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Impostor Syndrome

By Alison Nissen

“What do you have to lose?”

It was an honest question. I stopped and thought about it while my ego silently screamed, “Impostor!”

I blinked for a second, “Nothing?” I said without confidence.

A friend had just given me the lead for a new career, a dream job, something I thought unlikely and something my ego thought impossible.

I was living on a military base spending my time chasing a three-year-old or breastfeeding a newborn. My friend had been hired as a math teacher for active duty military at a junior college on base.

As it turned out, they needed an English teacher, too, and I happily said yes when they offered me the position.

On the first day of class, I stepped up to the lectern and faked my way through the two-hour course, imitated my favorite college professors, reviewed my predecessor’s syllabus, and left the class euphoric. Literature discussions always exhilarated me.

Two things happened that day. First, I realized I loved speaking in front of people. I experienced an adrenaline rush, the type runners talk about after the big race. Up until the moment I stepped to the front of the room, I considered myself shy and fearful of strangers—a trait others will surely deny about me. And, second, I was not an impostor. The measuring stick I used to judge myself against others appeared longer in my head than in reality.

My measuring stick, it seems, was overrated. I based my opinions on the amount of experience I had compared to professors who looked 102. I hadn’t read every book under the sun, written long dissertations on the literary influences of obscure deceased authors who lived in terrible conditions or rubbed elbows with Pulitzer prize-winning protégés. No, I was an ordinary person with a literature degree. As it turns out, my mentors started at the bottom, too.

I learned to accept the fact that I could never read all the books in the library. I learned that engaging with my students, propping them up when they needed assistance, and letting them soar when they excelled created a thriving environment that allowed everyone to succeed.

I also learned that I was not nearly as shy and fearful of strangers as I had thought. Most people are wary of new situations; what I deemed to be a flaw in my character turned out to be normal. The phrase “authentic self” is jargon for it’s okay to be “you.” If I am my authentic self, it is impossible to be an impostor. I had the knowledge and the desire.

There will always be people who have more qualifications, read more books, and rub elbows with the upper echelon. That’s okay. Because there will never be another Alison. And she is who I really want to be.

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