Today I am confronted with two psychological phenomena that are different, yet essentially the same.
We had a new employee come into my department today. We have long awaited filling this position, and it will certainly make my life easier. Because her position and mine work closely together, it fell to me to show her how documentation is currently done and point her toward the policies that are in place.
The whole time I explained our processes and systems, all I could think was, “OMG, what if I don’t really know what I’m doing? What if she knows?”
This, my friends, is imposter syndrome at its finest: the feeling that you are completely making it up as you go along, have no clue what you are doing, and, worst of all, it’s only a matter of time until someone figures it out.
I know I have no reason to feel this way. I’ve been doing this job for years, and for this specific company. I know it inside and out because I worked hard to be a subject-matter expert. I have degrees. But… what if everything I think I know is wrong?
The internet tells me that this is often the result of an early childhood where emphasis was put on achievement. I suppose that’s pretty much of true. My parents weren’t focused on achievement in a “get all A’s or you are a failure” way, but when I started getting good grades and doing well in extra-curriculars, they really made a big deal out of my achievements. And that became part of my identity. I was the smart kid who was good at things (except sports – I’m a classical nerd, not one of these new-fangled smart kids who can also throw a ball).
It was easy, too, all the way through high school. Which made it difficult when college presented a challenge. Suddenly I had to work for my grades. It was hard. But… if I was smart like they always told me, it should be easy, right? So, what did that make me?
On the other hand, the second part of this is the feeling that I think of as the lost potential fallacy.
I have many days where I know I’m capable. I know I can do most (non-athletic) things if I work at them. So why, at 38, have I accomplished nothing with my life when Lin-Manual Miranda is younger than me and has produced frickin’ genius works of art and lent his name to real causes? What have I been doing all this time?
It’s not the first time I’ve felt this way. Or both ways, at the same time, which is a lot of ways to feel at once.
Both sensations speak to an insecurity that I’m not what I should be, and one essentially leads to the other – I should have been smart enough to know all these things, but I didn’t do what I know I could have done, therefore I don’t belong here.
In another way, though, it feels paradoxical. The lost potential fallacy tells me that I could do so much more because I’m very capable, but the imposter syndrome insists that the lost potential fallacy should shut its fat mouth because I’m not as smart as I think I am.
I’ve been struggling for years with this feeling of being not worthy in one way or another — feeling like I’m just falling through life and landing in places randomly based on some kind of dice roll, and convinced that I’m only managing to keep going because I’m somehow able to convince people, and even occasionally myself, that I know anything at all or have any skills to speak of. And worse, it shouldn’t be that way, because I’m better than that. But not really better. Just more capable. Right? Or at least better at faking it. Until someone finds out. (Nothing like an internal argument about what exactly your failing is to inspire self-esteem.)
I don’t go through this all the time, but when it hits I lose a lot of confidence.
I’ve been proud of myself, having spent the last year establishing to both myself and my professional sphere that I am indeed skilled, not because of some innate talent but because I work at it. I insisted that I have value, stood my ground, and pushed myself to see my accomplishments and continue developing. Those firsts two especially never been easy for me, though, and days like today don’t help.
This is why I procrastinate on starting my own business. I know I’m capable and knowledgeable in my field. It’s just that some days I’m terrified that I’m wrong.
I know I’m not the only person who’s gone through this. They wouldn’t have given imposter syndrome a name if it wasn’t a recognized thing. So, when you have a moment of self-doubt, here is a list of ways to talk yourself out of it.
Meanwhile, I’ll be over here listening to Hamilton and reminding myself that not everyone can be a lyrical genius, that what I do is important, and that, whether I believe it or not, I earned my way.