Impostor syndrome creeps up on you. It creeps slowly enough that you don’t even notice it until you start to feel ill. It starts in your stomach — dead center — and makes you feel hollow inside. If only that symptom would clue you into what’s going on, giving you some warning so you could call out to your friends, mentors or partners and ask for help. The thing is, it doesn’t. And you don’t.
From there, it immediately spreads to your mind. Your begin thinking about every one of your failures, your weaknesses, your shortcomings. You’ll remember something you added to a conversation and hate yourself for it. Or you’ll start to worry that the way you asked one of your colleagues a question came off as too overbearing — or worse, angry. You still will not quite understand what is happening to you because hey, beating yourself up about everything is pretty normal, right?
If, and only if, you are lucky enough to have someone ask you how you are doing and you trust them enough (and you have time) to tell them and they recognize the symptoms will you finally be able to name what’s happening to you. I’ve put together a bit of pseudocode to help visualize this situation:
while emotion in [“anxiety”, “fear”, “frustration”, “despair”, “spiral of despair”]:
if (someone asks you how you are doing):
if (you trust them):
if (you have time to talk about it):
if (they have experience with impostor syndrome):
// They will name the syndrome
My Impostor Syndrome Story
It all started one morning while I was sitting in the Mother’s Room at work pumping. I received this text from a friend and early supporter of PDX Women in Tech:
My initial reaction: oh, I’ll never get selected.
Two weeks later I received this:
Ok, so I was “selected.” This is probably some scammy thing that costs $25 to attend anyway. So I go to the website to get a closer look.
No way, Michelle Obama, Oprah and someone who looks like Adele without makeup?!?
Ok, it is a legitimate event. The thing is, the event is in three weeks. I have a seven month old that I still nurse and it would be too hard to carry my breast pump with me. Plus, leaving the kids for three days would be a lot. Just for fun I ask my mother-in-law — and primary child care provider — what her availability is, totally expecting that she already has plans for the summit dates.
Me: “I’m thinking about going to DC for a couple of days.”
Mother-in-law: “What days?”
Me: “June 12–15”
Dang, that was easy.
Still, I figured there was no way I could get the time off work and worried my husband would feel like I was leaving him with the kids on short notice. Just two more mental roadblocks I put up. Happily, my husband didn’t hesitate to encourage me to jump at this opportunity and my boss offered to not only let me go, but to cover the airfare!
Ok, so I arrived, despite all the mental blocks. I spent the first full day milling around DC, because hey, I’d never been. With no kids with me, it was incredibly easy to walk around all the monuments. While the silence was relaxing, it allowed for all the fear, anxiety, frustration and despair to set in. Should I actually be here? What am I doing for gender equality anyway? Do people really get value out of PDX Women in Tech? What if everyone is just telling me they are finding value in it? I’m not very articulate: what if someone at the Summit asks me a question and I don’t answer it intelligently? What if everyone else’s contributions are so much bigger than mine? After all, I’m only from Portland, not DC, New York or San Francisco!
That night, I called a friend I’ve known since college. It was a previously scheduled call to simply catch up since I’d have alone time.
Me: (recounting everything mentioned above)
Friend: “It sounds like you are dealing with impostor syndrome — in spades.”
Friend: “Do you think that all the people telling you how great you and your organization are fancy themselves as liars? Particularly the person who nominated you?”
Me: “I guess not.” (Finally understanding why I had this horrible feeling that I didn’t deserve any of the support I’d received to attend this event.)
After weeks of dealing with Impostor Syndrome, almost talking myself out of attending this amazing event, and finally getting to the summit, here’s what happened.
There were 5000 attendees and amazing speakers including President Obama, Michelle Obama, Joe Biden, Oprah, Kerry Washington, Sophia Bush, Amy Poehler, Valerie Jarrett, Patricia Arquette, Nancy Pelosi and Loretta Lynch. The breakout sessions covered an important range of topics that included economic empowerment, health and wellness, educational opportunity, violence against women, entrepreneurship, innovation and leadership plus civic engagement. I met brilliant women making changes in their communities.
It was a tremendous honor to be nominated and invited to the United State of Women Summit. I have never felt so empowered and encouraged to change the world by teaching, leading and speaking out. I returned home with a strong sense of duty to my children and my community. Here’s what I’m planning to do:
For my children, I will do everything I can to ensure they:
- Know they can be whatever they want
- Know they are in control of their bodies
- Show caring and compassion for all people
- Know their history and try to understand others’
- Respect and contribute to what it takes to manage a home
For my PDXWIT community:
- I will introduce a “History Spotlight” at every monthly event because we can never become complacent and to avoid this, we must know what it took to get us here
- I will do everything I can to empower women in tech and encourage women to join and stay in tech careers
“When women succeed, America succeeds.” — President Obama