The Imposter in the Room

I was acutely and nervously aware of the irony of my situation at that moment. I was about to crash an exclusive seminar by passing myself off as “staff” using a defunct email address (which in all fairness, did at one time exist) to register for an event to which I was not at all invited. The seminar was actually a workshop about conquering Imposter Syndrome. Yes indeed, I was the literal imposter in the room, sneaking myself in to learn all I could about how to overcome feeling like an imposter.

How did I get here? Let’s back up. Some time ago I had read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, in which she describes feeling like an “imposter” in school and at work- a phenomenon where rather than taking pride in one’s achievements, she brushed them off as luck, and felt fearful that others would discover a “true” lack of talent or accomplishment. I was interested in this, mostly because her experience of putting the name “Imposter Syndrome” to her feelings, as outlined in her book, was mirrored uncannily in my own experience. The scenario she described was a scene from my own life, (if it was at UC Davis instead of Harvard and another honor society altogether) in which her mind is absolutely blown by a speaker at her Honor society’s initiation ceremony. I had to know more. From the book’s references I went and read the original research paper that described this phenomenon for the first time. More digging revealed a test (omg! a test!!) that would rank the severity of your imposter feelings on a 1-100 scale.

I was all about this: any number I could attach to my feelings made them measurable and therefore understandable, definable! I couldn’t ask for better validation. Like a dutiful researcher, I contacted the lead author of the paper asking for permission to reprint/cite her paper and test as source material for a discussion with other lady scientists I was slated to have the next week, thinking it would provide some good talking points.

Some weeks went by, and our discussion of imposter syndrome went well: consistent with the paper we read, all of us high-achieving women (save one) had experienced imposter feelings, and scored highly on the test. Reactions run the gamut from very surprised to a non-nonchalant shrug. My reaction was somewhere in between…I wasn’t surprised but I was still feeling quite shocked and at a loss at what to do.

Then, out of the blue, I receive a missed call at work. This is very unusual, everyone who wants to reach me never bothers and simply calls my cell phone. It was Dr. Pauline Rose Clance, author and discoverer of the Imposter Phenomenon, calling from Georgia. She knew I had requested to use her materials for a discussion with other women in STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering, and Math) and was following up with me, using the phone I list in my work email signature. Would you, she inquired, be willing to write about your experiences for my website and be a resource for other women in STEM? I was pretty shocked she wanted to put something I write on her website.

I couldn’t have been more intimidated, nervous, and starstruck all at the same time. Like the excited spazz that I am, I blurted out a yes- conveniently forgetting that I’m also planning a wedding and doing my PhD. And so, when I heard about an “invitation only” seminar about Imposter Syndrome at a nearby prestigious university, I had a fit of inspiration and decided to do everything I could to attend.

So here I was, feeling very off balance and doing everything I could to act like I belonged. In my mind’s eye, I could just slip in the back of the seminar and no one would notice me. However, as soon as I ascended the stairs I was greeted with a huge well-dressed crowd, mingling and enjoying a large display of catered treats: five kinds of mini-quiches, coffee, tea, juice, fruit plates, and every kind of cookie, cake and brownie imaginable. Ushers in matching suits (the school colors of course) with name tags waved guests to registration tables…where computers waited to take your name and institutional email.  I panicked, it didn’t say anything about registration on the event flier I had found! Also, somehow the title of the “seminar” had morphed into “workshop,” which to me implied a much more interactive session, meaning the chances I would be found out had drastically increased. But then, amidst the panic I felt a wave of calm descending, in which I calmly marched up to the computer and entered my information. If it rejected me, so be it! Miraculously, however…”Registration Accepted” appeared on the screen and I sort of stood there a little confused for a minute. The Usher kindly gestured me toward the food line and like a zombie I just trudged over and started grabbing whatever was in sight. I got in!

The “workshop” turned out to mean questions posed by the speaker and lots of raising of hands and audience participation. At one time there was even the formation of small groups for intimate activities, and I thought for sure my group-mates would discover the gaps in my personal experiences and realize I didn’t belong there. I played it all off, and everyone nodded in support of me, and asked to borrow my pens, and didn’t even seem the least bit suspicious. Once, an usher in the corner gave me a squinty-eyed serious look, and I thought for sure he would walk over and escort me out. As time went on, I was more comfortable, and I left still feeling nervous but also exhilarated and enlightened.

It was so worth it. I’m still waiting for the email “finding me out” and stating the consequences but so far nothing has arrived. And although it’s taken me several months to even begin composing something worthwhile about Imposter Syndrome, having an idea that I am not alone and not the only one at a loss at what to do sometimes, can make all the difference when deciding where to start. So although I literally had to turn into an imposter to learn how to cope with feeling like one, it somehow became an inspirational experience that ended with a sense of belonging.

I’m still composing something for Dr. Clance’s website, which will *hopefully* follow this post sometime soon.



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