I have been an impostor for most of my working life. It may come as a surprise to most people to hear that, but I hid it well. In fact, the phrase “fake it till you make it” was incorrect, as I faked so well for so long that I just became an expert faker! I never made it, or so I felt. I honestly believed I was no good, and I was in the wrong job in the wrong place. Not only that, but I was convinced that I have no talent for it. Maybe I still do a little. This condition has a name. It is called Impostor Syndrome.
What is Impostor Syndrome?
Impostor syndrome (IS) refers to an internal experience of believing that you are not as competent as others perceive you to be. While this definition is usually narrowly applied to intelligence and achievement, it has links to perfectionism and the social context. It may also be described as a “pervasive feeling of self-doubt, insecurity, or fraudulence despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.” Impostors reason away that evidence as luck. The real evidence is dark, internal, and negative and must be hidden at all costs.
More than we realise
Impostor Syndrome affects many more people than we realise. It is hard to know because no one will admit to feeling completely out of place when all appearances show they are doing well. Many people fear that they will be exposed for the frauds they believe they are, like gate crashers at a party, to be publicly removed and humiliated. Many people actually sabotage their progress by turning down opportunities which they believe have been mistakenly offered to them, and clearly do not deserve. They believe they may be robbing a more competent person.
“If they only know the real me, how useless I actually am, they would definitely not even be considering me” they tell themselves. “What if I take it and then bomb spectacularly? I am just holding on here.” Faking it takes a lot of energy, and it often requires people to wear masks. It is just not possible to be genuine because impostors don’t fit. Impostors secretly envy those who are in front, those who always offer valuable contributions at meetings, and those who are clearly respected. If they are complimented or encouraged, they are shocked and surprised, and have to hold their tongues so as not to expose themselves. Impostors secretly compare themselves to others all the time, and always fall short. This happens even though we are aware of we are made in God’s image but deep down, we clearly don’t believe it.
Comparison is the thief of joy – Theodore Roosevelt
Impostor Syndrome affects many Christians who feel they are unworthy to be part of the community. They feel they don’t match up to others in dedication, prayer, worship, prophesy, service, wisdom, Bible knowledge, testimony, or anything else that can be seen and compared. Comparing oneself to others is a recurring theme in women’s ministry, but impostor syndrome also affects men. How much it does is difficult to tell because men traditionally have more pressure to not expose any form of weakness.
A bit of my story
I have a B.Sc. degree. I majored in Computer Science and Geology. Geology was my first love, but my dad was worried and said I should do Computer Science as a backup. In the 1980s, there were few field jobs for women. I wanted to go into mining, but women were not allowed to work underground anyway, so Computer Science was a sensible suggestion. Only, I soon discovered I had absolutely no talent for it. That was a massive shock. I had always been good at the sciences, and felt I could do anything (or so I had been told all my life). I struggled through three years of it, passed reasonably, and went to work at Anglovaal, a mining company.
MY FIRST DATA JOB
My boss and mentor there was a woman for whom Rhodes University changed part of the curriculum. The Dean of Science had recognised in the late 1970’s that Computer Science and the other Sciences were a good combination, and Marcia Collett was the first Computer Science and Geology graduate. I was excited to learn from her, but her mentorship only lasted for a few months. She had moved away, and I had been assigned to help a geophysicist with a difficult personality to process seismic data. This was actually my first data job. He had recently had brain surgery, but it is only now that I understand more of his condition and bluntness. Our family have first-hand experience of traumatic brain injury (another blog topic). But then I wasn’t coping. I had been employed to do a job I was incapable of doing. The reality was that I was incapable of up-skilling myself because I had developed some fears which controlled me; fear of failure and fear of exposure. That was when I began with “faking it”.
CORPORATE JOB AND ACTIVISM
It was at my second job at Edgars that I met Howard, my husband. He oozed ambition, and he dominated in the DBA department, automating and tuning where even the senior DBA had not realised it could be done (let alone me!). He was completely the opposite of me. I had no idea that was how one approached a job, and I was dumbfounded. At this point, work for me was a necessary evil to get some money so that I could do things that interested me. The fact that work could actually be interesting and enjoyable was a foreign concept. I was so far down the hole, I felt bad about being paid to be so useless.
My main focus in those days was centred around an organisation called JODAC (The Johannesburg Democratic Action Committee) which was an anti-apartheid organisation under the umbrella of the UDF (United Democratic Front). I silkscreened posters which I put up in the dead of night, I made protest sculptures which we left on the Joburg Library lawn for the press to photograph, painted banners, and participated in street theatre. I met incredible people and felt I was making a real contribution to change. That was also when I grew up. I did feel the conflict between Edgars who paid me, and my risky activism.
Then on a Sunday in June 1986 I was arrested. PW Botha had declared a State of Emergency, anticipating the 10th anniversary of the Soweto Uprising. I was in Brixton at a branch meeting to discuss what the implications were for us. All of a sudden, the police burst in and threw us into the backs of their bakkies and raced gleefully to John Vorster Square (now Johannesburg Central Police Station). That was where I, together with four other women and two men were singled out and held in custody. They took mug shots and fingerprints and told us we were in massive trouble. We knew they could only keep us for two weeks without charging us.
We were incarcerated in solitary cells at the Jeppe Police Station for the full two weeks. There was barely space for common criminals, which was irritating for the normal police officers there. The Security Branch really threw their weight around. It was freezing, and we were only issued a few dirty grey blankets and had cold showers outside. I was so grateful to Mel Sadie who tore her Bible in half and sent half to me with a cleaner. One day, they fetched me for interrogation, or so I thought. Instead, it was to invite me to snitch! I was terrified, and nervously told them I was incapable of that. Fortunately, they took me safely back to my cell.
When I got back to work, I was in even bigger trouble! It turned out that I was doing useful work, they did miss me, and they had to cancel someone’s leave to fill the gap. My bosses had wanted to fire me, but the union (of which I wasn’t a member even) had threatened to strike if they did! For me! There was a lot of mistrust and propaganda then. Some people thought I was a terrorist, and one lady had told my boss she was afraid to work in the same building as me. That finished me, I burst into tears. I realised I had to lie low, and get stuck into work, grateful for a second chance.
I still didn’t manage to shake the feeling that I was not competent.
MARRIAGE, KIDS AND TEACHING
Howard and I got married in 1987. Throughout 1988 I tried to keep up with him. 1989 we travelled Europe and the USA, doing odd jobs and learning lots about ourselves rather than data.
When we got back to South Africa I worked for ISM (IBM had made a big show of pulling out of SA, but it was really same old with a new name). Back to the feeling that I was not qualified and shouldn’t be there. When I got pregnant, it was an immense relief. I didn’t intend to ever go back to work again! We managed on one salary when Andy was born. Howard started his GDE and Master’s degree, and was enjoying researching and working on the cutting edges of development at the time. He was at Standard Bank, working with brilliant people. I left all that behind, and didn’t even try to follow conversations. We had anther two babies, both daughters, and I was loving motherhood.
Once Andy started Nursery School, we realised that we may run into difficulties with school fees. That was when I realised that Computer Science had become a matric subject. That was the highlight of my working life! I loved teaching and found I was actually a reasonable teacher. Career success at last! Furthermore, I did not have to fake anything. My colleagues didn’t have a clue what I did, and made it clear that they didn’t want to either. Never hide anything from children, I believed, so I told them if I couldn’t answer any of their questions, my husband could. He helped me so much, I became confident programming for the first time. My students thought my husband was a legend (he is!). Best job I ever had!
I stopped teaching after Mark was born. I couldn’t cope. Then came years of home-schooling (probably another blog topic) during which Howard started Modelware Systems, and I tried to do as little as possible with it. It eventually grew, and we got staff to do the bit of bookkeeping and admin – I was off the hook. Years went by and my maths, biology, and history skills grew, but I didn’t try to learn anything about our business at all. I kept away from it, even when I could see we employed the wrong people to manage. They were causing damage, yet I did not have the confidence to step in and take over. I was clueless about what to do, and I didn’t think I had the capacity to learn. I just left it.
Around that time Howard felt I should start training, so he showed me an application he had written called MoBatch. I had no idea what I was seeing. I understood nothing. He couldn’t see what was wrong with me. I was shaken, but I tried. The training was an ordeal, and cemented for me that I was useless. The evidence was right there. No disputing it. I was not even an impostor, I was plain incompetent.
But Howard never gave up on me. He conscripted me kicking and screaming to help with DAMA when he took over the presidency. I got the membership and finance up to date. He got me to meetings where, although I felt like a gate crasher, I gradually started learning and my interest grew. The data people I met were lovely, but I still didn’t feel like one of them.
Howard encouraged me to develop the overview of the DMBOK course and present it. I had a few near disasters, I was sick with nerves before each course, but I stuck it out, and now I am more confident. I may soon qualify as a CDMP Master. DAMA International have invited me to serve on a review team for the review of the DMBOK. The evidence for me is building.
In the last year or so, it dawned on me that I am actually competent. Howard stubbornly believed in me, and would not tolerate any feebleness or excuses. I may have felt bullied at the time, but I am so grateful to him. He has given me a professional confidence I never had, and a business I am proud of. It would have been better for me if I had been like Ruth and declared that his people were my people, but I couldn’t find that faith in me.
So, how did this happen after close to forty years of feeling like I didn’t belong, of fearing that I will fail and let everyone down? Especially when each setback added to the proof that I was incapable. In face, I believed that I was worse than an impostor, I was a talentless person pretending to be an impostor. The evidence (in my mind) was irrefutable.
In 2019, the CDMP exams were relaunched, and I decided to write the Data Management Fundamentals so that we could see what it was like. I had started developing the Data Management for Certification course by summarising the DMBOK, and I was about halfway through. I did not realise it was an open book exam, so on my knowledge alone I got 76%.
Howard said, “You see! You do know a lot! I knew you could do it!” But I still didn’t believe him. Multiple guess exams are my superpower. Even impostors can have a superpower, but it doesn’t counteract to our feelings of inadequacies. I have subsequently rewritten it and got 89% as well as a master pass on Data Quality. Howard could not understand why certification success didn’t help enough. It would have made all the difference to him. You see, I have never struggled with exams, no matter the subject, particularly multiple choice exams, so that didn’t count.
I have presented my Data Management for Certification course to around 200 people online, and no one has ever pointed out any inadequacies. In fact, quite the opposite. People engage with me as if I know my stuff. All these people have made the difference. I love teaching, but I was nervous to teach adults, particularly experts in their fields. I have realised that I do know some things which they do not, and I can help them pass the CDMP exams.
I have especially enjoyed running study groups and getting to know the data people better. It has finally dawned on me that these are my people and I belong.
What is the point of all this comparing and competing?
For who do you know that really knows you, knows your heart? And even if they did, is there anything they would discover in you that you could take credit for? Isn’t everything you have and everything you are sheer gifts from God? So what’s the point of all this comparing and competing? – 1 Corinthians 4:7 (The Message)
When we compare ourselves to others, we are agreeing with the plans of the enemy for our lives. Comparison is the thief of joy and the stretcher of truth. Comparison says, “I am ill-equipped for the task at hand.”
The truth is, God has given me all I need for the plans he has set before me.