Imposter Syndrome

In my third meeting of the day, I find myself seated around department representatives, project leads, and political aides, but the conversation at hand sounds far away in my head. Once again, I look around and see that I’m the only one who looks like me at the table. I feel like I don’t belong.

Is this normal?

I wanted to talk about imposter syndrome for a long time because the topic comes up in almost every conversation I have with talented, brilliant, young women of color. We’ll be sharing office anecdotes, and then somehow we are admitting that there are many moments when we pause and feel like we don’t deserve to be there, or that we are not supposed to be there.

I hesitated to write about this because 1. I was worried someone at work would read this and perceive that I am insecure/lacking confidence at my job and 2. I never sought medical evaluation for a real diagnosis, and I do not want to make light of those who experience true mental health problems because of imposter syndrome. And then the past few weeks, we all saw the world turn upside down. Now I realize that it is time for my colleagues to understand what I have been going through, and that the co-workers who matter most will be the ones who reach out and offer support. The ones who do not simply do not matter. And I think, if we’re being honest with ourselves, we all feel lost at our jobs from time to time. Never has a job turned out to fit the job description I applied for. This is a feeling that is universally felt by BIPOC, Women of Color, and Millennials at large who are beginning their professional careers. I’m going to focus on my experience with IS, when I first noticed it, and what I’m doing about it. So if you want to know more about what it’s like for a Millennial Asian American female to work in America, read on. If you couldn’t care less, you’re in for a pretty boring read.

The room where it happens
I am so proud to represent my Korean heritage on staff, but it can be extremely challenging being Korean-American at work sometimes. I am 5’2 and without makeup I look like I am a high school student. I have four years of public service experience and just finished my Master’s degree in Urban Planning while working full-time. Yet I find myself spending time every morning putting together outfits that will make me look older, and shoving my feet into painful heels so I look taller. And I know this fear of being looked down on is not just in my head. My fear was validated when, during the first year at my job, men refused to shake my hand, asked for hugs, kissed me on the cheek without my consent, and asked me to take notes and make photocopies during large conference meetings.

I have been humiliated time and time again. And then there’s my age. In my field of work, most meetings are filled with middle-aged males who are mid/late-career professionals. For two years, I had to practice finding the right moment to speak up and comment or ask questions. There were some meetings where I could not even find a chance to say one word. In grad school, I was the only Korean-American female in my class, and one of about 5 Korean students in the public policy school.

I love what I do- And I’m good at it

So why did I put up with it? Why didn’t I go to my supervisor? I was afraid of speaking up because I did not want to appear as whiney, bitchy, or lazy. As a Korean-American, I watched my parents work 6 days a week non-stop to put food on the table. I was raised to be thankful for being employed, and that my duty is to work as hard as I can. But no matter how hard I work, even to this day, I come across frustrating moments where I know the person across the table from me is not taking me seriously. All these moments combined made me realize one day that I felt like a fake. I felt like I didn’t deserve to be in grad school, and that I was faking my way through my job somehow. While I was confused about whether or not I was “qualified” for my job, I was only sure of one thing- that I love what I do, and that nothing brings me greater joy than solving problems and providing public services to constituents.

The only thing that makes me feel better about my imposter syndrome is my Community of Badass Women. Every woman in my life is killing it in her field. They are teachers, investment bankers, accountants, consultants, planners, engineers, and small business owners. When they talk about their dreams, their eyes light up and they talk quickly and passionately. And they dream BIG- I can’t wait to see what they do next because it is only a matter of time until their dreams come true. And yet, every one of these women tell me they also feel what I feel- that they haven’t earned what they have achieved and that maybe they are not supposed to be solving poverty/public education/climate change/etc. This, of course, drives me insane. And then I drive THEM insane by revealing, that I, too, feel like an imposter. Despite the fact that I have achieved so much and I love what I do.

So look. If you’re not a POC, you probably do not know how it feels to be the only person in the conference room who looks like you. It is scary, intimidating, and something that I hope happens less frequently. If you are an ally, I hope you take the time to reach out and support your colleagues who may be struggling to break through the glass/bamboo ceiling. If you are like me, and you ARE the person in the room- I am so proud of us for being in the room where decisions are made. Keep going! And if it’s any consolation, just know that I’m right there with you, carefully curling my hair so it looks more “mature” and saving my sparkly lip gloss for weekends because I want to be “taken seriously” Monday-Friday. So if it helps you, I want to talk about this. It’s not a pretty topic, but I think it is important to embrace and overcome imposter syndrome. Because one day soon, we’re not going to be the only ones in the room who look like us. And when that day comes, our seat at the table will be waiting for us, and we need to continue to making more seats for BIPOC, women, and every other person who has felt like a fake walking into a board room.

That’s all for now. The work continues- please check out these resources if you want to learn more:

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