Business woman with a secret and her mouth taped shut because she is an impostor

Admit it, you’re a fraud! and other stuff you tell yourself to ruin your life–Part II

Mark Steel Confidence

In Part I of this blog series, I outlined how the feeling of being an impostor in the corporate world caused inner turmoil for years.

I shared that I had let negative self-talk make me feel that I didn’t compare to my successful peers. You see, throughout my corporate career, at one of the most successful companies in the world, I carried around a secret.

It’s about time I came clean.

Confessions of an impostor

I let this secret weigh on me for years. If anyone knew the truth, I would be humiliated. Subsequently, my secret was rarely far from my thoughts.

Because of this secret, I told myself I didn’t belong at that company with such skilled people. Feeling that I couldn’t compare to them, my self-talk turned more and more critical. Even areas where I was most confident started to suffer from doubt in my abilities. I started carrying these doubts with me to customer briefings, internal meetings, training sessions, and even work-related social events.

My perceived limitations became the mental equivalent to carrying a bag of large, heavy rocks. Each doubt became a rock. In other words, I allowed one perceived shortfall to cause me to doubt myself. One doubt led to another and another.

This secret is something I have never shared publicly. Until now.

The secret that I let haunt me professionally for so many years–I don’t have a college degree. In fact, I didn’t even go to a university.

Paying for my own college as I went along, I could only afford classes at a community college. In an effort to better myself, I took classes four nights a week, then drove 45 minutes to my full-time job as an overnight janitor at a large retail chain. After two years of the grind, I decided I would “finish later.”

I told myself that not having a degree would be fine. After all, it’s not as though I was ever going to work at one of the most competitive, fast-paced, challenging organizations in the world. Right?

It turns out, as happens from time-to-time with twenty-somethings, I was wrong.

Surviving as an impostor

Years later, completely unexpectedly, I found myself working for one of the most competitive, fast-paced, challenging organizations in the world.

Most might hear my confession of not having a degree and think, “That’s it? That’s your secret? Approximately half of all Americans don’t have a degree.”

What may be true in the general population was not the case among my coworkers. Four-year degrees were required, while those with Masters degrees were very common. Due to an incredible mentor and hard work, I found myself working at a company where my lack of degree likely placed me in the “overwhelmingly rare” category among my peers.

Make no mistake, I am immensely grateful for all I learned and earned in my career. I am fortunate to have such an opportunity. At the same time, since I was in an ultra-successful company filled with Type A people, I allowed my lack of a college degree to cast doubts on my abilities.

Not a single co-worker ever said anything about my school credentials. Not a single one knew or would have cared. My work spoke for itself. Yet, the impostor experience led me to fixate on that standard as my measure of comparison to others. Over time, my career became a source of inner turmoil.

My unusual background often caused me to struggle to understand technical concepts that seemed to come easily to my peers. I felt embarrassed each time I needed to ask for help. Instead, I believed I should just be learning on my own. I spent many (MANY!) nights pouring over my computer until the wee hours of the morning attempting to learn enough to feel competent the next day.

To compensate, my strategy to keep up with my peers was to say “Yes” to everything. Of course, this resulted in countless more late nights of panic and preparation.

Even more telling of the impostor experience, when things went well, I downplayed it as no big deal. I felt on the verge of being exposed as the fraud I really was, in spite of ongoing feedback that I was a valued team member.

I ignored and dismissed signs of success. In my mind, awards, accolades, and advancement seemed more the result of generous managers or kind coworkers. Even praise that resonated when I received it would wash away soon after. The negative self-talk always returned.

Without knowing, I learned to see only that which supported my inner dialog. To me, peers were always ahead of the game while I most often felt I was barely keeping my head above water.

I picked up rock, after rock, after rock. I just kept adding weight to my bag of doubts.

That bag got quite heavy.

An impostor comes home

In my head, every day at work brought new opportunities for me to fall short.

Over time, my self-esteem spiraled downward. This bled into every aspect of my life.

I stopped being fully present during family time. As new tasks came in at all hours, I constantly checked my phone in the evenings for incoming email. I routinely rushed time with my family in the evenings so I could spend more time learning or preparing for the next day.

The feeling of inadequacy I placed on myself at work started to invade my relationships at home.

Every typical “bump” in my marriage became another chance to blame myself for falling short. Over time, loving words of encouragement or support from my wife started to fall on deaf ears. Our relationship stalled.

I became short with my son. My expectations for him became too high and out of line with his personality. Instead of taking the time to understand him better, I instead felt I should take on his home tasks myself. Our relationship stalled.

There’s more, of course. More rocks. So many more rocks went into the bag.

In the fall of 2013, I collapsed under the weight. Mental weight I had placed in the bag myself.

I had gone from FEELING like an impostor to BEING an impostor.

You don’t have to wait until something like this happens. You can change it all TODAY!

Leave the impostor experience behind

Watch for my next post, where I’ll share the process I used to take control of my mental dialog and transform my future.

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Until then, thank you so much for reading. Climb On!