A Change of Heart: How I Challenge Impostor Syndrome

Reader, if you're anything like me, you've doubted your skills. You've sat in meetings withholding insight and scribbling notes in the margins of your notepad. If you happen to be a woman or person of color or a Millennial like me, you've also come up against the doubts of others on a cultural level - and you might've even been instructed (like I was) to expect to work harder for a portion of your just due.

I've experienced crippling self-doubt so intense that for years I turned down amazing opportunities, neglected to advocate for myself or negotiate salaries and pay raises. I've also stayed in unhealthy workplace environments much longer than I should've because I didn't think that my propensities had value or that I had the ability to flourish on my own.

Now that I've tipped my hand, dear reader, let's get started. We have much to discuss!

Handle yourself with care. Impostor syndrome is a heavy burden. I think about the times I sabotaged myself by avoiding valuable interactions, by effectively countering people's intriguing offers with reasons why I wasn't the person they should consider, and yes - even by using the dismal results as proof of my lack of qualification. I found myself in that dark wood known as self-doubt...and I needed to find a better, kinder way to live.

I began by stating my self-defeatist thoughts out loud: "I'm afraid they'll find out that...""I don't have this qualification, so...""Do they know that..." - and then dared myself to finish the sentences...and give myself credit for the abilities and insight that I had. 

"I'm afraid they'll find out that... I'm the only person at the table without an advanced degree...but I have great insight as a member of the culture / demographic we're discussing."

"I don't have this qualification, so...I'm afraid they'll disregard my contribution...thank goodness I'm thoughtful and disciplined with great writing skills so my well-packaged insight will lay a solid foundation."

"Do they know that...I feel vulnerable and frightened...if they do, imagine how floored they'll be when I push through and still bring a valuable contribution to the table."

Handle yourself with care...by knowing that you can always add more to your sentence. It doesn't have to end with doubt.

Rayshauna's Personal Practice: Create an Excel sheet with the following columns: "What Impostor syndrome says", "What skill / ability it relates to", "What's in my arsenal that I can use to 'continue the sentence'?", "One actionable step to build confidence in this area." I suggest assessments every two weeks.

 

(Re)make your bones. The first, difficult step had been taken - now, I needed to build momentum...by forging a new connection to fear. Yes, fear.

IS forces us to associate negative circumstances with feeling out of our depth (or when we anticipate being out of our depth). I wanted to attack my intellectual IS head on, so I challenged myself (in an inoculative way) to sit in the front rows of academic spaces. It didn't matter if only professors and department heads were up front at the Wednesday afternoon lectures at Harvard's Barker Center (as long as there were no reserved seats), or if only scholars and authors were seated at the table during talks at the Massachusetts Historical Society. I made sure I was familiar with the rules of a space so I could respect them...and then I pushed myself to occupy a prominent seat. I refused to allow myself to shrink or hide. Others would join me up front and thank me for breaking the ice.

I became familiar with that knot in my stomach when I sat up front. I came to appreciate that shaky question I eeeeked out (after many silent rehearsals) during Q&A. Those responses to IS triggers soon morphed into hands raised with ease during introductions. They became heartfelt letters and emails to lecturers after presentations that blossomed into interviews. They became chats with some of the most well-known names in academic circles...and I became a person that showed up despite fear - a person that dared and pushed myself to occupy space with trepidation in tow. 

Rayshauna's Personal Practice: Continuing the first tip, check in with yourself every couple weeks. Download the apps of fantastic schools and check out the calendars of cultural institutions near you so you can RSVP for public events. If you're a photographer, offer to snap photos and provide them to the host. If you blog, offer to write up a guest post for the institution. Show up...and continue showing up. Remind yourself that while you may encounter the arrogant sort, it's not only important, but valuable to be earnest.

 

Contribute your verse. When I became intentional about kindness and grace as ways to combat IS, I realized that I didn't have to amass information so that I'd be able to speak from a place of authority. Many people ask me how they can be an expert at what they do (be it public speaking, networking, or writing) - and I always encourage them to speak from their vantage point instead of attempting to speak from a place of authority. No one has a monopoly on understanding...and it's a very quick trip from IS to arrogance that stems from a desperate, overcompensating need to combat it.

A friend of mine is a rapture-inducing, eloquent speaker that can opine his mouth off - and even he is bested by someone that can speak "into / to" a topic in a more precise way. I speak on IS as a Black Millennial woman from the south side of Chicago. There are both cultural and personal reasons behind the insecurities in my past, but when I came to understand the full weight of my insight as a person where those four identities meet...I also began to recognize my unparalleled value in a work culture that desperately needs it. 

Rayshauna's Personal Practice: Take note of the compliments you receive. Are you the person that makes people feel welcome when they enter a space? Are you very good at creating and maintaining meaningful connections? Can you sell ice cream to Chicagoans in winter...and make them pay premium prices? Start paying attention to the moments when people respond warmly and thank you for what you bring to the table. When people are playing the cards in their hand well, it commands the attention of the other players. 

Add a column to the right of your "actionable steps" to account for these kind words. Add another to the right of that one so you can share how that makes you feel. Say these out loud.

 

Be a linchpin. I moved to Cambridge from Chicago in 2009. I didn't know a soul and didn't have a ready-made pool of connections since I didn't have any religious affiliation and hadn't moved east for school. These last six years have been chock-full of lessons, hardship and wonderful moments. When people ask me when I chose to move, I can quickly conjure up the memory - 

I sat on the floor of my apartment in a northern Illinois suburb and chose Boston - because I knew how the transit system worked. I had popped around the country and had a gig at Emerson the year before, but hadn't put down roots. I came to Cambridge the next year desperate for ballast. I wanted to master myself. 

So, I volunteeredlearned to play my hand well, and created standards so I knew when it was time to leave. I also made a habit of supporting brilliant people speaking and creating from their vantage points.  I would rush headlong into freeing myself from impostor syndrome. And while that old self-doubt comes around from time to time, I can afford myself grace, remind myself that doing good work doesn't require that I know everything, and that I can encourage others along the way.

Rayshauna's Personal Practice: Internalize the positive feedback that others are offering you. Relish the opportunities you have to speak from your vantage point and assist others along the way. Remember that you've always been at the intersection of your identity and abilities. 

In short, keep continuing your sentence.

Thank you so much for reading. I hope you find your way (and stay) out of the wood. :)