Imposter Syndrome

stuart_smalleyAs happens around my house, a conversation with my husband about a weird dream I had turned into a deep conversation about "imposter syndrome".  I've suffered from this most of my life and am only now starting to have any real confidence in myself professionally.

Anyone who knows me has heard tales of the multiple jobs I've had throughout my life.  My standing joke well into my 30's was that I didn't know what I wanted to be when I grew up.  The saddest part is that I know exactly what I wanted to be, and I didn't have the courage to do it when I could.  So instead I drifted through life, jumping at new opportunities when they presented themselves.  I'm lucky to be white, female, intelligent, and well educated.  These advantages opened up a lot of doors for me over the years.

Most of my working life has been spent in corporate IT working with databases, reports, and data warehouses.  While I was pretty good at it and learned new concepts and technology very quickly, I always felt that imposter syndrome.  I didn't have a college degree where many of my peers did, and no formal education in computers.  I spent most of my years feeling deep down that someone was going to figure out I was an imposter, and I'd get fired and wouldn't be able to take care of my child.  There's a constant anxiety level to deal with that makes everything stressful.  I still cringe when I'm asked to step into my boss' office (or worse, my boss' boss' office).

Once I got my initial nursing degree and moved back into the medical field, I started feeling more comfortable.  The hardest job I ever loved (before nursing) was working as a Paramedic.  I didn't do it long enough to get seasoned, but I knew I was reasonably competent.  I had the same training and certifications as my peers, the only thing I lacked was experience.  Nursing felt like coming home, and again I found myself with the same license and (mostly) training as my peers.  My comfort must have shown because I can't count how many times people I worked with were shocked to find I was a new grad nurse.  I was told many times that I didn't comport myself as a new grad, and they had assumed I had been a nurse for many years.  Having worked for some two decades feeling like an imposter, that was incredibly affirming to me.  I loved nursing and was sad when I had to leave.

Moving into healthcare informatics, I knew I would have more computer experience than a huge majority of my peers.  What I didn't expect was several rounds with recruiters essentially telling me I had nothing to offer because my computer experience was then three years old.  I started feeling the anxiety of imposter syndrome again.  I had just started my master's program in informatics and wasn't far enough along to feel like it gave me any credibility.  I'm very lucky to have found my current position because I'm reassured on a daily basis by what I accomplish that I can do this job, and do it well.  It's a small slice of healthcare informatics to be sure, but I have no doubt now that I can walk into an informatics job at any level and rock it out.

Interestingly, I thought it would be getting my master's degree that would help me get over the imposter syndrome.  I thought it would give me the informatics specific training as well as fill in some of the formal computer science education I missed.  What I'm finding is that higher education is more of an endurance test than actually teaching anything.  The professors in my graduate classes say that their job isn't to teach us any information.  That as graduate students, what they are teaching and evaluating is our ability to research and learn from existing materials and then translate what we've learned.  Hell, I've been doing that since high school.  I can honestly say I'm not learning anything in my classes about how to do an informatics job.  The best I can say about my incredibly expensive graduate degree is that I'm being exposed to sources of information I didn't know were available in the form of books and peer journals.  I know how to read and extract information.

I don't think I'm over the imposter syndrome completely.  I'm not sure if this syndrome is a function of misogyny in professional life or our overall culture.  I'm not sure if it's just something that people face when they're good at a lot of things and just "pick things up" along the way.  It could even be a function of age, and now that I'm getting closer to 50 (cringe) I'm just growing out of it.  I'll leave those questions to the social scientists.  What I do know is that I'm not alone in it and that it's an anxiety construct and needs to be dismantled as such.

So to quote Stuart Smalley,

I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.

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