I am a master's-educated entry level student affairs professional.
But I am a woman foremost.
As a young, white, able-bodied woman, my gender identity is the piece of my identity that I feel is the most salient in my day to day life, and especially within my work. It is the lens through which I see and interpret the world. It is the cloud, that bloggers and social-media commentators tell me, that is the cause of my anxiety in meeting rooms, what cloaks me in self-doubt and shame.
If you’ve ever felt this way, know that you are not alone.
Imposter syndrome, officially named in 1978, is loosely defined as doubting your abilities and feeling like a fraud. It disproportionately affects high-achieving people, especially women, who find it difficult to accept their accomplishments. Many question whether they’re deserving of achievements.
Contrary to what the name suggests, I don’t believe that those of us suffering from self-doubt are “imposters”, but are rather trailblazers.
Feeling like an imposter can come from many sources: lack of role models or colleagues that look like you, battling with microaggressions, stereotypes, racism, exclusion, and being told implicitly, if not explicitly, told that you don’t belong in white- and male-dominated workplaces.
Even in student affairs and higher ed, where we’re supposed to be more inclusive of all identities, these obstacles can quickly weigh on any woman in a leadership role, leading to feelings of being an imposter.
Despite these deterrents, how do entry-level womxn in student affairs begin or continue to address their own imposter syndrome?
1. Surround yourself with like-minded individuals.
Although you might not presently be able to change your direct work environment, you can take these steps to surround yourself with those who will lift you up:
- Join or start a committee at your institution focused on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
- Lead or become a member of a NASPA Knowledge Community such as Womxn in Student Affairs, African American Knowledge Community, or the Gender and Sexuality Knowledge Community.
- Advocate outside of higher ed by volunteering for human-interest causes.
- Attend a leadership-focused or national conference such as NASPA 2021 Virtual, the Yale Women’s Leadership Program, or the Global Leadership Network Summit.
1B. Have a suppprt circle.
- In surrounding yourself with those who contribute to your successes, you may purposefully or inadvertently create a support circle.
- Find a mentor (or mentors) who you look up to, who have faced similar workplace challenges as yourself.
- Get to know other womxn in your office. Who knows, you may find a workplace best friend to rely on.
- Get real with your supervisor. Although this might not be a possibility in every work situation, chat with your supervisor about how they can help support you cultivate leadership skills.
2. Work to dismantle systems contributing to imposter syndrome.
Imposter syndrome comes from working and living an environment that describes professionalism solely as “Eurocentric, masculine, and heteronormative,” the Harvard Business Review says. Challenge the norm by:
- Inviting a guest speaker to chat with your department or campus about how these ideologies of professionalism are harmful.
- Working with your Human Resources or Career Services representatives to discuss how professionalism is presented at work or with students who are job searching within workplace cultures and coded language.
- Identifying and improving on your own biases on professionalism in the workplace.
3. Build confidence in those around you.
Although a key facet of imposter syndrome is feeling alone, you’ll likely find in your support systems that you are not alone. Help others feel less alone by:
- Mentoring other womxn who are starting their career in student affairs.
- Start a support group, book discussion group, or even a committee on addressing imposter syndrome at work and in students.
- Volunteer your time with a group that supports womxn in the workplace such as the Women’s Global Empowerment Fund, Equality Now, and Anita B.Org.
4. Watch for your own burnout.
Giving to others while also working in a field that asks you to give so much can easily cause burnout, especially for professionals of color and those with marginalized identities. According to Jonathan Higgins, “The hard reality is that POC in student affairs are often expected to not only maintain their workload and the needs of their colleagues, but also must contend with what’s happening outside of the institution — all while supporting their marginalized students.” Address your own burnout by:
- Using your PTO and sick time when needed.
- Maintain open communication about your feelings with your supervisor or mentor during one on ones, if possible.
- Find a release that suits your needs: Whether it’s taking a walk, reading a book, or listening to your favorite album.
- Take a break from alcohol and caffeine, which may be inadvertently messing with your sleep cycle.
- Seek out new or different opportunities to refresh.. As the old saying goes, "a change is as good as a rest.”
- Additionally, seek out a different working environment. Working outside, in a different room, or even a different spot in your office can change your mindset.
- Use FMLA as needed - severe burnout and mental stress can qualify as a reason to use FMLA protection.
The reality is that the ultimate answer to destroying imposter syndrome is not to fix individuals, but to create an environment that fosters a variety of leadership styles and in which diverse racial, ethnic, and gender identities are seen as just as professional as the current model.
I hope that these methods help you think less of yourself as an imposter and more as a trailblazer.
Corinna Kraemer is an artist and creator living in a student affairs world. When she is not assisting students in academic advising at Goodwin University, she is either painting or hanging out with her cat, Mr. K. She hopes her posts will finally help her dad understand what her career in student affairs is all about. Read more work by Corinna at presence.io/blog