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  • Chealsea Wierbonski

Who Let Her in Here? How I Reconciled Impostor Syndrome to Feel Like I Belong

I used to think that my dreaded case of impostor syndrome was unique. I thought that because of my background and upbringing–working class, born and raised in Appalachia, state university educated and a first generation college graduate, that this feeling like an impostor was yet another example that there was “something wrong with me”. After decades of working in STEM, with whom I would consider to be some of the most brilliant and over-achieving individuals I’ve ever met, I’ve found that EVERYONE experiences some form of impostor syndrome.

Impostor syndrome knows no boundaries– it can afflict anyone, regardless of gender, race, education level, socioeconomic status, and so on. It brings out in all of us a deep sense of lack– lack in deserving of any success we have.

There are certainly varying degrees of impostor syndrome, and the intersectionality of various social categorizations can intensify the experience for many individuals. To understand our own version of impostor syndrome, it’s important to understand the various ways in which our own social categorizations have shaped the lens through which we view ourselves and our place in the world.

My own road to reckoning with impostor syndrome was a long one. At first, I didn’t even understand what was happening inside of me, I just knew that I felt bad… really bad. I noticed that the degree to which I felt these “bad” feelings would fluctuate, depending on the circumstance and the types of people I was engaging with.

For example, when I was an individual contributor, interacting with a group of my peers at work, I was comfortable. But the minute I became a manager and part of a “leadership” team, these feelings of badness escalated out of control. I remember sitting in a meeting with some senior executives at a startup where I was working, and I noticed that I felt really uncomfortable, even fearful. I was hesitant to say anything and when I did, it came across as defensive. At the time, I didn’t understand what this was about.

I also had a habit of working really hard. I felt like I was constantly under a microscope, being scrutinized. I worried incessantly that I would mess up and people would think I was incapable of doing my job. I lived in constant fear of being fired. I felt like I had to prove myself over and over again. My work-life felt like a continuous, high intensity performance.

For a while, I wasn’t even aware of the thoughts that were going through my head in these situations, I just knew that if I didn’t stop and dig into what was going on, I wasn’t going to be able to sit at the table with these “leadership” people. When I took a step back and reflected on my feelings and the internal narrative I had playing 24x7, I was shocked at what I found.

I realized that I was certain that my opinion wasn’t as important as others, and that they didn’t care what I had to say. I was worried that they would think my insights and perceptions were stupid. I was worried that they’d figure out what I had known all along— that because I grew up in West Virginia, and didn’t have the sort of pedigree that many of these people had, I didn’t deserve to be here.

What I neglected to acknowledge was all of the hard work I’d done to make it here! All of the hours I spent learning about technology and computer science at my first internship when I had never touched a computer before.

I learned about network protocols and data packets and how to write technical manuals that explained to network engineers how to use our software to do their jobs. I learned how to use UNIX at a company where I wrote about CAD simulation software used by companies like Raytheon. Later, I learned how to become a product manager. I had some great mentors who gave me books to read and encouragement along the way and who obviously saw something in me that I didn’t.

I failed to acknowledge how far I’d come because in my mind, I was still a punk rocker, living in West Virginia with a D- in Pre-Algebra.

The reason I’m sharing all of this is because I want you to know that it doesn’t matter where you come from or what sort of history you have. The only thing that matters is the present. The present you and all of the beautiful work you’ve done to shape who you are today. The long road of perseverance, challenges, and hard work you’ve done to propel yourself forward. You did that, no one else!

At the beginning of this article, I mentioned that I’ve met all sorts of people who have impostor syndrome. Because of my background, I just assumed this horrible affliction impacted only those of us who come from less privileged backgrounds or underserved communities. But while working at one of the most successful technology companies in the world, which boasts about hiring “only the best of the best”, I can assure you that impostor syndrome is just as pronounced in this environment as any other I’ve experienced, possibly more so.

In this environment, many people have had every opportunity possible– private schools, Ivy League universities, test prep courses, tutors, family vacations to far away places, comfortable living, never having to worry about money, and so on and so on, yet they feel it too. Why?

Oftentimes it’s this very privilege that sets some people up for impostor syndrome later in life. When you have a supportive home life where academics are prioritized and you get the help you need, it can sometimes feel like certain academic successes come naturally or easy to you. Because of your support system, you are able to focus on school. If you struggle, you are able to get additional support. Meaning, that because of this perceived “ease” you come to believe that your successes are because of natural talent or intelligence, as opposed to hard work.

This type of experience can sometimes translate into a belief that some call the “natural genius”. A “natural genius” is someone who thinks that their success is only because of some innate intelligence or brilliance as opposed to focused work or skill development.

I would argue that in fact, these successes are not really coming easily in most cases, there is still hard work being put in. The key difference is that in this case, you have a support system in place that makes it feel easy because you have access to resources and all of the help that you need. The only thing you need to worry about is performing well since everything else is provided to you.

Then, when you go out into the professional world as a young adult and begin contending with the stresses of supporting yourself, working in an environment that is highly competitive, and are also possibly surrounded by others from similar backgrounds, all of your “specialness” can start to seem not so special any more. This can be incredibly overwhelming as you are forced to challenge yourself and reckon with the fact that success is no longer as easy as it once was.

Regardless of your background, your experiences, or your level of privilege, we all experience impostor syndrome for what I believe to be the same root cause–lack. Many of us who have a deep desire to achieve come from a lack mindset where we feel nothing is good enough, there is never enough, I need more, I must do better, because what I have and what I am right now is just not enough. After all, it’s that very feeling of “not enough” that drives us to excel and achieve.

Overcoming lack is not only the key to overcoming impostor syndrome, but is also an integral part of addressing many other parts of our life that may feel out of balance. This is a topic that I am very passionate about and will focus on in my next post. Until then, I’d like to leave you with some additional strategies for how I navigated my own impostor syndrome:

  1. Pay attention to how you feel. Self-awareness is the first step in any process of change. Before you can go in a new direction, you need to know where you’re starting from. In the case of feelings, this means taking a moment to acknowledge the situations in which you feel bad. Instead of trying to shrug off the feelings, sit with them. Notice them. Where are you feeling them, what are you feeling, and what are you telling yourself that is making you feel this way? If nothing comes to mind, take out a piece of paper or your phone and start writing. You’ll be surprised what spills out. Just start with something simple like, “today at work I felt bad”. Start describing the experience, trying to focus on the feelings and see where it takes you.

  2. Have compassion for yourself. A lot of reactions have to do with protection from some perceived fear. In the case of impostor syndrome, the fear is “I’m not good enough” or “I don’t belong here”. So the feeling of badness is usually a defense mechanism trying to protect you from this fear. What I usually do in this case is practice self-talk and say something like, “Thank you for trying to protect me, but I don’t need the protection any more. I’m ok in this moment; I can handle this”. One of the worst things you can do when you are already feeling bad is to judge or shame yourself, so it’s best to try to be a compassionate observer of your feelings, without judgment.

  3. Acknowledge your hard work. Once you notice how you feel, have compassion for the feeling and understand that you no longer need protection, it’s time to acknowledge the reality of all of your hard work that brought you to this point in time. Continuing the self-talk from above, I find it useful to say something like, “I’m just trying to protect myself, but the truth is, I don’t need protection from this situation. I’ve worked hard to get here and I am capable of doing it again”. This might feel uncomfortable at first, but just because something feels uncomfortable doesn’t mean you can’t do it! Growth is usually uncomfortable, but well worth the temporary discomfort when you finally get to the “other side”.

  4. Take off some pressure. Not everything needs to be perfect. This was a hard one for me at first. I finally got to the point where I realized that “my best” was not something that was consistent. For example, “my best” when everything in my life is going swimmingly is quite different from “my best” when I’m going through a difficult time, such as when I went through a divorce. Accepting this variability helps you to see that it’s ok to not be going full throttle at all times.

  5. Address your fear of failure. This one also took me a while. I used to be worried that if I failed people would judge me and think that I was incompetent. The truth is that we are our own worst critics. There has never been a perceived failure that is not also a learning experience. So if you view every experience as a way to learn, as opposed to a high-stakes competition, that fear starts to fade away.

  6. Change your mindset from Lack to Abundance. OK now we are getting into one of my favorite topics and one that deserves its own, separate post!

To find out more about moving from a place of lack to abundance, be sure to check out my next blog post where I will go into a lot more detail about this!


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