I honestly can’t tell you how many times I tried to write this post in the past. I would start it, put it down, and then never finish it. Impostor syndrome is something that’s kind of hard to verbalize, much less write about. It is so much a feeling more than it is something you can see, and I often find myself feeling crazy if I even try to write about it. Even so, I think this is something that’s important to talk about, so here we go.
So…what is impostor syndrome?
Impostor syndrome, for those of you that don’t know, is “a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.” It was first coined as a saying in a 1978 article on high-achieving women. The article states that the high-achieving women they surveyed constantly felt like they were “lucky” or undeserving, despite all of the external praise that they received for their work. Sound familiar? If so, you’ve probably experienced some form of impostor syndrome in your life.
Feeling like an impostor in my life
For me, the strongest memory of this feeling came from my first real engineering internship. At the time I received my offer, I was just a sophomore, and the offer was for my dream company in a manufacturing role, an industry I didn’t have any formal training in. Part of me really felt like they made a mistake in hiring me. Like, a mixed-up-my-name-with-someone-who-is-more-qualified mistake, and I was just lucky that I got hired. I hoped that actually being at the job would make me feel more confident, but joining an all-male team as a 19-year-old female did not, in fact, help very much. I was still constantly worried that someone would realize I didn’t actually belong there and ask me to leave immediately.
Looking back, I know I actually did deserve the job. The interview process for my company is rigorous, and I passed all of the interviews. Once I got the job, I worked really hard, I learned a lot, and I delivered results. That single internship ended up opening the doors for the full-time job I have today, and they wouldn’t have hired me two more times if I didn’t belong there.
With time and effort, a lot of the impostor-syndrome-y feelings went away. But truthfully, some days I still feel like a fraud. It’s a little voice in my head telling me that I don’t belong, even at my full-time job.
Dealing with impostor syndrome
The difference between now and sophomore-year-Kat is that I have a better idea of how to deal with impostor syndrome. I’m not a psychologist, so I can’t tell you the root cause of these issues or how to fully solve them. BUT, I can share some things that I do in my day to day life to quiet that little voice inside my head.
1. Call it what it is.
The first step to solving any problem is…realizing you have a problem. Recognize your impostor thoughts when they appear, rather than writing them off as valid. This is an exercise that I practice a lot now as a new engineer, way more than I like to admit.
I often catch myself diminishing my accomplishments to something “anyone” can do, or writing it off as something I didn’t complete by myself. It’s tough to break out of this mindset (it is for me, at least), but I try to refocus on the things I did. I may have “talked the ear” off my recruiter at a career fair to get an interview, but I spent the entire night before preparing my elevator speech and studying the company. Sure, I asked for help to complete something, but I know I did the task to my fullest ability, and I was able to recognize when I needed to take it to the next level.
Reframing the situation in this way helps to reaffirm that it wasn’t resolved based on a stroke of luck. I put in the time, and I made it happen, one way or another.
2. Find people who support you, personally and professionally
This point isn’t about constant validation. This is about surrounding yourself with people that believe in you, and aren’t afraid to call you on your BS.
For me, impostor syndrome can often manifest in overthinking every decision or comment I make (which is SO annoying!). I’m so thankful to have friends, family, and co-workers in my life that I can use as a sounding board. Not only will they tell me when I’m underestimating my abilities, but I can trust their opinion because they will also tell me when I need to put in that little bit of extra work. I can’t tell you how impactful this is on my confidence and decision making! I highly recommend seeking out these kinds of people, because they are truly invaluable.
3. Know you’re not alone
Finally, it’s important to remember that impostor syndrome isn’t happening to just you! If you are feeling particularly alone, I highly recommend reaching out to a mentor or peer you’re comfortable with and opening up about your experience. According to the odds, there’s a high chance your trusted mentor has gone through something similar. This article by NBC states that approximately 70% of Americans have experienced impostor syndrome.
I was experiencing a bit of impostor syndrome while writing my self-evaluation earlier this year, and I coincidentally received an email from a successful female engineer with an article about impostor syndrome the same day. It really resonated with me, and it was comforting to know that even someone I look up to walked through the same experience as me and was able to emerge on the other side successful.
Although this was a little tough to write, I’m so glad I did. Impostor syndrome can be difficult to talk about, but doing the research for this post has definitely made me feel less alone. I am not an expert at dealing with this, but I’m hopeful that this is just the beginning of my journey to becoming the confident engineer I know I can be, and I also hope sharing my experience has helped you in some small way, too.