MUSINGS ON IMPOSTER SYNDROME
 
  

I was just replying to a gentleman on Twitter who has helped me tremendously with Crypt Kids at BSides DC. Another Tweeter (?) had asked this gentleman and I to connect for help planning a kids STEM event and I replied and when the gentleman replied to me, he made the comment, “Already shot a DM, but admitted that I am but your humble Padawan.”

Initially, that made me smile because we all know it’s nice when someone thinks we are good at something in as such that they elevate our status of knowledge to above their own. But at the same time, I felt that twinge. That …yes, let’s go there: Imposter Syndrome.

Curiously enough, this came on the very tail end of watching Amanda Palmer’s TED Talk on “The Art of Asking”. If you have not seen this, please pause here if you are able and go watch it. Or, watch it when you finish reading this. But, watch it. I adore Amanda Palmer even though I have never heard any of her music. I started to follow her on Twitter and grew to know her and like her. Her as a person. Her as a visual artist. Again, I have never heard her music. But, I like her mind and her message. 

I came out here to write this with a mini mission to gloriously declare that “no one is my padawan!” and to insist that no one minimize themselves by saying that. 

  

But I am one to truly consider what I want to say before I write and that made me examine what he might have been saying when he said that. And, what was it about that truly made ME uncomfortable. Was it the implication that I could have a padawan? Was it the idea that someone could look up to me and that immediately made me feel like an imposter?

I had replied back with a sassy Obi Wan gif and the comment “do not minimize yourself” because my gut reaction was to reach out and elevate how he saw himself in his mind. The question is:

Why do I not do this for myself?

Why do I not ALSO instinctively reach out to ME and elevate how I see myself in MY mind?

Why, indeed.

Let me make another cup of coffee. Be right back…  

cue intermission music...

Back! I use a French press to make my coffee so it gives me a moment to consider my thoughts while brewing. This is what I came up with while I was waiting for the hot water to ease the essence out of those beautiful fragrant grounds:

I think, for some people, the “Imposter Syndrome” goes far deeper than whether or not they feel they have a skill set or knowledge needed to be either competent OR considered an expert on a subject. 

I think, for some people, perhaps for many, the Imposter Syndrome goes far deeper. To their sense of worth as an individual.

I just took a step back and thought about it. A majority of those I talk to suffering from the most severe “Imposter Syndrome” are also suffering from an extreme sense of having no self-worth as a person. They are still struggling with past experiences of abuse at the hands of parents, bad partners, society in general, bullies at school, or even a single bad boss or a series of terrible abusive managers or teachers.

They are still trying to get past being accepted for who they are. Add knowing a lick about INFOSEC to it and they just shut down. In no way do I mean to minimize the recent talks or articles on Imposter Syndrome. Only that just now this morning did I consider it might be something that runs a bit deeper than comparing one’s self to others in purely a professional or technical knowledge aspect.

And, I caught this because it is where my own Imposter Syndrome has some root. I am going to speak for myself here and if it touches or reaches even one person then it was worth sharing:

I was married to a man who was Prince Charming Mr. Perfect while we were dating. Seriously, you know the “too good to be true” thing? He’s the walking dictionary definition for that. (Side note: one of the reasons why those of us who have experienced what I am about to share are a bit gun shy when dealing with a legit amazing person professing to be interested in us). 

We were married yadda yadda yadda and then things seemed fine for the first few years because he traveled for work a majority of the year. So, when he was home he was able to be on his best behavior for that short time for the most part. If he did “snap” or have a bad day then it was easily on my part chalked up to the stress of his job and the travel and I just let it go. 

After about three years, he changed jobs to one where he did not have to travel. Then it began. He no longer had the protection of travel to hide his severe anger and rage issues. I got to be front and center for them. I tried to be the “good wife” and be understanding. He is starting a new job, I am sure that’s stressful. Blah blah blah. This “being a good wife” turned into about nine years of me tolerating a steady stream of escalating verbal and psychological abuse which culminated in 48 hours of very physical abuse. 

Sadly, he was good at hiding it and words don’t leave bruises so there is no "evidence". He would tell me that if I asked for a divorce then everyone would think I was the bad person and he'd make sure of that because all anyone would have ever seen of him was "good". Yes. I know. Ridiculous in the light of this day but when it's happening to you? Quite a different story. But, the second I had injuries you could “take a picture of”, I was OUT. Done. I felt like I had evidence to “breach the contract of marriage”. Hey. I take my promises seriously and I don’t apologize for that. Would I do it differently next time? First, there should not be a next time and second, if it ever does, you can bet your sweet bippy I will.  

I share this not for pity or attention but to show that I endured years of mental abuse that left me at best, doubting my own worth as a woman and a wife not to mention a person. And at worst, doubting my own sanity at one point. (Google “Gas Lighting” if you are bored and want an interesting read).  I feel like I can speak on and to the subject because I have the experience.

This is why I can see when some people say, “I don’t have imposter syndrome because I am not an imposter. I really don’t know anything.” …I can see that they aren’t always speaking to their technical knowledge but to something much much much deeper and more profound. They are speaking to their worth as an individual. 

One of my mentors that helped me through my own “Long Dark Night of the Soul” made it a point to teach me that I have absolutely no value. That is correct. I have no value. My actions or choices or products that I made can have value but me, myself, the essence of who I am is without value. 

I shared this in another forum recently and I will share it again here: 

"It has helped me immensely to finally understand that "self-esteem" is not a "sense of self".

Self "worth" is deciding that you have an overall value, like a price tag on your soul.

Then you go around finding out if your "value" is "good enough".

When it IS "good enough" you then can worry about what will happen when it is NO LONGER is "good enough".

When it is NOT "good enough" then you get to feel bad.

At no time are these feelings of anxiety or depression or anger ("Why the Hell am I NOT good enough?!) a "sense of self".

They are only the emotional results of believing that 

(1) you can have a value, and then 

(2) the always unpleasant result of giving yourself a value.

How to overcome this:

Work (and it is hard work) to correct the thinking that you actually CAN give yourself a value that is nothing more than a self-defeating fantasy until you reprogram your mind to no longer do it at all!

When I stopped attaching $$$$$ Value to ME, a significant amount of the anxiety faded. I was taught to remove the words “good” and “bad” from my vocabulary when referring to myself specifically and to others as well. I have even made a special effort to avoid using it with my daughter. How did this work, you ask?

If I made a mistake, I was not allowed to say “I did a bad job” or “I am a terrible mom/boss/pentester/whatever”

If I did something I wish I hadn’t like eat a pint of ice-cream or forgot an assignment, I was not allowed to say “I am a bad girl for eating that ice cream” or “I am stupid for forgetting that assignment”.

If I did not do something like the laundry or the dishes, I was not allowed to say that I was a terrible lazy person for not doing them.

Furthermore, I had to loop the people close to me in on this so they could call me on it when I did do it. Yup. I had to allow and actually ASK others to correct me.

AS YOU CAN IMAGINE this took a LONG time and was not easy. Nor was it pleasant. But I really really really wanted to get better and I trusted the person who was coaching me through this. So, I did it.

Did I do it perfect? Nope. Not even. Did the magical all better fairies come over night after I did it the first day? Nope. It took me EIGHT LONG YEARS and I am STILL CATCHING MYSELF AND CORRECTING MYSELF these days. 

But you know what? I think the brain is the most elegant computer that is out there. And I truly think you CAN reprogram it. It helped me to think of how my brain worked as an operating system. I was not pleased with the functionality of my operating system. Therefore: I decided to reprogram it.

Obviously there is a lot more to this but I wanted to share this with folks because I honestly think it truly saved my life. I went from a woman who sat in the shower and cried every night. A woman who had to pull her car over and cry daily. A woman who was so anxious she can still tell you the best places to stop as you drive into Arlington to puke. A woman who weighed 100+ more pounds than she did now. All I had to do was reprogram my system.

Now, as any of us know, even the perfect system will glitch or need patching :) But I am so much happier now with this new one. Life still isn’t perfect. Bad things still happen. I still get scared, anxious, and upset but those are natural human emotions and they should and do occur from time to time. I have simply managed to remove some of the bad code that society had insisted was there and replaced it with something that runs much better and is more streamlined. 

Now, when I make a mistake, I will say, “Well, that was not the plan!” or “Yikes, let’s try this again and try to avoid that.”

If my daughter makes a mistake, I will say, “Well, that didn’t work. How could you do it different next time?” 

I no longer say, “I am a bad person” I say, “I am still learning.”

I no longer eat a pint of ice cream in one sitting but if I happen to over indulge in a treat that I find myself wishing I hadn’t, I’ll say, “Looks like we need to balance those calories”. Or, I will remind myself that I really don’t like feeling like I do after I eat like that and add a note to my grocery list: Probably not helpful to purchase anything like that the next few weeks since I appear to be struggling with snacking on treats.”

Yes. I actually write that.

If I don’t do something like the laundry or dishes, I simply say, “I did not feel like doing them and that’s okay. But I also don’t like when they pile up so let me go ahead and do them now.”

The net net / key to all this is to start to be mindful of how YOU are speaking to yourself. Be mindful of how you treat YOU. So many people show respect and kindness to everyone…. but themselves.

Your mileage may vary but so many have asked about my mentors and how they have helped me that I thought I would share one of the tools I was given to work with (this is but one of many)."

  

Ask yourself these questions:

Have you grown up with parents or a parent (or sibling) that constantly put you down or criticized you?

Did you have a teacher or series of teachers that aggressively put you down and were overly critical of you?

Did you have a spouse, partner, boy/girl/x friend who continuously insulted you or picked apart everything you did?

Did you experience bullying behavior from people growing up?

Are you currently experiencing any of this now?

If the answer to one or more of these is “YES!” then you may have something that is running far deeper than Imposter Syndrome. 

Imposter Syndrome is just the cherry on your “sundae of struggle”. 

  

So what now? 

What now indeed.

I am not a professional psychologist or therapist or counselor. I can only share what is helping me recover. And that my shrink tells me that when one has endured that kind of treatment, the memories of it never truly go away. If you are lucky maybe you will only retain it in your subconscious but the reality is: it’s always going to be something that marked your psyche. The key is that there are tools and techniques that will help you manage it and make it more of a faint stain than a deep scar.

All these things take time though. A friend of mine who had been through a similar experience with her first spouse once said to me over a glass of wine at dinner, “I think that it takes about the same amount of time to recover from it that it does to experience it.”

Keep in mind she is NOT a psychologist. This was just her thought. But when I look at my own experience, it seems about par for the course. This does not mean you should rush to your calendar and start counting days and circle the one where you will magically “be all better”. That is not how this works. 

It does not mean, calculate that your entire childhood sucked therefore if you start tomorrow then you will need EIGHTEEN YEARS to get better so screw that!

It does not mean this has been happening your entire life and you have no desire for it to take 25 years to feel better so why bother?

What it means is, do not go see a therapist a few times then declare it’s impossible or not working.  

What it means is: the events and experiences that resulted in how you feel now took place over a period of time. It is reasonable to recognize that the events and experiences that will help you heal and recover are also going to take time. But the clock doesn't start ticking until you start working on it. 

Obviously I am not going to fix or heal everyone with Imposter Syndrome with one post or eureka moment of my own. But I can start on ME and my own Imposter Syndrome like this:

1. I am going to go back out on Twitter and say “Thank you” for the compliment that was given to me earlier… Done. I even used a Pusheen happy pic and consciously avoided anything that subtly put myself down and made my thank you look sarcastic or like a joke. I adore Pusheen and truly appreciated the compliment so tried to show my happiness.

2. I am going to continue to correct myself when I knee jerk into minimizing myself or putting myself down. I am ever so much better at that now but I still slip and I will continue to be mindful of this and offer myself the same kindness I would show a friend or someone I love or even a stranger on this rock hurtling through space.

3. I am going to be speaking at Secure West Virginia / Hack3rcon this upcoming weekend and I will commit right here and now to everyone that I will graciously accept any and all complements I am given even if all I can say is, “Thank you”. Even if I don’t agree or think I deserve them, it’s not about what I think, it’s about what the giver thinks and I will not disrespect their opinion and their gift of kindness.

4. I will continue to work towards accepting the kindness others give me and remembering to treat myself with the same kindness I would treat others.

5. I will remind myself that it is okay to think kindly of myself even if people in my past haven’t. They aren’t the boss of me. I am. 

In closing, I share a close up of one of the tattoos on my left forearm. This was the first tattoo I got after the divorce. All my ink is designed by me personally and they are snapshots of the lessons I have learned. This says, “L’amour est patient, L’amour est gentil”


At first, it was a simple reminder to myself that if I ever met another man that I was considering a relationship with, true love IS patient and kind. Not angry and picky and passive aggressively insulting. It is also gracious and patient and understanding. This was the love I offered but it was not returned. This is the love I deserve and should expect. 

This quote scarred into my skin grew to remind me that I needed to remember to show that same patience and kindness TO those that I love. Any parent out there will totally get what I mean here. And, any of you with aging parents you are helping now will also get that. 

Then, one day it hit me. I recall distinctly I had just left yoga class and was getting into my car and it hit me:

This also extends to me. Not just to the behavior I expect from a potential suitor. Not just to the behavior I should extend to others. It also means how I should treat myself. I had been forgetting the most important person in the entire equation. 

Me.

Don’t forget yourself. Remember to be kind to you. Even if you don’t think you deserve it now, chances are it’s because others have convinced you otherwise. Opinions and feelings are not facts. YOU deserve patience, love and kindness. Start giving what you give everyone else to yourself as well.  

You might find you struggle less with Imposter Syndrome when you start allowing yourself to accept compliments and the respect of others. Sure, you might still feel like you need more knowledge or experience to be considered an expert but I can promise you that you know things others do not and they would be ever so much appreciative if you were to share that gift with them. It is true that you can always learn something new. But, it is also true that you can also always teach new things to others.

Just a thought.