Since my autism diagnosis about 2.5 years ago, much of my mental energy has gone into reevaluating and reinterpreting many of my emotions, especially related to work, that I have held my entire adult life. Here are some examples:
- Other people do not seem to find it difficult to speak up in meetings, but when I do, the conversation stops and others in the room change the subject, so I must have said something wrong or even that there must be something wrong with me.
- I have done good work, accepted new challenges whenever I was asked and try not to brag unnecessarily about my accomplishments, but when I apply for a promotion, I am told I’m not ready, need to learn to communicate better or am just not “management material.”
- I have conceived of, created and sustained incentive programs for years within the department, intended to forge relationships between factions, which were allowed to wither and die because there was NO support from management when I was essentially performing a service that should have been their number 1 priority. Instead, I was advised to stop putting so much of my heart and soul into fixing what was obviously an unfixable problem; in other words, save yourself, because I will not support your goals for the good of the department.
- The list goes on…
I could come up with 5 more examples in 5 minutes, but you get the point. Had I known/understood that I was different in a very fundamental and irreconcilable way, being autistic that is, I could have figured out how to really show people what I am capable of and saved myself immense amounts of heartache trying to stay loyal to a “good family company” for absolutely no good reason. I spent over a decade trying to fit in to a system that was never going to accept me for my strengths regardless of what I did or how well I communicated them.
Occasionally, I go through some thought experiments as if I had been promoted into management. Would I have been able to transition? Would I have been able to be “successful” or would the position have only served to exploit all of my weaknesses and given me no support to grow and succeed? Would my team members all have hated me the way some current peers seem to do now (and are allowed to get away with by said management)? Could I have AT LEAST parlayed a year or two of management on my resume to a higher position at another company where my talents could have shown brighter?
Or would I have been caught in the stranglehold of imposter syndrome, even with an earlier diagnosis? Not believing I was capable of doing the job based on the position I was being paid for. Not believing I had the skills or abilities. Because that is what I had been told for years.
Imposter syndrome is a set of internalized beliefs of unworthiness, typically career-/job-related, typically reported to be felt by women and others who are highly empathic, racial or neuro-minorities or those who are any combination of the above. It is generally attributed to those who achieve some measure of success, but struggle to feel that they deserve it, especially on days when they made some major mistake or were called to a family emergency at a time when work was expected to be given their full attention.
Imposter syndrome is not a function of some women’s inability to recognize their own success, though. Imposter syndrome is a PERFECTLY APPROPRIATE, UNDER-APPRECIATED empathetic response to being constantly devalued and “othered” by a workplace created and supported by a systemic white supremacist patriarchy. If you feel unworthy, or that you aren’t doing enough to warrant your pay or your title, congratulations! You absolutely, more than 1000% deserve it, and more! You ARE the leader we need to step up right now.
Your feelings of inadequacy are a result of the fact that others in the workplace do not feel enough, not that you feel too much. Just because women are expected not only to be excellent at our “day job,” but also to care for others emotional needs at work AND are compensated less for our troubles, does not mean we don’t deserve what we have or are getting what we deserve. You do not have to internalize that YOU are the problem whenever things go sideways; the system is rigged. So if you are not getting the support, guidance, whatever you need to be a excellent as you can be at your current and future positions, speak up! Your support may not come from within your organization; they might not even acknowledge your request (mine have not always been), but you can find your support system. Use it! Find creative ways to make good waves in your org and make yourself impossible to ignore with your excellence and own it. You are a badass! If you keep your compass set to true North, they will have no choice but to take notice.
The existence of imposter syndrome is AT LEAST as much a cultural and societal problem as it is a “personal” problem. We have grown up, until now, without role models who showed, out loud and in public, how hard work is, how much we are affected by the expectation of perfection and how to model graceful failure, having bad days and showing up regardless. The success is in the presence and perseverance, not the image of flawlessness regardless of how you really feel. The more we can all talk about and show off our WHOLE AUTHENTIC LIVED EXPERIENCE, even on our bad days, we can cure imposter syndrome for everyone because we will have pulled it up by its roots.
Those who will lead this charge are those who have lived through the trauma and abuse of the “old” system and have moved through the experience and grown from it. We are emerging to build new structures where harassment will no longer be tolerated and everyone is empowered to learn, grow and do their best work for the common good.
We’ll see where people want to work in the future. Hop on board, this train is just getting started and there is so much to do!