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My Struggle With Impostorism

| January 9, 2024

by Julie Szaj

Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Julie Szaj, Assistant Director, Organizational Change Management at Washington University in St. Louis. She is a current MOR program participant.  Julie may be reached at [email protected] or via LinkedIn.

When thinking back on our first 2-day MOR workshop (and full disclosure, looking frantically through the binder to remind me of all we covered), a couple of topics stood out to me. They gave me several “aha” moments and made me reflect on my role at WashU. The topics were imposterism and first impressions/presence.

Like many females in the world of IT, I am guilty of feeling like an imposter at times. For many reasons beyond the scope of the MOR workshop, I identify with two types of impostorism: perfectionism and expertise. I am a “Perfectionist” – meaning making a small mistake or only achieving 99% is not okay and seen as a failure to me – and an “Expert” – I think I should know everything. If I don’t, I have failed (yes, I even overachieve as an impostor).

I constantly put pressure on myself to accomplish all tasks perfectly. No. Matter. What. There is no room for errors or mistakes because if I make a mistake, what will others think of me? Will they see me as incompetent and as someone who was put into this role just because I am female and they needed to try to balance the male/female tally sheet? Will upper management regret their decision and second guess their decision to put me in this role in the first place? And, most importantly, do I understand that perfection isn’t realistic or even possible? Yes. I. do.

And what about the “Expert” portion of my imposterism? Well, it contributes to my self-imposed sense of perfectionism, that’s for sure! If I am in a situation where I will be presenting content, I immediately check to see who will be in the meeting. If there are members from the executive team, my level of expert imposterism will skyrocket! What if someone asks me a question, and I don’t know the answer? What will they think of me then? Won’t I immediately be downgraded as a leader at that point? Will others look at me and think, “Don’t bother asking Julie anything; she won’t know the answer?” You may be reading this and thinking, doesn’t Julie know that there is no way she can know everything? Well yes. Yes. I. do. But alas, I keep trying because I know perfection/expertise is just around the corner, and if my GPS weren’t broken, I would arrive in a slightly ahead-of-schedule timeframe.

I do acknowledge that feeling like an imposter is not sustainable, nor is it good for my mental health, so I need to look for ways I can alleviate some of that self-inflicted pressure. I need to step back, focus, and shift my thinking from “You don’t belong here” to “I am successful in my job and deserve to have a seat at the table.” For this mindset to be successful (not perfect, just successful), I need to identify and implement strategies to help me achieve my goals.

So, what strategies does the MOR program suggest to help me conquer my feelings of imposterism? So glad you asked! I have several strategies in mind to get me started.

The first is checking my mindset and being honest with myself. I may not have all the skills/knowledge/information required to complete the task perfectly. (Wow, it was scary to type that!) And that is okay! Instead of getting stressed about it, I see it as a golden learning opportunity.

The second strategy is relying on who is in the room with me (well, not actually in the room with me because I work remotely). I will focus on asking for and looking for answers from others in the room because, quite honestly, there are a TON of smart people there.

The third strategy focuses on the fact that we are always “better together when leveraging the strengths and capabilities of others.” Again, there are a ton of smart people in the room with me or in any of my Teams channels who have excellent skills and strengths and are highly capable of doing whatever needs to be done. I. Just. Need. To. Let. Them.

The fourth strategy will be a tough one for me. I must drop the phrase “I am my own worst critic” from my lexicon. I need to flip that around, focus on the things that went well instead, and shift my self-talk from “I have to have all of the answers” to “I don’t need to have all the answers up front.” Brilliant and talented people are in the room who can help and are always willing to help when needed. I. Just. Need. To. Let. Them.

The other topic that stood out for me during our first in-person session that I have spent time reflecting on is asking myself what first impression (not only the first impression but an every-time-we-meet impression) I want to make as a female in IT. As a female in IT, I sometimes find it very challenging to find my niche in a leadership position. This is where the feelings of being an imposter rear their ugly heads the most. I am constantly wondering how I present myself to others. Did I speak up when I should have? Did I sound “professional” in my tone and words? Did I come across as confident? But not too sure, as that can lead others to think that I am being condescending. Did I ensure my feedback was respectful, well thought out, and timely, or did it come across like I am a know-it-all or have a bulldozer effect?

I want my first/lasting impression to be that of a confident, strong, intelligent, competent, and self-assured woman/leader. Still, I know these exact traits may be seen as demanding, cocky, intimidating, or even a word that rhymes with “hitch” (yes, I went there). Like it or not – and I do not – there are double standards in the world of IT for males and females.

The solution? I need to focus on “presence” – how I show up. As The Power of Presence states, “Presence is what you generate every time you show up. It combines your physical characteristics, the energy you generate, the attitude you demonstrate, and how you conduct yourself.” This includes being mindful, intentional, authentic, credible, and engaging others. The tricky part for me is navigating all of this in a space where I am in an underrepresented group.

As an institution, we have room to grow in allowing females (really anyone in underrepresented groups) to show up at work fully present and to be their authentic selves. We tend to get too comfortable with like-mindedness instead of valuing the plethora of perspectives in our teams. We tend to ask others to fit into the mold we have created and question, or even underappreciate, the uniqueness of who we are as individuals. Both things, alone or simultaneously, prohibit us from being fully present.

So, what can I do, specifically? I will start with myself. I will lead by example and bring my authentic self to work to establish a climate of positive presence, thus opening the door to allow others to do the same. As a leader, I will ensure I engender a work environment that empowers everyone to bring their authentic selves to work to create the first/lasting impression they would like. I will also commit to learning more about building a community of inclusion and belonging. Hence, our first impression as an organization is one where people want to work, participate, and flourish.

(Note: If you are looking for a great video to remind yourself of the importance of presence, check out How to build (and rebuild) trust. The whole video is excellent. The portion on authenticity is from 9:12 – 12:07.)

Last week we asked about commitments and goals for the new year.  We also asked the same question this time last year.  Here is a year-to-year comparison:

Goal Type2023    2024
I set a technical goal to develop in some way.14%16%
I set an adaptive goal to change something deeper.23%24%
I did both.19%23%
I didn’t set any resolutions.44%37%

There was a notable uptick in the proportion of us who set some form of goal this year compared to 2023.  For those of us who set a goal, we hope you find last Tuesday’s reading a helpful reference as you consider ways to achieve that resolution.  For those of us who set no resolutions, our reasons are varied.  Perhaps we already have other goals we’re working toward, have been too focused on the immediate, or have other ways of working toward what is important.  If you identify with the notions of impostorism from today’s reading, especially perfectionism and expertise, you might consider checking your goals with a trusted colleague to ensure they are realistic and push you without setting unreasonable expectations of yourself or others.