Fighting My (Unjustified) Impostor Syndrome by Sara Vaca

Hi, I am Sara Vaca, independent consultant and frequent Saturday contributor.

Lots has happened since my last post in February (a global pandemic for crying out loud), so I’ve been trying to find a timely topic, relevant to what we are all currently living, but I’m afraid I could not come up with one.

Therefore, I am going to share a recent, personal-professional, rather deep experience that relates to the frustrations that we may be living lately (while personally acknowledging and being thankful for my privileged situation).

At the beginning of March I was invited to facilitate a masterclass on Theories of Change (nicely organized by Ann-Murray Brown in Amsterdam), and when I was going to start facilitating one of my sessions, I looked around and I saw a room full of experts, and I thought that they probably had more experience in ToC than me, which made my insecurities (that I otherwise keep nicely under control) suddenly arise and take over. So I became nervous, spoke fast, making less sense and over-apologized during the two hours it lasted. More importantly, I broke my rule of having fun while I do my work.

At the end of the workshop, a nice, wise woman came to me and said kindly: “Please stop apologizing in these situations. You are amazing. You should be proud.” And she made me cry.

Hot Tip: I heard Michele Obama saying that we should overcome our impostor syndrome (when you doubt of your accomplishments and feel a constant fear of being exposed as a “fraud”, that apparently happens more often to women). She realized that it was other people in the room who should feel like impostors rather than herself. So for me, the fact that people I admire feel like that helps me want to fight and overcome it.

Hot Tips: Apart from acknowledging this, some other strategies that help me:

  • Thinking I am perfectly enough, authentic and unique 🙂
  • It goes without saying: working hard is the basis for trusting myself
  • Keeping that balance between showing confidence and being humble
  • Finally I once heard someone saying something that made me feel better: “If I evaluate myself, I might find that I am not too valuable – but if I compare myself with others, I’m not that bad at all.” In a nice way.

Does this happen with you? How do you deal with it?

I wish you are all doing well, and I hope that we can expose ourselves to our residual potential impostor syndromes (=working with groups again)… very soon!

Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org . aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

14 thoughts on “Fighting My (Unjustified) Impostor Syndrome by Sara Vaca”

  1. Vidhya Shanker

    Thanks for your courage in sharing this all-too-common phenomenon.

    I wonder if we should shift the onus of responsibility–in much the same way that I and others are intentionally shifting responsibility for “self-care” to “community care.” If many people feel this, it’s clearly not an individual issue but rather a collective one that our field (and others) exacerbates.

    And if it’s more common in women (which I agree it is), the more we tell women how to address it individually as if it’s our problem, the less we are actually addressing it–because we are further pathologizing women instead of pathologizing our field’s culture (and professional culture more generally). What does our field do, especially but not exclusively to women, that fosters self-doubt?

    I appreciated the chance to revisit the video you posted and am glad that Michele Obama’s message spoke to you. It’s worth noting that she was explicitly speaking as an African American woman from a working class background, being interviewed by 2 women of color, in front of an overwhelmingly Asian audience, and she alluded not just to gender but also to race and class when she was describing who takes it for granted that they belong and who really does belong because they worked for it. Those of us who never see people like ourselves occupying positions of power or receiving any recognition in our field feel even less belonging than those who do see themselves represented rather than erased by the field.

    Imposter syndrome is our internalization (myself included) of structural criteria and norms about what competence, leadership, and authority look like, feel like, and sound like. I don’t think it can be addressed at the internalized level alone–the field has to take some responsibility.

    Vidhya

    1. Dear Vidhya: Although there is a certain collective responsibility for handling the problem of low self-recognition in certain groups, I think that the individual work of identifying the problem and its solution, as Sara did, helps a lot in the development of personal and professional leadership. The attitudes of “believing to belong or not to the table” as expressed by Michelle Obama in the video, correspond to various social factors such as the perception of the “power distance” implicit in all cultures, as classified by Geert Hofstede in his 6-dimensional model of national culture. Power Distance is the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.
      So, while collectively in our field we can challenge the power through giving voice and power to those who “belong to the table”, it will not work if people with cultures of high power distance (like in my case, the culture of most Latin American countries) are not aware of their individual power and challenge social norms and believes.
      Link to Hofstede’s 6-dimensions model: https://geerthofstede.com/culture-geert-hofstede-gert-jan-hofstede/6d-model-of-national-culture/

  2. Dear Sara, I loved your post. It is one of those “quarantine miracles” that I celebrate as it takes us out of the technical thinking of evaluation as a profession to focus on the human aspect of its practice.
    I very much agree with your reasoning about the “impostor syndrome”. As women or minority, we feel it even more (as Michelle Obama says because you have been told you are not so valuable). This is particularly true when we move in fields such as evaluation, which until recently was very masculine and focused on numbers and statistics. I’m glad to see that young women like you, Ann-Murray Brown, whom I also follow with great interest, and many others are bringing a different face to evaluation.
    My strategy to overcome the “impostor syndrome” is to prepare good examples from my professional practice that can graphically illustrate the topics that are being presented in a panel of “experts”. Usually, these examples help to show your expertise more than theoretical knowledge, and they may generate an environment of reflective discussion that gives confidence and security in your approaches.
    I also liked your tips, highlighting the balance that must be between humility and self-confidence. I believe that the key to success is to maintain that balance, with an open attitude of permanent learning and knowledge exchange.
    Congratulations!

    1. The article you shared was useful but one needs to look at the context. I don’t consider myself an expert in M&E yet, I’m always open about what I don’t know, knowledge is cumulative as is confidence, and I prefer to use evidence, research and my stock of experience, whatever I might possess to say that confident or overconfident people who may know a lot more than I do, can still be wrong. I recently resigned from a project because the senior advisor, albeit who knew a lot about a lot in the M&E field, simply didn’t get the context of the country we were running a project in at all correct. An implementing partner with a poor track for implementation of a project with loose ends in many areas of the project design and lack of consensus and clarity on every stage of implementation and an arrogant assumption that just because an international NGO is throwing money on a project covering the smallest component of building knowledge of teachers, through a model that has empirically demonstrated the lowest development and impact results still decided this was the best way to proceed. Given so many unknowns and a massive assumption that values existing teachers towards this type of development would change just because of this project and knowledge would magically trickle down to other teachers and the fact that the impact in grades could be measured was such a huge leap for me that I was dumbfounded at the project conception. Great project had the design been context specific. I was perceived as incompetent at my work because I could see the flaws in the project, was interrogating these assumptions but struggling to verify the logic and was shy about articulating what an epic disaster it would be because of the context in which it was to be applied and the inconsistency in who is going to measure what and when given the implementing partner has a poor track record for implementation. After all, the regional advisor designed the project, so who was I to refute the astounding brilliance of it?
      Thank you for the article. Imposter syndrome affects all of us at some point of our lives.

    2. I strongly disagree. There’s a burgeoning number of empirical research studies on the impostor phenomenon coming out lately–including one coming out soon in AJE by John Lavelle and colleagues–and even competent people can experience it. It seems to be more an issue of not internalizing success rather than evidence of incompetence. Your linked post mentions nothing about impostor phenomenon, and more so about recognizing the limits of our training and background (e.g., not being an “armchair epidemiologist”).

      Also, Sara is an experienced and accomplished evaluator, yet your post suggests you find her incompetent. This is highly disrespectful behavior towards a fellow evaluator.

      1. Dana… I’m sorry, but I think you have totally misunderstood my intention. I know and have worked with Sara and do not think she is incompetent. Perhaps my comment was too oblique, or the use of double negatives was the problem…

        In simplest terms, having doubts about one’s capacities is sensible and the sign of a reasonable functioning intelligence. Those who don’t, (e.g. Donald Trump, it appears), are the ones we should worry about.

        I hope this clarifies things. If it does not, I would be happy to see my comment deleted, in case others (unintentionally) are offended

        1. On my end, I know Rick so I understood his comment as constructive, as a way of saying that “doubting is at some level a good sign”… But thank you Dana for your comment too as I also understand it can be read differently.
          Cheers,
          Sara.

          1. Thank you, I’m glad to hear it was miscommunication. I can see what you meant now, and I’m glad we agree how amazing Sara is!

  3. Sara,

    Before reading your post I was unaware of the name for that feeling I’ve had for so many years. That wave of uncertainty always seem to wash over me when I am in a strong an academic environment. I always start to second guess myself and feel like I’m not nearly as smart as all of the other people in the room, and then my anxiety gets to me and proves me right. I can imagine it would be challenging to talk yourself out of your imposter syndrome in a work environment, but I believe you can do this!
    Sometimes for myself, taking a step back while taking time to slowly gather my thoughts and plan my responses make me feel more like I belong. I think it is interesting to consider that the imposter syndrome is more common in women, which seems totally relatable. Men have been conditioned to second guess themselves less in professional settings and care less about what people think (generally speaking). Women are more intuitive of our own feelings and probably more receptive of the feelings of those around us which can all feed into our personal feelings of inadequacy in those situations.
    I think we should all keep our heads up and try our best to remember that we are right where we are supposed to be.

    1. Jara Dean-Coffey

      Dana I agree with your response as well.

      Sara, your competence is not at issue here. Feeling dis-ease and insecure is often a reaction to internalizing the importance of the work and your desire to be service. This type of humility is what we need more of in the world.

    1. I love the spotify list to get you in the zone (like artists and high-level sport people before the spotlight! LOL).
      Listening to it while I work 🙂
      Many thanks.

  4. Sara, I love this article and thank you so much for sharing. I am still searching for something which really helps me and aids me through my anxieties when I feel the good ol’ Imposter Syndrome taking grip. The self doubt just takes over and the stomach turns violently before I need to present something or do something important. Then the negative self talk starts. I do enjoy some rare moments when this doesn’t happen and treasure these moments immensely. ??

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