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 feminist brain screams: EVERYONE HAS FEELINGS AND NOT ACKNOWLEDGING THEM IS AN INSIDIOUS SIDE EFFECT OF THE PATRIARCHY. FEEL YOUR FEELINGS.
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.