I recently volunteered at a high school to conduct mock interviews. As I sat there, simultaneously interviewing, encouraging, and giving constructive criticism . . . I noticed one thing. Of these smart, passionate, clearly talented 16-year olds in East Los Angeles, the boys were by far more confident.
Impostor syndrome starts early. I first learned the name for this feeling when I read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In a few years ago. Just knowing it had a term . . .a light switch turned on. I wasn’t alone.
The short explanation for Impostor Syndrome per American psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes: it’s a feeling of “phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” While these people “are highly motivated to achieve,” they also “live in fear of being ‘found out’ or exposed as frauds.”
The boys I interviewed weren’t afraid to brag about their accomplishments. They smiled widely and had that “I’m taking on the world” confidence. While I had to convince one girl that her volunteer work counted under “experience” (I mean, she was sixteen, no one was expecting a full resume), the boys came across as self-assured and poised to grab at any opportunity that came their way. That was not the case for most of the young women I met that day.
There was one girl in particular whose voice registered so quietly that I needed to ask her to speak up more than once. Sitting in the high school library, I was suddenly mentally transported back to my high school. I remembered how painfully shy I had been. I was afraid to speak up and look stupid. I was afraid to speak up and be the center of attention. I was plain afraid to speak up. But now talking to strangers is an essential part of my job. I chose a career path in direct opposition to my personality, and perhaps I’m not as extroverted as my colleagues, but I’m successfully making it work.
After that uneasy out of body experience (believe me, no one ever wants to go back to high school, and if they do, you should not trust that person), I stopped the interview. We talked through possible coping mechanisms for her natural shyness, and I told her how I used to obsess every morning about when I might be called on to speak in front of my class. “You did that too?” she asked in shock. “Now I have to speak in front of people for a living,” I told her. I encouraged her to face her fears and put herself in uncomfortable situations that may help her in the long run. She might never be completely cured of this feeling and that was okay. But she needed to face it head on.
On occasion, I still struggle with impostor syndrome. I mean, I finished college in two years and graduated in the top ten of my class. I currently have more than a decade of career experience, but there are days when I feel utterly insecure. And when I think of the men in my position—and women too, but certainly men, I always sense a kind of self-possession that I’ve never had. I worry it’s going to hold me back from achieving what I want. (Side note: As I reviewed this paragraph, I deliberated taking my accomplishments out because I didn’t want to sound too “braggy.” That’s kind of in direct opposition to the point of this piece. Sigh. This stuff is ingrained in us.)
I can’t help but also be frustrated after witnessing an onslaught of misogynist rhetoric during the Presidential campaign. Regardless of political affiliation, I know I’m not the only woman who looked at this election, where one of the most qualified people alive ran against the least qualified candidate in modern history, and lost . . . and thought, there goes our chances with that glass ceiling. You can’t help but easily get discouraged (read: crushed) right now as a woman.
I went into this volunteer experience with the simple intention of providing these students feedback from a professional adult. I didn’t go in with any other agenda, but when I met these young women, I suddenly had a deep desire to push them to lean the eff in (we were in a high school and they were sixteen, so I didn’t use the word I really wanted to use). I want them to approach the world like Mindy Kaling, who once said, “My parents raised me with the entitlement of a tall, white blond man.” And what better time to start than now?
When I got home, I tried to explain impostor syndrome to my husband. He thought that maybe the teenage boys were just “faking it.” The thing is, it’s not about actually knowing you’ve got the experience. It’s about exuding the confidence and going for it anyway. It’s about believing that even if you don’t know how to do something, you can figure it out. It’s about knowing that you can figure it out better than the next guy (or girl). And when it comes down to it, it’s about not being afraid to speak up.
My daughter is four-years-old and this experience gave me a tiny window into her future teenage years. I’m more determined than ever before to make sure she feels self-assured, brave, and outspoken. When she’s a teenager, I want her to present herself as confidently with an adult as those 16-year-old boys did with me.
I wish I could wave a magic wand and suddenly make girls understand their worth and radiate the confidence they should have . . . but I can’t. I can just keep working on myself, I can encourage the young women I encounter, I can raise my daughter to be an outspoken leader, and well, I can binge-watch “The Mindy Project.” Mindy Kaling has it all figured out.
About the author: Ally Weinberg lives in LA with her husband, daughter, and two cats. She works in TV and sometimes writes things. She is passionate about kittens, pop-culture, and feminism. To learn more, please visit: https://allyweinberg.contently.com/