My initial introduction to imposter syndrome was through my work with first‐generation students. The more I learned about how imposter syndrome, often experienced as feelings of inadequacy, self‐doubt and questing competency, could negatively impact student success, the more I thought, These descriptions sound like me.
Though not a first‐generation student, I was the first in my family to earn a doctorate, the first of my peers to become a senior leader in higher education, and the first of my friends and family circle to adopt.Feeling Like an Imposter
Additionally, I took an untraditional path into higher education and into senior leadership. At so many turns, professionally and personally, I felt insufficient—like the tiniest of missteps would result in catastrophic failure. I had no idea how many other women felt the same way as me! And, like some others with imposter syndrome, I thought maybe I was making excuses for how I felt.
Then the COVID‐19 pandemic hit—and the world I (and many others) so tenuously built to navigate work–life integration came to a sudden and excruciating halt. Simultaneously, as I, like others, learned how to virtually home school while working full‐time from home, I also became the COVID‐19 Coordinator for Students and the Chair of my college's COVID‐19 Workgroup.
All the typical feelings associated with imposter syndrome—fear, worry, anxiety—crashed around me every day. Yet, professionally, I felt like the physical and psychological health and well‐being of our students laid more heavily on my shoulders than ever before. I knew that regardless of my inner critic, failure as a leader was not an option.
One of my favorite descriptions of imposter syndrome comes from Melody Wilding, who in 2017 wrote in “The Five Types of Imposter Syndrome and How to Beat Them” that imposter syndrome is a “hot mess of harmfulness.” As we approach nearly a year of navigating the pandemic, I repeatedly find this description useful to remember when I am stuck and endlessly entertaining when I am trying to get unstuck. There are so many other hurdles to overcome in the world around us—why let self‐doubt and fear do more harm? Why let imposter syndrome remain a stumbling block when it could become a secret weapon of sorts?Reframing Imposter Syndrome
Managing imposter syndrome means being well prepared, curious and thoughtful. Experiencing imposter syndrome acts as an alarm of sorts, letting us know when we are out of our comfort zones. The pandemic rocked the world as we know it, creating discomfort on myriad levels, and for better or worse, it normalized the concept of functioning beyond our comfort zone day after day.So, with hope and optimism, looking forward to a post‐pandemic world, I sought to rewrite the role of imposter syndrome in my life by focusing on how navigating imposter syndrome strengthened my leadership abilities. I wanted to reframe the often‐debilitating narrative imposter syndrome had too often held into something positive that I could incorporate moving forward when no longer working in crisis mode. This is what I have revised so far.
- Reframe fear of failure to opportunities for success. Such a reframe harnesses the physiological components of fear into functional aspects to help us make focused and quicker decisions when needed, while sustaining energies on long‐term goals. Of course, this is easier said than done. For me, the fear of managing COVID on a highly residential campus was superseded by the opportunity to continue supporting students in their pursuit of their academic and personal goals. I redefined what “success” meant within the context of leading during a pandemic and celebrated small victories more frequently than I did in a pre‐pandemic world.
- Find ways to incorporate strengths. Having a pre‐pandemic background in crisis management became an asset for me as a leader in ways that were transient before. My experience and training in choosing “fight over flight” allowed me to focus on the work that needed to be done for an extended period. It also allowed me to serve the campus community in ways that are not always proactively quantifiable within a leader. Looking back, being able to serve in a role that I had prior to the pandemic gave me confidence to tackle more than I thought possible.
- Accept that perfection is not always an option. A salient component of imposter syndrome is doing the research and investigative work to inform decision‐making and opinion formation. In time, I learned to take comfort in allowing due diligence to shift my internal dialogue from doubt to recognition of the work done so far, acknowledging that leading in a pandemic was new for everyone and that my colleagues and I were in it together. Over the past two semesters amid the pandemic, federal and state guidance has understandably pivoted and adjusted. Through staying informed with multiple channels of information, incorporating ongoing assessment of efforts and seeking feedback from various stake holders, I felt as competent as one can amid an ever‐evolving global pandemic and trusted that I was leading as effectively as I could.
- Listen to intuition, instincts and speak up. Another prominent aspect of imposter syndrome is choosing to keep contradictory opinions to one's self instead of risk disagreement or creating space for dialogue. Knowing that decisions being made during the pandemic could have life or death outcomes, I had to put fear of disagreement to the side to ensure there was a place and space for differing opinions. One of my mentors repeatedly shares with me the philosophy that if I am going to fail, at least fail doing something I believe in. This sentiment has played on repeat in my head over the past year and pushed me to speak up even when I was uncomfortable doing so.
- Be genuine. In this context, genuine means be open, be present and be real. Incorporating remote work provided opportunities to engage with students in ways I was not always able to do so pre‐pandemic. I logged onto late‐night virtual meetings and programs I would not have been able to attend in‐person. Balancing virtual home‐schooling and working from home forced me to repeatedly acknowledge work–life intersections—something that was previously nerve‐wracking for me to do. Seeing and hearing others acknowledge their intersections too, whether through kids, pets and/or partners coming in and out of video‐meeting screens provided an opportunity for me to worry less about trying to do the proverbial “all” and focus more on being in the moment.
Most definitely, this narrative shift is a work in progress. It's one that wasn't clear to me until a semester break when I had time to reflect and process. Speaking up about the new narrative is yet another step in entering a new chapter. One I eagerly await to fully enter in a post‐pandemic world.
Dr. Melanie V. Tucker is Vice President & Dean of Students, and Chief Diversity Officer at Maryville College TN.