Subject Matter warrior: overcoming imposter syndrome

By Reem Papageorgiou | March 10, 2021

It’s been written about time and time again, yet so many of us are still searching for how to overcome Imposter Syndrome. It’s not something we “have” and then recover from explicitly, rather it is a phenomenon we dip in and out of throughout our lives, especially if we are women, high achievers, type A personalities, and people of color. Welcome. (I’m guessing if you are still reading you may fit in one of these categories…or just like to read). While I might date myself with the Karate Kid reference “the student becomes the master;” imposter syndrome actually shows up in the areas we know the most; the areas we have grown from student to master. The irony is that when we were students of our trade, we gave ourselves the permission to “not know everything” and “to make mistakes.” As masters we are more aware of what we don’t know and compare ourselves to the other masters around us, shunning the compassion we gave to our younger selves. Studies show that the more successful we are, the more we feel like a fraud, like we have tricked everyone and that our public face is quite different from our private world. I have to ask, aren’t we always growing and learning? Can we empower ourselves to redefine the definition of “arriving and success” or of “subject matter expert” to “courageous and brave”; “lifelong learner;” and most importantly “subject matter warrior?” Even warriors have scar marks and wounds. It shows that they grew and took risks. And we celebrate them. Just imagine for a minute if you were introduced as a speaker in the following way: “Today we invite tech expert extraordinaire and award winner, (insert your name), with a double Phd in Neuroscience and Economic Strategy to discuss….” And now imagine it this way…. “Today we invite subject matter warrior and lifelong learner (insert your name) to discuss (insert your field, interest, passion, or hobby.)” Exhale. Breathe. Amen. Om. Peace. Wouldn’t that feel better? Wouldn’t that take off the high achieving pressure we put on ourselves? If the companies that are thriving in this pandemic are the ones leading with empathy, why not lead with empathy toward yourself? For Black women and women of color there is an added layer, created by our American history. Systemic oppression and it’s constant messaging of less than, paired with a lack of representation of successful colleagues and leaders in the workplace add to the feeling of imposter syndrome. Being the first, as in first to go to college, first Black CEO etc. also invites the pressure of success which brings with it the imposter phenomenon. In a recent and powerful article put out by HBR, the question lies in just that of our history, is it really imposter syndrome? Or is it the influence of our history? We will never be 100% the expert, even Maya Angelou and Albert Einstein felt they were a fraud, so rather than waiting until we feel 100 percent ready or 100 percent like an expert we need to embrace the lifelong learning curve, own what we don’t know, celebrate what we do know, and then, JUMP. Wait, what? Yes, JUMP. Not study more, learn more, work harder….? Nope. JUMP. We need to jump into discomfort and push through fear (“what if they find me out”) and doubt (“I don’t think that I know everything I should to do this”) to embrace and become the subject matter warrior. Here is the why and how: first, because you won’t grow if you don’t push yourself a bit (stay tuned for this part about a bit in a bit) and second, through a nifty plan called optimal anxiety. Bear with me. Pushing through fear and doubt may sound like a hard thing to sign up for as does signing up for anxiety. You must jump out of your comfort zone (where life is cozy and easy and predictable) to the learning zone, where the magic happens. Yes, that is where the magic happens - growth. The more often you visit the learning zone, the more the fear and doubt quiets and the more confident you become. Rather than living in your comfort zone with the notion “I’m not good at networking,” you must pay visits to the learning zone: “Networking is hard but I’m going to practice it twice this week.” to arrive at a bonus layer of confidence: “Networking can be hard but it’s gotten easier the more I’ve done it, and I have realized ‘they are just people’ that I’m talking with.” The bit. I promised I would get back to the part about pushing yourself a bit. So here’s the deal: pushing yourself to grow is the most successful when we pay visits or take quick dips into the learning zone, rather than trying to live there. This is where optimal anxiety comes in. Optimal anxiety is what scientists believe to be “’an anxiety sweet spot,’ a psychological state of ‘moderate anxiety’ where performance and alertness are optimized.” The key here is that you are making a conscious effort to tolerate some level of anxiety by 1) reminding yourself that you are doing something that is important to you and matters to your growth 2) recognizing that you will not feel in control like your cozy comfort zone and 3) that you will tolerate this anxiety for growth in limited bits; practice sessions, if you will, to set you up for success. When you are in the learning zone, remind yourself you are a subject matter warrior and there will be some scrapes and scars, but you will rise. As we say at MomUp, “No matter the outcome we are always growing and learning.” (Yes, we have many kumbaya moments. That’s the bonus of the learning zone). The issue of time is key so make a plan: Set your goal. Decide what information you need to help you go after it. Determine the time you want to spend going after it (10 minutes every other day for example). Come up with a mantra to fight the doubt that will kick in in the face of anxiety (“Hello anxiety, fear doubt, I’m busy trying to grow. Thanks for caring but I’m good.”) Lastly rank your experience every time you act on a scale of 1-10. The more you do it, your rank numbers, I promise, will show you that it’s getting easier, or at least that you are feeling less doubt and fear about it. (Insert thought: always growing, always learning!) If Maya Angelou listened to her fear and doubt we wouldn’t be guided by her work today. I hate to think about what we would be missing if you didn’t step out of your comfort zone and take on the role of a subject matter warrior. More importantly, I can’t wait to see where you take us.

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