“Fake it till you make it” is a term I use far more often than I care to admit. What’s important to tell myself is that I’ve earned the right to be here…but it’s not always so easy. Erin, a good friend of mine from college – but we really connected at our first jobs (the one you hear about all the time!) – shares her take on imposter syndrome and how to remember you are more than that.
When was the last time you introduced creative problem solving in a cross-functional collaboration? The question hung in the air as we all went around the table and answered.
I was four months into my first corporate job, and my sense of imposter syndrome was deeply rooted. I was proud of being in my early twenties and part of a core team conducting important discovery work for a new pilot. I was also hyper-aware that I was the youngest person in the room. My unshakeable positivity had always felt like a strength, but now it felt like naïveté.
It was finally my turn to answer. Just before I could share, our team lead looked at me and said, “Erin, you can share an example from college if that’s easier.” I felt my face flush. This wasn’t the first time that I had pressed up against what felt like a subtle but hurtful jab at my age. I knew I had to be authentic to myself, and that meant challenging what I viewed as an attempt to make me feel small. As clearly as I could I replied, “I may have just started with this company, but I already have many rich examples of how I’ve approached a problem with creative solutions. I’d love to share more about my favorite example.”
When I mentioned the incident to my manager, she shared that there are some people who view tenure as the sole building block of credibility. This inevitably creates blind spots, leading to overlooked ideas, thoughts, and recommendations of high value. Being the most authentic version of yourself is the best way to engage, as it’s a distinct refusal to play small. And moving beyond imposter syndrome can be found in reconnecting with your authentic strengths. I found that there was power in reframing how I viewed those “hurtful jabs.” Yes, I have been given an amazing opportunity. Yes, I am punching above my weight. And yes, I do belong here.
After this conversation, I became obsessed with pondering and researching authenticity in the workplace. How do we show up, as individuals early in our careers, professionally yet authentically? In an attempt to not be perceived as inexperienced, I had moved more towards quiet and robotic. How do I remain polished, yet stay true to myself? What did that look like for me, and how could I discover it?
I started journaling on the topic of who I felt like I was at my core, the very best version of myself. In list after list, I wrote: I am resilient in my positivity. I am kind, creative, and generous. I relate to others through my natural enthusiasm, genuine curiosity, and strong sense of presence. I listen well and I always want the people I interact with to feel heard. How does that translate into how I show up in the workplace?
Sometimes all it takes is a visual to remind you who you are (before the tension of the situation or interaction causes momentary amnesia!) I wrote down “PKCG” on a little note and taped it to my laptop. PKCG stands for present, kind, curious, and grateful. Each time I encountered a tricky situation or difficult individual, I wanted to have a solid approach to authentically engaging, reminding myself of my natural strengths. Rather than grow defensive or tense when I felt like my competency was being questioned, I sought to move through each of these key pillars:
Present & Kind: Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” To me, being fully present feels like full-body engagement — I’m not responding to emails on the side, or going down a dizzying path of “what if” scenarios in my mind. I am fully and purposefully focused. I have the ability to allow for a pause and take a deep breath, fully leaning into what Buddhists call the “sacred pause” between stimulus and response. As Brené Brown elaborates, it’s important for us to “pry open that space.” The ability to pause usually allows for a kinder response. I can sit with difficult words, tense situations, and the uncomfortable nature of confrontation in the workplace. Can I then choose to respond with kindness??
Curious & Grateful: Instead of moving towards the feeling of “Why can’t I handle this?” moving towards the inquiry of “What is this teaching me me?” Firmly believing that I have a lot to offer and much to learn, and savoring in gratitude the ways that I am growing. This moment, interaction, or person are all teaching me important lessons about how to move through the world. Can I in turn be curious about this person? What emotions and feelings lie behind their actions or words? What can I learn from them?
Can I at a bare minimum be present here? Can I seek to be kind in my response and attitude? Can I be curious about what’s unfolding, and grateful for the lesson I will inevitably learn?
Fully embracing this perspective gave me a deeply rooted sense of confidence. The way others perceive me is ultimately completely out of my control. But how I choose to show up, react, and respond is fully within my control.
If you’re facing imposter syndrome early in your career due to your age (or any other factor), I encourage you to take the time to brainstorm, reflect, and meditate on what four words feel most authentic to you and your strengths. How do these traits or core values help you show up fully and authentically in the workplace, especially when met with a challenge?
?Connect with the author, Erin Mellor, here.
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