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Do I Belong Here? Overcoming Imposter Syndrome.

The short answer is YES, yes you do!

So why do you, me, we sometimes question whether we deserve to be where we are, deserve to have our opinions heard, or deserve to be congratulated or rewarded for our achievements?

This feeling is very simply described as imposter syndrome. In 1978, two American psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes named this feeling we all have and described it as “phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” While these people “are highly motivated to achieve,” they also “live in fear of being ‘found out’ or exposed as frauds” (The New York Times, 2015).

The good thing about this is that you are not alone, most people, at some point in their life, have that moment where they feel that they are not good enough, or that they don’t deserve the amazing results of their hard work.  This also includes Presidents, athletes, artists, and doctors. The list can go on and on.

As a woman in engineering, I feel that I am more susceptible to this feeling because we truly are an under-represented minority within the field.  The National Science Foundation reported that in 2015, there were approximately only 15% of women employed as engineers (NSF, 2016).  Because of this, we often feel that we are representing all women through our position and we second guess our decisions. This may be because we don’t know if we are correctly portraying the minds of our gender.

Some other effects of imposter syndrome include:

  • Not applying for jobs, promotions, and other employment opportunities
  • Not submitting papers to conferences or journals
  • Disclaiming or understanding [our] experience and skill when speaking or writing
  • Nervousness about talking to others in [our] field, especially if those others are perceived as highly skilled/experienced
  • Feeling like a fraud
  • Worrying that someone will find out [our] lack of qualifications and fire [us]
  • Having higher stress
  • Overpreparing for tasks
  • Attributing successes to chance or luck

(Reference: Geek Feminism Wiki)

In many cases, these effects can be so debilitating and detrimental to our lives and our career. We don’t go after that promotion, the better job, the raise, and sometimes we might even leave the field altogether.

Now that we have put a name to the monster in our heads, how do we go about preventing this from affecting our careers?

  1. You only represent you

Don’t take in and bottle up all the pressures of the world. That just leads to unnecessary stress.  After you make a decision, own it!  Don’t second guess yourself. Your ideas are your own and are not inclusive of who you may represent.

First of all, you don’t represent all women, every single person out there is different and come from different upbringings, education levels, and experiences.

Second of all, you and I both know that you came to that decision through a mixture of past experiences, knowledge of the subject, and careful thought and organization.  By expressing the idea to your team or manager with the confidence it deserves, you will see that it may be more likely be considered and implemented.  Even if it isn’t, when another challenge comes up, your colleagues will feel more comfortable going to for your input because when you show confidence in your abilities, they will have more confidence in you.  Also, even if the other person has a PhD or twenty years of experience on you, your fresh perspective to a topic will bring out ideas that they have not considered which may be more applicable to solving the problem at hand.

  1. “I just wanted to…” “Just giving you a heads up…” “Just wondering if you saw…”

Writing or responding to emails constitute a large part of my day.  Most days, I will be emailing my supervisor rather than just walking a couple doors down to speak with her face-to-face.  As technology continues to become integrated into the workplace, so does the written word rather than spoken, and though we may be assertive in our everyday conversation, we may not be coming across that way in emails.  Many young people in their careers will preface their emails with long rambling explanations how they do not know if they did something correct, they are not confident in their results, and basically undermining the countless hours of effort they put into completing an assignment.

A particularly common “weak word” used in emails is “just.”  The number of times I have added “just” at the beginning of emails or seen the even newer hires add it into theirs is ridiculous.  When I was first adding it into my emails, I thought it was polite, but when I saw others doing it, I realized it was to soften our confidence in our work so if we made a mistake, we can defend ourselves.

As I mentioned before, confidence is key!  If you are not confident in your work, how will someone else be confident in it and let you move on to higher risk or harder assignments? My first instinct to preface my emails like this, so what I started doing is writing in a way that naturally flows for me, then going back through and removing any words and sentences that expresses low confidence in my work.

However, you are also not perfect and overconfidence can be a negative in the workplace too, so my happy medium is to end emails with statements like these that invite constructive criticism without undermining my work:

“Let me know where you would like to see changes.”

“Let me know what you think.”

“I would love to speak with you about your interpretation after your review.”

VS.

“This was my first time working on a report like this and I’m just not sure if this is what you were looking for or if I completed it correctly.”

“Just wanted to forward this on to you to see what you thought about the report.”

  1. We don’t need to “man up” and get out there and “break a nail”

How many times have you attended a conference and someone has told you that it is time to “man up and break a nail” to get ahead?  I have personally heard this too many times to count and it is one of my least favorite statements.

Why do you ask?

Because you and I do not need to become someone we are not to fit and excel in the workplace.  By being told to “man up” society is perpetuating the stereotype that being feminine is a negative and the only way to be successful is to embody masculine personalities.  Each one of us brings something new to the table and whether we are in a dress or a pantsuit, that does not affect the way we think through problems to come up with great solutions.  This is one of the key reasons women have imposter syndrome, as we do not feel welcome as ourselves, we feel like we need to be someone else to know that we are producing good work and are heard.

Telling women to “man up” is not empowering, we are selling women something by putting them down and that is just destructive in getting ahead in the workplace.  Therefore, just be yourself and focus on your work, not how you come across to other people.

There are so many more nuances that we could get into to unravel imposter syndrome, but I am going to stop at these three.  However, before we wrap up, I wanted to leave you with an experiment.  The monster in your brain may never go away, but you can tame it by coming up with techniques that you can implement whenever you are feeling down to increase your confidence.

For the next five days, I would like you to try one of these each day and see which one works the best for you.  Not all of them, or maybe none of them will work for you so I want to challenge you to keep exploring until you find something that does.   For example, power poses are not my thing, it makes me uncomfortable and doing them in the morning or before an important meeting makes me feel weird and jittery rather than empowered.  Instead, I use my sense of style to express who I am and do not care whether I come across as too “girly” because if I look good, I feel good.

Try these out and connect with me on LinkedIn to let me know what worked for you and what didn’t, I would love to hear about your experiences:

  1. Keep a journal that you can easily access throughout the day and write down feelings of insecurity throughout the day, once it is out of your head, it won’t feel overwhelming anymore.
  2. Do a power pose every morning and right before a big meeting or interview. See this TED talk first:

https://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are

  1. Dress the way you want, not the way people expect you to. If you have a strict dress code in your office, find ways to accessorize that brings in some of your personality like adding a pin of your favorite band to your laptop bag or putting on a bright necklace.
  2. Start a file of people saying nice things about you. I have a “Yay Me!” file on my desktop that I drop nice emails into and go back and look at when I’m having a particularly bad day. Also, keep a list of achievements close by. Keep adding to this list weekly! Whenever you are having an especially difficult day – reference this file.
  3. Fake it till you make it; On a bad day, especially when it feels like the world is coming crumbling down around you, actively get up from your desk every hour to walk around for 5 minutes and smile at everyone you run into. Smiling will encourage your body to release serotonin, actually making you happier.

 

References:

Richard, Carls. “Learning to Deal With Imposter Syndrome”. The New York Times. 26 October 2015

 

Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering Data Tables.  National

Science Foundation.  August 2016

https://www.nsf.gov/statistics/2017/nsf17310/data.cfm

Imposter Syndrome. Geek Feminism Wiki. http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Impostor_syndrome

Cuddy Amy.  “Your body language may shape who you are.” Ted Talk.

https://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are. June 2012

Rajani Bansal
About the Author

Rajani Bansal is a UCLA graduate with a B.S. in Chemical Engineering. She holds an impressive resume – during her time at UCLA she was President of the Society of Women Engineers, held active leadership positions in AIChE, and the HSSEAS Mentorship Program, participated in undergraduate research, and landed competitive internships with Abaxis Inc. and Bloom Energy.

 

Upon graduating, Rajani started working as an Environmental Engineer for AECOM, where she supported a host of remediation projects. During her time at AECOM, Rajani lead the piloting and research of a drinking water system, streamlining remediation systems at an active refinery, and implementing technologies at various sites.  She spent a lot of her time in the field with her boots on the ground working alongside construction teams and technicians to serve as a bridge between technically savvy ideas and implementation.  Currently, Rajani is working for Haley & Aldrich as an Environmental Engineer where she has transitioned into a more technical role to support the remediation of soil and groundwater.

 

Rajani is truly passionate about making meaningful environmental impacts and advancing women in engineering.  Rajani’s long-term goals are to continue to work towards a technical management path in her field.  Rajani is currently working towards her Professional Engineering certification after which she is planning on pursuing higher education.

 

Beyond work, she enjoys traveling and exploring new places.  This year, she has taken trips in the country to Florida, Nevada, New Mexico, Kansas, Texas, and various spots in California (Big Bear, Mammoth, Sequoia National Park).  Outside of the country she has visited Mexico and Japan and cannot wait to plan her next trip!  Rajani also loves to volunteer wherever she can in her spare time.  She holds an active position in the local Society of Women Engineers section and will also visit schools to speak to students about her career.