Over the past year I’ve spent some serious time unpacking my battle with imposter syndrome. It wasn’t until this past week or so that I realized it’s a more recent struggle that I once thought. I never felt out of place in high school. Even when I was participating in activities I had no business signing up for. The *ahem* Miss Gaylord pageant. Hell, I was skateboarding and actively being called a poser and it didn’t faze me. In college I didn’t necessarily stretch beyond my capabilities so there was no issue there. I parlayed an internship into my first job so of course people expected me to be learning as I went along. Even when I landed my “dream” second job I thought, “of course I got this gig. I’m totally capable.”
The Lengthy Origin Story
It was a thought everyone I worked with confirmed with copious praise and additional responsibility. I had a boss I wanted to be when I grew up. A slight, blue-eyed brunette with perfectly manicured nails and a corporate director title before 30. She was smart, driven and knew exactly where she was headed. Up.
We worked well together from day one. Hungry to impress her, I went above and beyond to apply the varied skills I had acquired wearing multiple hats at my small-town agency. One of the most notable feats was creating a PowerPoint that transitioned slides like the pages of a book for the CEO’s town hall presentation (high tech!). She almost immediately recognized me as a talent, putting me in important meetings and pushing me to spearhead new efforts.
Then The Mistake happened. It felt like nothing at first. Identifying the wrong franchise location in a companywide update email. There were two franchise locations in one city with the exact same name save for the identifying neighborhood sub-name. When the mistake was brought to my attention I pored over the lengthy project email thread to find the origin of the error.
I won’t get into the details, because they are boring and not terribly relevant a decade later, but I promise it was a perfectly reasonable misunderstanding. I had made much larger mistakes than this in previous jobs and they had blown over. Hell, the woman who held my position before me had made much larger mistakes than this, I had seen them, and she got a promotion. I would apologize, vow to do better and move on.
It wasn’t going to be that simple. First, my beloved boss called me into her office and told me it was an unacceptable error. That we couldn’t afford to make mistakes of this magnitude. The entire reprimand was worse than ever imagined, but at least it was over. I had to dust myself off and just pay more attention to even the tiniest of details.
Then the VP of our department called me into a conference room. She all but told me I would lose my job if I dared make another blunder like this one. I whispered that I understood and swore it wouldn’t happen again as I contended with my leaky eyes.
In the next few months, I worked harder than I ever had. Cancelling plans with friends traveling from other states to see me so I could stay and work until 2 a.m. I was not going to make another mistake. Every piece I wrote was reviewed three or four times before sending to my boss. I volunteered for projects that fell well beyond my purview. I constantly checked my email, ready to respond at all hours. I had to prove I deserved this honestly low-level job. I ate up every crumb of praise as proof I was redeeming myself. I was miserable.
Ultimately none of it mattered. Three months after The Mistake, I was fired. That’s scary to admit publicly. Even they wouldn’t admit it. They called it a layoff. But the company had been laying off people in scads all year. This was a very targeted layoff that only hit me and an older gentleman who had accidentally distributed a bunch of empty thumb drives that were supposed to be loaded with media-ready images. I remember his gaffe as much as I remember my own because people had been talking about it behind his back for months.
This was not a place for mistakes. The company wasn’t doing well. Budgets were being cut. They were restructuring every three to six months. Everyone was under stress. I later found the boss I admired—the one who wouldn’t even look at me as the sterile HR specialist told me my position was being eliminated—had been going through her own personal stress at the time as well. But despite all these mitigating factors, the entire experience left a deep wound. Obviously. I’m still talking about it in embarrassing detail a decade later.
The entire experience was a blip. I was at the company for eight months total and had found a new job before my first unemployment check was mailed. For all intents and purposes, I’ve had a relatively successful decade despite the setback. And, yet, as much as I’m embarrassed to admit the weakness, it still weighs on me.
Part of it was I felt I was being rejected by a woman I thought would be my mentor. I had built her up to have this perfect trajectory. I envisioned her guiding me up the rungs of the corporate ladder until I, too, was wearing tailored pencil skirts and rubbing elbows with the CEO. Shit that makes me shudder to think about now. I don’t want any of that. So why does the loss of it still hit me? Why does it make me question my self-worth every time I get into a room with people I’ve pre-determined to be smarter and more experienced than me?
It was the first time someone had made me feel worthless professionally. That I wasn’t good at the thing I had chosen to be. And there was nothing I could do to fix it. I was hopelessly terrible. This futility made me feel like there had to be some truth to it. I had to mourn the loss of what I thought I wanted, but the wound never fully healed. It left me with persistent and intrusive imposter syndrome.
What I’m Learning
It has taken me the better part of ten years to admit that I haven’t, yet, learned everything I was supposed to learn from that experience. Yes, I learned what I didn’t want out of a career. And I learned a layoff is not the end of the world. But, I’m only now starting to understand I need to own the scar it left behind.
This scar has taught me how to treat others in my career. Especially other women. I’ve tried to be gentler when I have the opportunity to guide other women. When a mistake is made, I know it’s important to try to understand how and why it happened. There are times I fail in this regard, of course. But, that’s part of why the pain of my experience is still there.
As women, the supply of professionals representing us in the careers we want is relatively limited. When we fail one of these women, regardless of how warped her measuring stick is, it feels like we failed them all. At least that’s how it felt to me. I need to be reminded of that, so I recognize the responsibility I have to other women. The responsibility to be respectful, kind and compassionate. Because I was there once, too.
There are already enough voices in the world telling us we’re not good enough. That we’re imposters. We need as many voices as possible reminding us that as long as we are being ourselves, we can’t be imposters.
/written By Eliza Green
/image by Braydon Anderson