Crayons in the Briefcase: Separation anxiety, strep throat, and impostor syndrome
By Tina Ikpa • February 03, 2015•Writers in Residence, Issues, Balancing Private and Professional Life
Virtually everyone knows that saying about making God laugh by telling Him your plans. This is why I did not actually vocalize my plans to kill it at work and leave a sparkling impression within my first three months. Unfortunately, my attempts at hiding such endeavors proved futile. My return to the workforce gave God plenty of chuckles.
After months of scouring legal job postings, calling everyone in the area that I knew who possessed a law degree, rambling at interviews, and waiting and waiting (and waiting) to be admitted to the bar, I found myself in the possession of a shiny new job. One complete with benefits, an on-site gym, a giant refrigerator in the break room, and a 45-minute commute to and from my house. I would be earning a paycheck again. I would be using phrases like “not reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence.” I would get to update my LinkedIn profile and have all of my connections get an email in a year compelling them to congratulate me on my anniversary. Life was excellent.
I was going to rule the world.
Except my son decided that the day I actually left the state for work would be the day he would be inconsolable at day care. Prompting his teacher to call me for advice on how to get him to calm down, and maybe I could possibly come get him if nothing worked? I am not ashamed to admit that I briefly contemplated hailing a taxi to drive me the four hours it would have taken to get back to my screaming son. Luckily it didn’t amount to that. All he needed was a nap.
God must have gotten a kick out of whatever my plans were for the week that found my daughter with a nice little sore throat and rash. I’m sure they were pretty mundane ones, like “be present for a full work day”. At least until I had enough sick time accrued to take off. But no, while I still had zero leave accrued, I left work early to take my daughter to the doctor, and then to the pharmacy to get antibiotics to treat strep throat. I had thought ahead, though. I brought my work laptop home in order to make up the time. Unfortunately, Mommy drafting discovery answers on her work laptop and Mommy Facebooking on her personal one look very similar to my son. And are at the same priority level. (That priority level is about two notches below cleaning out the lint between his toes.) Something was done on that computer that night. I couldn’t tell you what, though.
The joke was on me in a big way when the impostor syndrome set in, though. While strep throat and separation anxiety weren’t particularly pleasant experiences to deal with, they weren’t foreign to me, either. Plus, I have a pretty great support system in place so that in both instances, I was eventually able to relax at work without worrying about how the children would fare. That relaxation unfortunately did not extend to the feeling of being a fraud on the verge of exposure, and I wasn’t sure my support system was equipped to handle that.
A worrier most of my life, impostor syndrome seemed a natural affliction for me to have. Commonly described as the feeling of being unqualified for, and having cheated your way into, a certain position; its nearly paralyzing effects took hold almost immediately. Impostor syndrome was a double edged sword for me, in that it completely zapped my confidence in my body of knowledge, yet made me afraid to ask questions because of the fear that my lack of knowledge would be exposed. Proving my worth to my new employer became my albatross.
I read up on all of the things you’re supposed to do to combat impostor syndrome, like owning your successes and not comparing yourself to others. I found that what ultimately helped me to get past it, interestingly enough, was focusing on the people I worked with rather than myself. Of course they knew more than me about what we did; they had been there longer. There was a time when they had not known it all, though, and my colleagues were quick to tell me that they were always learning. I had to realize for myself that the reason they gave me a chance in the first place was because they saw my potential. And I wasn’t going to fulfill that potential by being afraid to mess up because it would expose me as some sort of undeserving swindler.
This was a departure from the first few days at my first job out of law school. I hadn’t set any standards for myself, happy just to have found a job, and thus was not hampered by fear that I wouldn’t live up to them. I considered myself an empty vessel waiting to be filled back then, and when I messed up (which happened often) I took it as a learning experience. The difference seven years later, was that I walked into this job looking at myself as a full vessel ready to be used, when what I needed to do was adopt a form of the empty-vessel mentality. Yes, I had more experience than I did seven years ago, but the only person expecting me to be an expert was me.
Once I finally got out of my own head, I became much more productive. In one assignment, I had been plugging away, and then I hit a wall. We hadn’t taken a certain procedural step and the reason why was eluding me. I finally decided to just ask my boss (novel concept, I know) and he wondered the same thing. Trying too hard to impress him and not wanting to seem like an idiot would have caused me to hold onto the project much, much longer than I needed to and would have wasted valuable time. Shifting my focus from proving myself to actually doing the work breathed new life into me.
One thing I’ve observed during my first couple of months in the return to the workforce, is that when you make God laugh, always be prepared to learn something. This time the lesson was if you want to feel better, sometimes you need antibiotics, sometimes you need a nap, and sometimes you just need to stop navel-gazing.
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