I have this picture hanging up in my office. When things get rough and my confidence gets shaky, I look at it and think, “I can do this. I believe in my inner unicorn.”
Can I let you in on a secret, I look at it a lot. I use to be more confident. Heck, during my undergrad I was a cocky, know-it-all engineering student. I had confidence to spare. I was awesome! At least I thought so. However, sometime in my thirties, self-doubt started creeping in. Maybe it was parenthood. Maybe it was grad school. It seemed like the older I got, the more I learned, and the more I started putting myself out there to share my knowledge and expertise, the more overwhelming my self-doubt became. Shortly after I successfully defended my dissertation, I kept waiting for that email saying that they made a mistake. I was not good enough to be called Dr. I had this ever present sense of dread that one day, no matter how hard I worked or how much I learned, someone was going to come bounding into my office and scream – “You fraud! You know nothing. You are an imposter!” Ugh! I felt like a horse at a fair wearing a fake horn trying to be something magical that I was obviously not. I was not a unicorn, I was just an imposter horse with a plastic horn and everybody knew it.
This feeling was amplified (and in my head verified) a few years later when someone said I was inexperienced and unqualified to do my job, and that my degrees (all three of them) were meaningless and empty. Ouch. Talk about hitting me where it hurt. There have been other times when outside voices have questioned my background, minimized my experiences, or criticized my performance. Don’t get me wrong, I welcome constructive criticism and suggestions for improvement. They are an important part of personal growth. However, these were not words that were said to help me improve and grow but rather to cut me down and make me feel inferior. For a while, I believed them. I let their voices amplify my own inner voice of self-doubt and self-criticism. Then I stopped and thought about it. Then I got angry. I started arguing with those voices and defending myself. And it felt good. I realized that this was not an external fight. Who really cares what others think about me, really. This was an internal fight.
I learned that what I was feeling is called Imposter Syndrome. (You can read more about it here.) According to the American Psychological Association, Imposter Syndrome was first described in the 1970s as the phenomenon found in high achievers who attribute their success to luck and not deserved. They fear that others will find them out as the fraud they are. Yep. That about sums it up. Now that I had a name for it, I could start doing something about it.
After a little bit more research and self-reflection, I decided that I fall into the Expert sub-type. (There are five sub-types.) People in this sub-type typically have that “Haha! I fooled you. I actually know nothing!” feeling. We tend to feel like we never know enough and will never be the expert people think we are. There was more I needed to know before I deserved success. My drive to always be learning was also my tool for self-sabotage. I felt that I wanted to learn more because I didn’t know enough. This paralyzed me. How could I think about advancing my career until I’m an expert? It’s true when they say that the more you know the more you realize what you don’t know. This is something the Expert types do. They use the drive for more knowledge as a procrastination tool and an excuse for not moving forward. Now that I see that, I have become much more comfortable stepping outside of my comfort zone and taking professional risks. I don’t need to know everything, I can learn as I go.
I will never be an expert. I can now say I am OK with that. No, I’m not just OK with that. I embrace that. I will always have more to learn. I will always have more to explore. That doesn’t make me unqualified for my job or unqualified to advance my career. It doesn’t make me an imposter, faking it through life. That no longer scares me or holds me back, it excites me! It makes me a perpetual learner. Which I think makes me an even better educator. I’ve heard teachers I work question themselves like I questioned myself. I’ve heard them grapple with some of the same self-doubts and paralyzing fear of failure because they don’t think they know enough to try a new tech tool or teaching strategy. I want to help teachers (and their students) be confident in what they know but also comfortable with being uncomfortable and not knowing all the answers. You can’t learn if you think you already know it all.
If you find yourself dealing with Imposter Syndrome, take some time to reflect on all you’ve done and how far you’ve come. Allow yourself to be proud of what you have accomplished. You earned it. Admit that you will always have things to learn and room to grow and that’s OK. You’ll learn them as you need them. Find a mentor to talk to. Read blogs or watch talks from others who have felt these feelings and overcome them. It helps put things in perspective. Here are a few that helped me.
- TED Talks for fighting Imposter Syndrome
- 9 Strategies That’ll Put the Breaks on Imposter Syndrome
- 21 Ways to Overcome Imposter Syndrome (Number 15 is my favorite!)
- The Secret Power of Generalists (This helped me see that I’m a generalist, not a specialist.)
I still struggle with those voices of self-doubt. There are still days when I think, “Yikes! I know nothing. I’m in over my head and everyone knows it.” However, I don’t let those feelings defeat me. I don’t let them make me feel like a horse with a plastic horn trying to be something I’m not. Instead, when those imposter feelings creep in and I start to feel like I don’t know what I’m doing I think, “I believe in myself. I’m a unicorn. No, I’m a badass unicorn and I’m ready to do this!”