. Ideally you want a project that reflects, builds, connects, and responds to the context but ultimately you want a vision to drive those ideas forward. A vision you can pass on, a person, on the other hand, is a little harder to pass on. As I think about the leader I want to be, I need to make sure I’m creating projects that have a vision and don’t need me to be successful. I have to find ways to set up that framework, and trust my colleagues they can take the project where it needs to go. When I spin projects that way, it opens up the possibility of me using some of my best strengths — organization, documentation, and intentionality. So, in theory, it becomes a win-win for everyone? I sure hope so.

I also think what my mom was getting at was that I was spending too much time and energy worrying about a project I no longer have control over. Time and energy that could be spent in better ways, working on new projects, spending time with new people coming up with new ideas, and in general, not working myself up into a tizzy. There are only so many hours in the day to work on these projects. The more time I waste spinning my wheels, the fewer opportunities I get to do the work currently on my plate. It’s a lesson that I’ll still be learning today, tomorrow, and next year. But I’ll keep trying to just let it go.

Do you have a hard time letting go of projects you start? Do you have any good strategies for dealing with this sort of change? Comment on this blog post and let us know!   

Featured image by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Lesson: Culture is Hungry

Two weeks ago, I attended the Minnesota Institute for Early Career Librarians at the University of Minnesota. The Institute is a week-long program focusing upon academic librarians within their first three years of librarianship from diverse backgrounds. The main faculty are Kathryn Deiss and DeEtta Jones.

This week, I am writing my last post as a First Year Academic Experience blogger for ACRLog. I hope that my posts have been relatable and helpful for those of you in similar and dissimilar worlds. After working in multiple careers, I have learned is that some professional concepts are career-agnostic, and we can apply our career experiences to our personal lives and vice versa.

One of the biggest takeaways from the Institute was the following: Culture Eats Strategy (for breakfast, lunch, and dinner). When these words came out of DeEtta’s mouth, I had chills. The truth of this phrase rings true in our families, communities, work environments, and global society. No matter how we plan things, no matter what policies we create, no matter what the strategic plan may be, the culture of the environments we are in will drive what actually happens.

When I was little, my mom wrote daily to-do lists of chores for my brother and me over our summer breaks. We were old enough to stay home on our own but young enough to want to watch TV all day long. Every one of those summer days, around 3:30pm, we would scramble to look at the list and do as much as we could before my parents came home. I would frantically clean grains of rice or moong dal and cross off as much as I could on the list, hoping my mom wouldn’t notice that I gave a less than mediocre effort. My brother would vacuum the whole house haphazardly, hoping it looked cleaner than it did in the morning.  My mom came home, discovered our incomplete to-do list, and yelled at us about it every summer day.

I tell you this because it didn’t matter that the to-do list strategy existed. It didn’t matter that we made an average-ish effort. What mattered is that it was summer and we were kids and we wanted to watch TV and hang with friends. Culture ate strategy.

I see how, as libraries, we need policies and strategic plans. We need to have a direction and a way of doing things. I’m all for that. But the shroud of culture will always loom and outmaneuver the best of intentions. Nicky Andrews, who was in my ARL IRDW cohort, is an NCSU Fellow, and is a friend of mine, posted the following tweet during the Digital Pedagogy Lab this past week:

Tweet from Nicky Andrews @maraebrarian reads: “I wish we invested in emotional intelligence as much as we do artificial intelligence. #digped” – July 30, 2018
Tweet from Nicky Andrews @maraebrarian reads: “I wish we invested in emotional intelligence as much as we do artificial intelligence. #digped” – July 30, 2018

Her words go hand-in-hand with the implications of Culture Eats Strategy. A huge component of culture is emotional intelligence. It isn’t everything; however, it is a great place to start so we can become aware and improve upon ourselves and the larger culture. In a way, we can equate strategy with artificial intelligence. It may not be synonymous, but Nicky’s tweet reiterated to me that what we focus upon can take away from what makes the biggest difference.

Addressing culture in an organization, in a neighborhood, or in a family is not an easy task. But it is a necessary task for true forward progress and to address what is underneath the surface of the cultural iceberg.

A good friend of mine, Dr. Nazia Kazi, is an anthropology professor, and a few years ago she wrote an incredible status update on Facebook. It said, “The day I saw the video of the Walter Scott shooting was the same day a student spoke up about how unfeasible any type of reparations would be… ‘Where would we get the money from? How would we even decide who gets them? And if we pay reparations to black Americans, what about others America has wronged? It’s all just too complicated.’ Capitalism allows us to imagine – even desire – indoor ski resorts in Dubai, but makes something that would *begin* to address endemic racism seem ‘too complicated’. Where did we ‘get the money from’ when it was the banking industry or the war machine or the construction of a new prison? How have our young people already internalized such a treacherous script?”

The culture of capitalism, the culture of working in silos, the culture of hierarchy, and the culture of the larger organizations we serve, affect the work we do every day and can make it difficult to make an inch of progress. But that doesn’t make it unfeasible.

In the past year, I have learned how to conduct a systematic review, how to write effective learning outcomes, and how to check my voicemail. But, in the end, the most powerful lessons have nothing to do with my job. The most powerful lessons have been, and always will be, about the deeper ways we create and imagine, how we work with each other, questioning existing boundaries, and how to serve others with justice. And the bonus lesson is that I have extremely intelligent friends.