One woman's story about Impostor syndrome (IS) and how it affected her geek career.
I don't recall how I first came across the Wikipedia entry for Impostor Syndrome (IS). I do however clearly recall the massive lightbulb that went off and the feeling of finally having a name to describe this 'weirdness' I'd always felt. There were other identifiers for various kinds of weirdness I'd always possessed. Gifted kid. Asperger's Syndrome. A nameless combination of both with a variety of checklist characteristics.
IS was something else entirely. The more I read about it, the more I realised it was exactly why I'd felt so afraid and self conscious to further my career, to 'do more'. I'd say it pretty much ruined my career prospects and further debilitated me.
My love for computers began when I was nine. I'm almost forty now and from the time I got my first computer I knew I was going to work in that field. I eventually earned a bachelors degree in a computing discipline and I was set to make that my path in life. I felt my degree was a waste of time and I only scored highly in the subjects that interested me. I walked out of there being mostly self taught.
During my university studies I worked on the help desk in the campus computer labs. I was one of a few females and I soon earned a reputation for being both the friendliest and most knowledgeable. Students and academic staff would specially request I assist them. Strangely, I didn't take that as a compliment. I just believed they were mistaken, for the work I was doing was just standard help desk stuff. I felt uncomfortable that I was seen as the go-to person for technical problems. And I thought they were all just being nice because they felt guilty saying the nice friendly girl was actually quite clueless.
After graduating, I got a job as a junior network administrator. My employer wanted more females in the technical departments so I could not accept that I was hired for my technical skill, despite my supportive boss telling me how well I performed in the interview and how good I was in the job. Within a week, I was given more senior duties and earned the reputation for being the new go-to person. I found this stressful-- I had to prove myself not only as a new employee, but also as one who quickly gained the reputation for knowing my stuff and sharing that knowledge with others. My co-workers in the tech offices had a reputation for being a little abrupt so I told myself I was only the new go-to person because I was approachable and liked to help people.
I learned a lot during my time at this organisation and earned a good reputation with many of the clients who would specifically ask for me when they had technical enquiries. I wrote a lot of documentation so that our help desk staff could become a little more self sufficient as they were frustrated that they didn't have the knowledge to deal with some of the more technical queries. One day, they asked me to conduct a workshop to help them deal with the more difficult technical problems. I was hit with a feeling of dread and that I would be exposed as a charlatan. I gave the workshop and then I was asked a question I couldn't answer. In hindsight, it was no big deal, I just didn't have enough information to give a concrete answer. Back then though, I felt incredibly small and stupid and like everyone had just seen that I wasn't worthy of the praise they had given me for my good work.
By now I was looking after the servers and networks in a second-in-command capacity. The senior system administrator was my mentor and friend. He was extremely supportive and we once attended a conference together where I heard him telling delegates (some 'celebrities' in the FOSS world) that "she's my co-sysadmin and she's damn good at what she does". But instead of feeling proud, I had a complete 'weird moment' where I could not understand why he would say such a thing. I convinced myself he was only being nice and singing my praises because we were friends. I wanted to hide under the table in case I was about to be bombarded with technical questions.
After the conference I was head hunted by some well known names. I declined every offer (some were very attractive, even double the salary I was on). I remained convinced I had just bluffed my way through.
I eventually left the organisation to move overseas with my partner during the dot com boom. I found a job a few days after arriving. I'd been a nervous wreck since being called in for an interview. Interviews, like exams, are terrifying for me. Having to prove what I know, when I'm convinced I don't much creates these mental blanks where I can't seem to retrieve information that is ordinarily quite easy for me. I was hit with the feelings of "I made myself look too good on paper, I'm one of those lamers who puts crap on a CV but can't perform on the job, they'll see right through me". The people who interviewed me were friendly and down to earth so I relaxed a little. Then they pulled out a laptop so I could show them my stuff.
I don't think I've ever looked at a computer with such fear and nervousness before.
I don't recall the questions I was asked. Something about filesystems. I mostly remember my shaking hands and wanting to run before they found out I knew nothing after all. I tapped out a few things and the boss said "wow, how did you do that?" After I got the job he told me "I thought I was pretty good, looks like you'll be teaching the rest of us a few things!" This filled me with despair. This time I convinced myself I'd only been hired as the token office bimbo in a department of eight middle aged males. They'd all been in the telco industry for a very long time and although they were all nice to be around, I felt intimidated and like I was about to be caught out as the office bimbo after all. I thought it pure dumb luck that in the interview, I was asked questions about the few things I knew.
I resigned from this job a few months later. The company had merged with another company and the new company made it clear that although they would not terminate our contracts, their own technical staff would do our work until our six month contract period was up. We pretty much sat there doing nothing all day. In the first week, I didn't have a problem with getting paid a lot of money to check email and play around with powerful machines. Soon after, I hated going to work and the mental toll of sitting there with no work to do became too much.
I found another job right away where a friend was employed. I was part of a team of system and network administrators of a major ISP. Once again, I was the only female. This never bothered me, my co-workers soon became my friends but I told myself I'd only been hired because I was female and the manager had a daughter so naturally that must have made him more likely to hire a female.
The job was fairly easy and nothing really challenged me so I decided to move a couple of servers across to more powerful machines and switch from Solaris to Linux. By this time, another female had been hired but I found her to be quite competitive and not part of a 'sisterhood' I'd hoped for. At one point she commented negatively on how I was moving files across. I had felt it was the best way to do it, now I had been exposed as a lamer who had no clue what they were doing. I went home down in the dumps and vented to my partner (linux guru). He told me I had chosen the correct path and her suggestion was incorrect and could lead to certain problems, which he went on to describe. Although I knew he was correct and I had chosen the correct course of action, I felt humiliated as the comment had been made in front of the entire team. I also felt I could not speak up and say why I chose to do things this way and why I disagreed with her approach, because the males in the office would probably have done the cat-claws gesture with the accompanying mriaoww sound. This had happened before when I had commented on some female celebrities I didn't think highly of. I believed that any kind of polite professional disagreement would almost certainly have been interpreted as a 'bitch fight'. With that single comment, I believed everyone finally saw I had no idea and I was just relying on luck and a chatty demeanour to charm my way through.
Shortly after this incident, my senior co-worker and I had to do some work in the server room. His hands were full so he asked me to do the work at the console. I instantly felt that debilitating fear, the kind I'd probably feel if I was about to jump out of a plane for the first time. He was there, watching what I was doing and waiting for me to finish so he could start doing hardware stuff. He asked me a simple question and when I went to type in a command to get the answer, my mind went blank. I was thinking "oh my God he's going to see I can't do anything". He told me what command to use. Of course, it was one I'd use one hundred times in a day but in that moment I could not focus. I typed the command and parameters in but I made a typo, typing in a o instead of 0. My co-worker pointed it out after I'd hit enter. It was just a typo, a genuine mistake, experts do it all the time. In this case however, I felt that was it, I'm done for, he's seen I'm a total charlatan and rely too much on others to do the real work.
When my contract expired soon after, I was offered a permanent position. By now I was crippled with the fear of being exposed (and feeling like I had been exposed) and that now my co-worker had seen right through me. I couldn't bear to work with him anymore, let alone face him. My partner told me this was crap, that I'd managed all the on-call work fine on my own, that I was very good at what I did. All I could say was "you're only saying that to make me feel better".
My partner and I eventually moved back home and we freelanced for the same companies. Sometimes I'd pass on the more difficult questions to him, as he had far more experience in those areas than I did. He had no problem with and it was the right call. However for me, it was all more proof that I couldn't cut it in the real world, I was too hesitant to try things in case I stuffed up but more so because a stuff up show people I was rubbish.
I wrote some technical documentation for an area considered extremely difficult. I got lots of email thanking me and asking me to write more articles. Most of the comments were along the lines of "thank you so much, this is fantastic work and helped me understand it so much better. Please publish more". I couldn't bring myself to accept these kind words. My partner had proof read my docs and had made suggestions and minor corrections. When I published the articles I wanted to put his name as co-author. He refused, saying he hadn't done any of the work and that it should be my name only. Except to me, he had done the technical work by answering my questions, all I had done was the filler work.
It had been put to me that because of my good work documenting this area, I should give presentations and workshops. I thought this would good in helping me get over my fear of speaking to large groups. Then I started stressing over "what happens if someone asks a question I can't answer? They'll see I know nothing and I'm just parroting information". And so I withdrew from doing anything further. I'd had a child and now did not have the time to do computer stuff.
I won't ever get back in to the field again. IS has pretty much ruined that for me. Sure, there's cognitive behavioural therapy and positive affirmations I can chant every morning but I have different interests now where thankfully, IS has not made an appearance. My experience with IS has made me all the more determined not to succumb to it in a new life-career path. It doesn't, however, stop the feelings of having wasted my life, having never amounted to anything in the IT world, having never done anything worthwhile in my eyes. I feel like I spent my whole career just fluking it.
Interestingly, my sister believes she's a perfect IS candidate in her profession (not IT). Her stress shows itself physically, such as vomiting and stomach cramps the night before she has to conduct training or attend meetings, for fear of people showing her up to be a phoney. She too does not believe her accomplishments are anything much, despite being highly regarded by every colleague she has worked with.
For me personally, I do not believe my IS started when I was first employed or in male dominated fields. I never felt uncomfortable being the only female and I was fortunate to have people take me under their wing and act as mentors. Rather, this all started from a very young age. I was always different in school, targeted for being the smart kid and wondering how I came to be on this planet. My efforts to fit in, particularly in high school, were often met with ridicule by the more popular sets. So I dumbed myself down and tried to fake it through. It didn't work at school and I spent all my years there miserable and bored. The words fake, try-hard, phoney, bullshit artist were thrown in my direction when all I was trying to do was be like everyone else (until I decided that was a waste of time and effort).
There has been a lot of research conducted in to underachieving children of high intellect. More research is now being undertaken relating to gifted girls who do not receive the appropriate support in their schooling years. I have read about some negative outcomes of such girls and I believe I tick the boxes and the loss of my self esteem early on certainly set the stage for my future IS. Throw Asperger's in to the mix and you'll quickly see just how much more support these children need. Whilst I strongly believe that women need to be supported and encouraged in male dominated fields for example, for me I believe it crucial to go way back and support girls in early childhood. My school experience absolutely shaped who I became and this is a negative thing. It was not just the bullying for being the odd kid, it was also the way I was forced to learn. I was quite visual and school had a bad habit of stamping that out of me and forcing me to learn in a more auditory based way (although these days with technology being a common fixture in classrooms, there are more visual approaches). One of the characteristics of above-average intellect girls is perfectionism. This, and my resistance to appearing stupid, was something of a mental health issue when I failed to achieve the marks I knew I was capable of. In hindsight, the method of instruction was the cause as I could not retain nor regurgitate the information in the way school or university, and their exams, required. This was a blow to my confidence, I felt stupid and angry that here I was, a supposedly highly intelligent person and I was failing subjects or receiving crap results. This is where I began to believe that people thought I was much smarter than I really was. Eventually, it formed part of my IS and my belief that I was fooling people. Even today, I am too nervous to post questions to technical lists I'm on, and I ask my partner to proof read everything in case I sound like I have no clue.
One of the worst aspects of my IS is that I really feel I let down women in IT. That by giving in to this fear, I was disappointing a minority group I should have advocated for. The truth is I am very uncomfortable with being in the spotlight, I have always preferred to fly under the radar and I figured that other women were doing such a fine job raising awareness and I would look dumb in comparison. This again is due to a fear of being exposed, not necessarily as a charlatan, but having been bullied made me want to run from any possible situation where I would be in the limelight.
I guess some people would read a story like this and think I should have received some kind of therapy. Sure, if I'd known at the time what was going on I would have done something about it. I was in my mid 30s when I began to investigate my own history, after my child had been assessed as having 'very superior intellect' and also diagnosed with Asperger's.
Had support structures been in place when I was a kid, I'm sure my life would have turned out quite differently. I did have dreams to do amazing things in the IT world but I was crippled by IS. In my new found passion, I'm determined not to let it better me again.