A dear friend of mine, Lisa, from my Royal Roads MA leadership cohort, recently introduced me to the TV series, Outlander. For the uninitiated (which was me about 2 hours ago) our heroine, Claire, a WWII nurse, is mysteriously transported two hundred years into the past to 1743 Scotland. Obviously, she feels completely out of her element, commenting that “it was like landing on an alien world you’d only glimpsed through a telescope” having no knowledge of how to interact or respond to the world that is almost completely different to her life and experiences. I am only on the second episode so I cannot tell you any more than that, and being an avowed science fiction geek, I know that these things always work themselves out, but that’s TV. That isn’t real life (despite what my friend Lisa might think), and while a nice fantasy to know that Claire will quickly adapt and thrive when we are placed in similar scenarios of being tossed into the unknown, it doesn’t generally work out in an hour as it does on TV.
The unknown, the place between the present and our ideal selves is a thoroughly frightening place to be, and when we don’t know what is going to happen, our minds fill in the gaps with speculation and worry.
We make up stories of what we do not know or don’t comprehend, and that ambiguity can lead us not towards that unknown, but back into the comfort of the present.
I have been thinking a lot lately about the idea that we place on students to acclimatize to new environments.In just a few short weeks, we will be welcoming new students home to our campuses and put an unending amount of time, energy, money, and programming into transitional activities. This is an enormous undertaking that takes many different professionals and leaders to orientate our students to their new environments and help them begin their academic careers with intention and success. The idea that has been rattling around in my head though is the professional side of things. Just over nine years ago ,I came to Alberta from Ontario having never set foot in Edmonton or on the MacEwan University campus. I had never seen a photo of the inside of the residence or met a single colleague I would be working with, save for a single telephone interview with five staff. I was completely out of my element, and I struggled for quite awhile to find my footing and the confidence and not feel like an Outlander myself.
The concept of imposter syndrome is not new, but I have heard conversations around it more and more lately from professionals, experienced and well-regarded colleagues, who just don’t feel like they have clicked into the field of student affairs. This isn’t to say that the work is not meaningful or opportunities to engage with students non-productive, but there is a very powerful feeling of not fitting into the culture. Whether it’s at the departmental, institutional, or even field wide level, it is a feeling that can hack your head and your heart rather quickly and leave you feeling like a fraud. As a Residence Life Coordinator, I have lived with thousands of students and worked with *hundreds& of students leaders. You’d think after doing this for as long as I have that I would be able to internalize the successes I have had, the relationships I have built, and the great accomplishments I have watched the students I work with achieve.
Imposter syndrome though has a very funny way of festering, and I know that both professionals and students feel it and so the question I have for myself is, how do we combat it?
How do we build the relationships necessary to lift up the students and colleagues we work with and help them find the meaning, mattering, and community they are looking for? As someone who struggles to go to conferences because that of that persistent little voice in my head that says “you just don’t fit in here Tim,” I’ve done a bit of research and digging into this idea. As a result, I’ve come up with a few ideas that may prove beneficial for those have that same (annoying) little voice in their head.
1) Forgive yourself for your mistakes. It’s easy, particularly when everything about our lives is broadcast across the internet so proudly, to feel like you are never going to amount to anything when you are constantly benchmarking yourself against everyone else. This is particularly true when you see someone who just seems to be able to knock it out of the park every moment of every day. First of all, that is fifty shades of bologna because no one, despite what their Instagram may say, has a perfectly charmed life. Those are moments being selected for broadcast out of a thousand different moments on any given day. Secondly, you have to be willing to forgive yourself for the mistakes you’ve made and the losses you’ve experienced. As a recovering perfectionist, I still need to remind myself that I am not my colleagues, I am not only a reflection of my successes and failures, and it’s only the ideas that I let into my head that get to take up space rent free.
2) Own your two feet of space in this world without apology. This is a line cribbed from my favourite professor of all time, Doctor Beth Page. She is the type of professor I would like to grow up to be one day because she brings such honest joy and humility into the world.
This is advice that I cannot ever stop repeating to myself not only because it is true, but because that empathy we talk about giving to students all the time, we need to give a healthy double serving of to ourselves far more often.
I think it’s fine to recognize when we have made a mistake and own it. I think it’s also fine to admit that something could have gone better or been done differently. However, in the same breath, I want to see the colleagues and students that I work with own their wins, their losses, their flaws, and their perfections and weave them into their story. We don’t talk about the times we fall down because it’s embarrassing to share stories that didn’t work out the way we would have liked. However, in being vulnerable, and in owning our experiences and sharing them with the world, we take back the power of whatever happened. I have been doing a keynote now for 10 years that is almost exclusively about the times I have lost. It isn’t easy to talk about my weight or my past decisions or my fear of action or any other thing like that, but it gives us power when we take control of our own story and don’t apologize for who we are.
3) Captain Spock knows what he is talking about, so it’s worth listening. I have spent a good chunk of my life with my head in the clouds dreaming about being a starship captain. That has taught me a few things about the value of imagining a bold new future, and there is wisdom in visioning your future. Captain Spock said once that “nature abhors a vacuum". What he means is not that cleaning isn’t fun (which it isn’t most of the time), but that change is a constant. When something happens, something will immediately change to fill whatever was there in the past. Accepting change isn’t easy, especially when you are particularly comfortable, nor is it an easy process (see Outlander above) but it is constant. Spock also said (he is a pretty wise Vulcan) that “there are always possibilities". So if we accept that change is a constant and that there is an unending amount of opportunities to pivot around that change, then we are left with a pretty open road to travel. Part of feeling like a fraud for me is feeling like I am stuck on a locked in course. I can’t adjust or change my direction like all my way more well adjusted, more beautiful, smarter and funnier and lovelier colleagues can. The reality is that you don’t know what anyone else is thinking so all you can is make a decision about your own life, accept that things are always going to change, and adjust your plans accordingly. I recently read about a colleague of mine leaving her post at a very well respected institution. It was a risk she decided she needed to take and I am convinced it probably felt like a scary move to make. At the end of the day though we can allow ourselves the freedom to change and grow, or we can stay scared. I have learned in life though that ignoring Captain Spock generally doesn’t work out for anyone.
All of this thinking is easier said than done. It would be great if it were a switch we could just flip off and go on our merry way. That, however, is not how life works. It is a series of moments that appear and disappear like steam from a pot on the stove. We can choose to try and grab the steam and burn ourselves, or we can accept that it is a part of life and it is far brief of an experience worrying about something out of our control. Imposter syndrome is a real thing but it only gets to come into our heads and puts feet up on the furniture if we let it. We get a fresh day every morning to try something new and that is worth putting far more energy into than making up a story in your head to fill a gap that likely is not even there.