I am an engineer with spacecraft in orbit and on Mars. I am a parent to two wonderful kids. I have designed some really crazy stuff as an engineer, and still spend a lot of time doing activities with my kids. So, why then do I feel like a failure at work and at home? Shouldn’t I be proud of all that I’ve done?
I have Impostor Syndrome, a feeling of persistent incompetence and fear of being found out as a fraud. It makes you feel like you don’t deserve your role, in spite of being highly qualified and prepared for what you do. All of this is a cognitive misperception but feels very real. Imposter Syndrome impacts my work and my parenting.
All signs point to me being a capable, loving parent. My children, spouse, and family would agree.
In terms of work, I am a successful engineer who has worked on world-changing projects like designing vision implants that enable the blind to see, as well as missions to Mars, tools to fix the Hubble space telescope, and landers for Venus.
I bake cakes and challah with my kids, I make them hand-made toys, I coach a Destination Imagination team for the local kids, we play together, and we’re always tinkering with something together.
Somehow, despite this, I feel like a failure.
It hasn’t always been this way, nor does my Imposter Syndrome affect my ability to teach, tinker, cook, or be an artist. Imposter Syndrome impacts my work and my parenting and is something I picked up through a toxic work environment and from stress related to raising my first child.
It negatively impacts an important part of my life, so I try to help others by highlighting what it is, how it can come about, and what you can do about it if you find yourself trapped by Impostor Syndrome. I’ll share my story about the toxic work environment as well, so you can get a sense of how intentionally warping someone’s perceptions of reality, via a toxic workplace or long-duration gaslighting, can trigger Impostor Syndrome.
Impostor Syndrome often affects women and minorities, though it can affect men as well. It is more common in aggressive work or learning environments (like highly competitive college programs and STEM work environments), as well as places where an individual may be the only one of their kind (like being the only Black person, or the only woman, or the only new hire).
Work environments where a group makes up less than 20-30% of the total work population (like women in engineering, or men in nursing) are more likely to create a situation where this minority group can be seen as weird outsiders. Outsiders are more likely to be treated differently than the majority. This difference in treatment, or bias, is part of what creates Impostor Syndrome. Many of the brilliant female engineers and technicians I’ve worked with have experienced Impostor Syndrome to some degree.
It is also possible to experience Impostor Syndrome in other arenas, especially where the goals are set extremely high, and feedback is nebulous at best, like in MODERN PARENTING.
There is so much pressure in modern society about getting parenting just right and doing everything perfect for your kid.
- “Which bottles do you need to use?”
- “ Is it ok to let my kid sleep in that position?”
- “Why is my kid crying again!?”
- “But the other parents…”
There is no immediate way to know if what you’re doing has any real impact. Kids don’t normally give praise for all you do. If you’ve never had your child request pizza for dinner, and then 10 minutes later gaslight you by declaring that they hate pizza and would never want to eat it, let alone ask for it, then you’re missing a real parenting moment.
While you’d think that Impostor Syndrome would be easy to identify because of its negative impact on both the individual and the outcome, the opposite ends up being true. Impostor Syndrome fosters a fear of “being found out” as incompetent which in turn drives many to work harder, prepare more, or study more.
This can lead to success. Good, right? Nope.
Instead of quelling the feelings of insecurity, people attribute their success to external factors, like luck or favoritism.
Many people with Impostor Syndrome, myself included, find that positive feedback bounces right off (“they’re just saying that to be nice”) while negative feedback is internalized and used to fuel the impostor feeling.
This worsens the feeling of being an impostor and drives a need to work more. (You can also see how this workaholism might benefit a company, and therefore not raise a red flag, right?)
Here’s the kicker though. While for years we’ve been telling women and minorities how to deal with Impostor Syndrome as if it were a deficiency, we’ve been ignoring the real cause. Basically, you’re not overreacting. As explained in this Harvard Business Review article, Impostor Syndrome is a trained response to a bad work or life environment. (And yes, raising a kid very much fits this bill).
It’s caused by:
- An overly critical environment.
- False narratives that focus on failures and never successes (for example, saying your diploma is undeserved even though it proves you are qualified, or having your child repeatedly insult your parenting skills).
- Lack of data to help you correct your misconceptions.
Over time the difference between your self-assessment/self-esteem and the fiction you are told at work/as a parent causes you to start to believe that the false feedback is more true than your own assessment.
For many years I had no idea what Imposter Syndrome was. I had a feeling of failure and inadequacy at work. I felt that my colleagues already knew I was lacking and it was just a matter of time before my badge would not work at the gate to the office. During this time, I had my first child. She was a very challenging baby. And the feeling of inadequacy spread into my role as a parent. For quite a while, I dealt with a simultaneous feeling of inadequacy at work and as a parent at home. It was a crushing combination.
On the parenting front, the situation was something that I think many of us have experienced.
I had a difficult baby. She would cry all the time. Anytime she wasn’t eating, or sleeping, or being held, she’d cry. We’d try to fix it, but nothing would work, or when it did, it wouldn’t work more than once. We tried to find patterns out of the randomness, but there really weren’t any.
We clung to hope and grasped at straws. “But she slept through the night wearing a onesie with snaps, we can’t use the zippered onesie!” It was torturous.
There were naps that left my kid crying for two hours afterward. “Still tired? Slept too much? Did she eat something bad?”
Every other parent seemed to be having an easier time. There is a pervasive parenting myth that children are wonderful, and parenting is easy. This does not help Imposter Syndrome, especially when you’re experiencing the opposite. All the signals pointed toward “You’ve got no clue what you’re doing.” (In hindsight, we think she might have had colic.)
In my professional life, Impostor Syndrome kicked in while I was working at my dream job, designing mechanical parts for robotic vehicles sent into space and other planets. I learned a ton, had some great successes, and found a community of wonderful friends. I also worked with some people who had really demoralizing attitudes.
My department’s culture was very competitive and adversarial. We focused on getting the job done in spite of all obstacles (both the limits of science as well as the limits of people with bad attitudes). Due to the cost, publicity, and esteem of what we were working on, there was a huge focus on never screwing up. Yelling and getting yelled at were “normal”. And because of tight deadlines (driven by rocket launch dates), we were all expected to put in lots of extra hours.
I thought I could power through work and succeed, despite all the issues (“success in spite of the obstacles”), but that wasn’t the case. I started waking up at 3 a.m. daily to buy extra backup equipment and tools to avoid getting in trouble. My colleagues refused to share crucial information so I started working next to them, on the floor of their offices. My boss once told me to stop having facial expressions. He also reprimanded me in a meeting for squinting at the projector screen.
One of my major projects at this point was a drop test, a test where we would simulate the stresses on our robot and the timing of a planetary landing by dropping the hardware from a tall crane. Drop tests are hard to design but fun to watch in the end when it all comes together, like a dance performance but with small pieces that get thrown around at high speed. I spent months planning logistics, lining up people, and building mechanical parts. The team was incredibly critical of my work, but I was getting really good at designing these tests and was proud of my work.
On the day of the big test, I was done setting up early. I asked my colleagues to call me when they were ready to run the test. Hours went by. I finally called a teammate, only to find out they were about to run in 5 minutes. He told me that all the important people were there and that I wasn’t needed, cutting me out of the project. He said I was ”just the wedding planner“
I documented everything and contacted my boss. Rather than responding as I would have expected, he told me that I needed to put my head down and work harder. He told me that maybe my colleagues thought I was the kind of woman who didn’t use tools, referring to an ethnic stereotype. At no point did he try to correct the situation.
As ludicrous as it seemed, I wasn’t able to find a way to resolve the situation through the normal channels at work.
I started to question what was true. I was so confused. I tried to think about the situation logically. I debated the following thoughts:
- Was I doing terribly at my job?
- Was I being excluded and treated badly because I was terrible at my job?
- Was I doing well at my job, but being excluded and treated badly for no reason?
- Or was it something in between?
I tried and tried to make sense of the situation and to rationalize what was happening. These simultaneous and conflicting extremes of possibilities (do I really suck, but just don’t know it?) drove (and still drive) my Impostor Syndrome. Even today, Imposter Syndrome impacts my work and my parenting.
I am my own worst troll. I doubt everything. The self-questioning is relentless.
Looking back (with the help of others to get a more objective view), I can see that I had a stretch of incredibly bad management, bad colleagues, and bad workplace culture that made it impossible to see when I needed help or to ask for any help at all. It also made it impossible for me to recognize my own successes.
I still have a hard time convincing myself that I wasn’t to blame for this toxic workplace situation, in spite of all the success and positive team experiences I’ve had since then. Even though it has been over 15 years, I still feel a lot of doubt when presented with similar job opportunities. Inside, I still feel like a poser.
It took me several years to finally get a therapist to help me deal with my Impostor Syndrome and insomnia (driven by those middle-of-the-night hardware store orders). I wish I hadn’t waited. Undoing this kind of mental habit is harder the more it is ingrained. My recovery from Imposter Syndrome has been a process and while I’m a lot better, it’s still not entirely fixed.
What to do if you have Impostor Syndrome
If you should find yourself feeling like you are incompetent in your role (as a parent or professional) in spite of being fully qualified for it,
- Recognize that it’s not you. Your feelings likely have an external cause, and what you’re feeling about yourself isn’t real.
- It happens to the best of us.
- Get help as early as you can. Whether it’s by getting support from friends or coworkers or finding a therapist, find good help.
As for parenting, just remember that you’re not alone.
Talk honestly with other parents. Ignore the parenting myths about perfection. We all face these ridiculous situations that no one could ever believe… until you realize that every other parent experiences it too. Yes, it’s not just your kid who will tantrum to the point of property damage to avoid taking a shower.
Share your stories, failures, and successes to break the stereotype of parenting always being wonderful and easy. It’s not. It’s hard, it’s weird, and we impostors are in the middle of it. You’re doing a very good job… I repeat… doing a very good job.
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