Impostor Syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon, impostorism, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience) is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments or talents and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia
This week I’ve been mulling over the concept of being an impostor, whether in the work place or in our social media circles, and what that means for me. Tricia Hersey, the Nap Bishop (@thenapministry), tweeted about the misconceptions we have over the idea of being an impostor stating, “We are born and raised in violent and toxic systems from birth and then when we internalize this socialization after years of living under it, of course [we] are gonna feel inadequate and abused. [We] don’t need to accept the label of having Impostor Syndrome. It’s not [us].” As a Black woman, this realization hit me square in the chest. I’ve been feeling quite inadequate since starting a new position in a new field earlier this year. Even more-so in the past few weeks as I’ve hit little snags in understanding multiple new processes we’ve been undertaking. So hearing Hersey speak to these insecurities has really caused me to be introspective about the root of my Impostor Syndrome and how to navigate these feelings moving forward.
The awakening of my insecurities began Freshmen year of college. I didn’t even get a semester to breathe before failing my first Biology test ever during the second week of classes. Seeing as I was a Biology major, this hit me hard. I called home mortified and in tears, immediately asking if I could drop out and try again later. My parents laughed me off and told me there would be more tests and probably more failure but I just needed to push through because I was capable. I wanted to believe their words and take it to heart. Truly. And even though I finished on the Dean’s List that first semester, the following ones were all downhill for me—in the classroom and mentally.
I’ve spoken at length before about my depression and how it really seemed to kick into gear during my Sophomore year. The increased anxiety of keeping my grades up left me listless and unable to buckle down as much as I wanted to. Every bad grade was a reminder that I didn’t belong there. I wasn’t smart enough and I wasn’t good enough to be there. It’s important to note here that I attended a PWI—a predominantly white institute—with a lot of kids who had a leg up in life. Impostor Syndrome often comes as a result of being overlooked for a position that you are often qualified (or even overqualified) for but are not the right “fit” (re: race). My program was filled with over 400 students and yet, I was often one of five or six Black students in any of my classes. I studied just as hard; I went to tutoring sessions; I did make-up sessions, etc, etc. It all seemed to just add more stress to my life.
I knew based on my grades in labs, I understood the material enough to apply it. I just happened to be a horrible test taker once I got to college with the added help of my anxiety disorder. In addition, a lot of my professors prided themselves on multiple-multiple choice exams meaning more than one answer could be right. Not only that, they admitted to making their tests graduate level to “weed out” students they didn’t feel were worthy to go on to medical school or dental school (mind you—these were 200 level courses). It eroded my self-esteem and by the time I failed my first class, I had just about given up. I didn’t even care about my gpa anymore as long as I walked across the stage.
Once I graduated, these insecurities were far from fleeting; if anything, they rooted themselves deeper into my psyche as at the last minute, I pulled my medical school application and decided to pursue another career. I didn’t know what I wanted to do but I was depressed and my anxiety so crippling I couldn’t see myself wasting more money to potentially flunk out. So I took a post-graduate gap year (yeah, I just made that up), I moved back home and worked a minimum wage job and applied to positions in my field. I was desperate to find a path that would be just as ‘fulfilling’ as medical school would’ve been but I couldn’t get hired anywhere because most places required “experience” on top of a 4-year degree. After being told all my life that a degree would get me a career I loved, I felt scammed. I felt unworthy. I felt small.
That was 2015.
In the years that followed, I was a Middle Grades Science teacher, Call Center Representative, and Lab Technician—to name a few. I explored different paths and I found each place more debilitating than the last…until I found my current position. The way this position came together is what can only be described as an act of god (but I may save that story for another post). From the moment I interviewed, I knew I wanted the position but definitely didn’t feel qualified enough for it. In fact, my now manager, told me repeatedly that she didn’t think I’d like it and that I should explore other places more relative to my degree and lab experience. But I was working in a lab at the time and hated the environment so I was willing to take the risk because I didn’t really have anything to lose. With my combination of teaching and lab experience, my director was willing to hire me because she thought I could bring something to the table not having a traditional career path to get there. Never would I have imagined that the complex journey I had chosen would be the very reason I was seen.
As the pandemic has taken over most of my first year, we’ve had to pivot and adjust accordingly to how we conduct our business. It’s been challenging for us all but I’ve, of course, allowed my anxiety and that nagging Impostor Syndrome to run rampant. Every time I enter something incorrectly or I receive feedback that something needs to be fixed, I’m instantly back in that place where I’m on the chopping block and can’t ever measure up. Just this past week, I spent 3 hours trying to figure out something for another process I’d just been trained on the week before and my manager said, “Paradise….I just feel like you don’t like asking questions.” I couldn’t do anything but laugh because it’s so true! Although, she has constantly reminded me that she’s a resource and my coworkers are always willing to help, my Impostor Syndrome tells me, “I’m incompetent.” “I’m not qualified.” “I’m not supposed to be here.” Because I listened to that tiny voice, what could’ve taken me 30 minutes, took me 3 hours before I was willing to reach out.
If I’ve learned anything this week, it’s that I am more than qualified; I am more than competent; and I am more than able to take on any process thrown my way if I’m just willing and able to ask for help when I need it. That doesn’t mean I don’t belong where I am. It means I’m a student and I’m willing to learn and be taught even if I think I already know the best way. Sometimes, it’s not that we are unqualified, but that we may have just not been taught well. We weren’t given the right tools or we weren’t shown the right way. Instead of taking on the extra burden of feeling like we ought to know better, we need to adjust course and make sure we have everything we need to complete the task at hand. And sometimes, we just need to “phone a friend” to help make things clear for us. Whatever the case, we are not less than for not always having it together.
So in case you need to hear this today: You’re worthy. You belong. And you’re more than qualified. Don’t give up on your dreams!