I was at a tech women's meetup organized by a close friend and colleague. She took the podium for a moment to talk about women in tech, to thank sponsors, and to share some encouraging words with the attendees.
She suddenly called out to me from the spotlight. "Lara, do you remember when I said you should give a talk at Velocity?"
"I do!" I shouted back, grinning.
"And what did you say to me?"
I paused for a moment and realized what she wanted me to say. She'd just spent a few minutes talking about women encouraging each other, and about impostor syndrome. She needed me to say:
"... I said that you were crazy!"
"And remember when I said you should write a book?" she asked.
"... I was like 'whoa, what?!'!" I tried to shout back.
"And Lara, NOW what have you done?" she asked.
"I've given a talk at Velocity and written a book!" I yelled from the back of the group.
"You've given a KEYNOTE and written a book! Ladies, when we look around…" she continued to talk about encouraging each other, about how impostor syndrome can get in our way, and how we can accomplish amazing things.
Here's the problem: That's not how it went down. In actuality, I proposed a talk to Velocity, it was accepted, and I was asked to make it a keynote. I was floored and excited and believed I was ready for it. In actuality, I pitched the book to her at a lunch table, and after working with her on some preliminary writing to gain confidence, she helped me get it through the door with the publisher. In actuality, I was not only up to both challenges, but I also believed I could achieve those goals. I'm also incredibly thankful that she was by my side and believed in me too.
A few months later, I was asked by another colleague to moderate a panel about women in Operations. I replied, "I just want to make sure that you and the other panelists are cool with the fact that I'm not in Ops, and I haven't moderated before. I think I'd do a fine job; I just want to make sure we're all on the same page! :)" Later, she reminded me of what I'd written, citing it as my impostor syndrome talking. She was saying this to be supportive and encouraging.
It's obvious that both women wanted to help; they want to see other women grow and be confident. It's true that naming "impostor syndrome" for someone can open their eyes to see what's really going on; it can help them overcome some internal fears. But in my case, there wasn't any impostor syndrome happening.
Impostor syndrome does poke its head into my life. There's no denying it. But here's the danger of what happened in those two circumstances: I lost a chance to model the pride I have about knowing what I can — and can't — do. I was unable to display, with humility and with confidence, that I know my own edges.
We as a community are aching for more women to model pride in their abilities and accomplishments. We want, and need, more women to showcase their achievements and break those rules about how we're supposed to stay behind the scenes and be modest. It's one reason why we're so eager to reassure someone that they're just suffering from impostor syndrome when they say they're not good at something. It hit home when Jen Myers tweeted about the amazing "Stop Blowhard Syndrome" post by Christina Xu. Myers said, "I'm not an impostor. I'm imperfect, and learning, and growing. And that's not only completely fine, but good. People rushing to reassure me that I'm not an impostor has robbed me of valuable learning opportunities."
While it's good to help someone check whether or not their words may be seeded in impostor syndrome, let's not go so far as to try and convince someone they're suffering from it. We need to remember that naming it on behalf of someone else can diminish the moments when impostor syndrome truly exists. In my case, it also took away an opportunity for me to display self-confidence about knowing what I can and can't do, and to show my pride that I'd fought my way to my current, and future, achievements. Confidence comes in many forms; one of them is knowing exactly what you're not good at, too.