There are certain things in my life I’ll always be confident about: my retention of every state capital, my ability to tell Mary-Kate and Ashley apart with 100 percent accuracy, and my strongly held belief that “Legally Blonde 2” is a great movie.
Then there are the things I’m wrongly confident about, for instance, I cannot eat a whole foot-long sub in one sitting.
And, of course, there are things I have no confidence in – i.e., myself.
Imposter syndrome probably isn’t in the DSM-5 or whatever number that’s up to now, but it should be because it’s claiming victims left and right. You see an amazing job posting that you’re more than qualified for? Here comes imposter syndrome to strike down your dreams. You have a huge presentation coming up at work that you’re extremely prepared for? Not today, says imposter syndrome.
Imposter syndrome is what happens when capitalism and the patriarchy team up, as they often do, to create a demon spawn intent on bringing down bright, talented (mostly) women. I have been caught in its clutches for several years I would guess, but it’s been most noticeable to me this past year in particular.
I got a new job in early 2019 that is pretty different from anything I’ve ever done before. The learning curve was huge and it’s left me feeling less than confident. A couple months into the position, at a staff meeting, I made a comment about how I was “waiting to be found out” and exposed as a fraud and the room went quiet. Everyone looked at me like I was that creature in Hercules with a bunch of heads that just keep multiplying. My boss later sat me down and asked what I meant, and honestly, telling your boss you don’t think you’re good enough at your own job is a really weird thing to do, and yet, that’s exactly what I did.
Despite her reassuring me that I’d been doing a great job and that she wouldn’t have hired me if she didn’t think I was qualified, I didn’t believe her. I spent the summer basically demoting myself and putting the word “junior” in front of my title (I feel like every woman I’ve ever looked up to is shaking her head at me right now). I claimed I was joking, but inside I felt like such a fake. It felt safer for me to get out in front of it and address my inadequacies before my boss realized it for herself and fired me.
Sometime towards the end of the summer I was asked to lead a training for employees from surrounding states who were coming to visit. Cue the cartoon version of Lizzie McGuire doing a big gulp before screaming and running off-camera. There was no way in hello-operator-give-me-number-nine I could do this.
The day before the training, as I was anxiously preparing, one of the other managers came and sat down next to me, gave me her charming smile – and then sternly lashed into me. She informed me that under no circumstances was I allowed to say in my training that I was a junior so-and-so or make a self-deprecating joke about my qualifications. She didn’t tell me this because it’d be unprofessional of me to do that; she was telling me this because she cared about me and believed in me.
Do you know how hard it was to make it through that training without putting myself down? I almost said, “but I’m no expert at this,” so many times. Instead, though, I told my coworkers that while I was still somewhat new, I had learned the program I was teaching them about and that they’d be able to learn it, too. The more I talked, the more I realized I knew exactly what I was doing.
And that’s the story of how I beat imposter syndrome and began living every day as if I was a mediocre white guy in an ill-fitting suit. While one part of that sentence sounds nice (I wonder which), none of it is true. Yes, I’ve learned to trust myself and my abilities more, but I don’t expect that little voice in the back of my head that questions everything to just go away.
Sometimes imposter syndrome even pops up with things I know I’m good at. Recently someone asked what I do (which btw, can we retire this question?) and I clammed up. After a bit of stuttering, I mumbled that I’m a writer.
You see, I have no problem saying online that I’m a writer or writing it down as my occupation on a form. When I have to say it out loud, though, it just seems unreal. And as I write this, the word “unreal” is making me pause. It’s unreal in a good way. This is what I’ve wanted all my life – I’ve always dreamed of being a writer and now I am.
So, to all my fellow sufferers of imposter syndrome, I give you this challenge: Instead of saying landing your dream job is impossible, say it would be unreal. Imagine actually doing that job, being that boss, crushing all your dreams, and soak up how unreal it would feel – and then make it happen.
We got this.
Kate Gardner is a Portland-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Teen Vogue, SELF, and Bustle. You can follow her on Twitter @katevgardner.