The Literal Seat of My Pants: An Impostor Syndrome Story

I’m super excited to have a nonfiction essay published this year in The Writer’s Book of Doubt, edited by Aidan Doyle. The entire book is quite lovely, and highly recommended! I am thrilled to share a Table of Contents with some of the luminaries of the field, and some of my personal heroes. This is a stellar collection of essays.
Now that the rights to my essay publication are non-exclusive, however, I wanted to reprint it here on my blog. If you like this, check out the rest of the book!
I took a selfie from the stage! Photo by Katura Jensen at The Lead Developer.
I took a selfie from the stage of The Lead Developer, naturally, first thing. This will help me in future when struggling with my own Impostor Syndrome! Photo by Katura Jensen.

“Impostor Syndrome: The feeling that you aren’t really qualified for the work you’re doing or aren’t really deserving of the successes you’ve achieved, and will be discovered as a fraud. Many women, People of Color, QUILTBAG persons, and others experience this, especially when they’ve (we’ve) been socialized to value others’ opinions of work above their (our) own. Want help overcoming your impostor syndrome and/or decreasing its incidence in your community? This practical three-hour workshop provides key takeaways, tools, and advice, delivered with a good dose of humor.”

With this paragraph I pitch my favorite gig, professionally speaking: my Impostor Syndrome Workshop.

I’m going to tell you a story that I have never before written down, about one of my own experiences of impostor syndrome. Imagine me turning the brightest shade of red possible while typing these words. Think, more like a ripe tomato than a pale pink rose.

A couple of years ago, I was invited to give the aforementioned recently-developed three-hour workshop on impostor syndrome at a prominent university. I was incredibly excited. A connection via a friend had landed me this plum opportunity, and it was my first chance to give the workshop in an academic setting.

 I did several of the usual things you might imagine someone in my shoes doing, particularly someone who had been raised as a girl. I bought makeup and took a YouTube crash course on applying it. I styled my hair in a way I was told complemented the shape of my face. I bought swishy new black pants and shiny new shoes.

On the day of the workshop, I looked damn sharp.

I arrived early, as I always try to do, and went about setting up the room.

Workshop participants started to arrive, as did my friend who worked for the university. The time to begin the workshop drew nigh, so I stepped up to the speaker platform, toward the podium where my materials lay.

On the last step up, I managed to step on the hem of my swishy new pants. To my immense and undying horror, I literally managed to pants myself. I’m rather confident I displayed my underwear before I managed to catch my clothing as it fell toward the floor.

Less than five minutes remained before the appointed hour of the workshop. I wouldn’t say the room was full, but certainly I felt all eyes upon me. I needed to recover, fast!

My friend instantly became the best rodeo clown I have ever seen, and distracted the students in the room by making sure everyone had a writing utensil and a copy of the workshop handout. I used that moment to pull my pants back up, but my dignity remained somewhere below my ankles, emotionally speaking. Dropping trousers in public reads as the opposite of professionalism, no matter how you look at it, and I had been so desperate to be a professional in this setting. Instead, I felt like a fraud and a failure.

 

Picture of Crystal and Neil Clarke of Clarkesworld on the Great Wall of China (from a distance).
This pic of me with Neil Clarke on the Great Wall of China is totally in my Awesomeness Dossier.

In every impostor syndrome workshop, I teach people that there are ways we can inoculate ourselves against the onslaught of impostor syndrome feelings, and I give some options for how to avoid spinning our wheels when we start having difficulty. For example, I suggest everyone keep a folder of compliments  they’ve received from people they trust to be honest, in order to remind them of successes they’ve had in the past. I tell workshop participants to think of their proudest, happiest, shiniest moment and try to recapture the glow of that moment — reverse the emotional flow when they are otherwise spiraling into feeling like a fraud. I advocate for compiling a record of projects that one is working on and periodic progress updates, so it’s easier to see the progress made over time. (Aidan Doyle tells me he maintains an Awesomeness Dossier, and I am completely going to steal this title for future use!) Such records can help us recognize that mistakes are part of the process of developing skills, even skills we may take for granted later on. Reviewing this record at times of struggle can be a powerful way to prove to oneself that it’s possible to achieve a goal despite setbacks and doubts.

I additionally teach participants in my workshops that it can be helpful to recall some of the societal factors that have contributed to their feelings of fraud. Research indicates that acknowledging these factors explicitly can help in overcoming them, and that conclusion has certainly been supported by anecdotal data from my work. Many people who suffer from impostor syndrome do so in part because of social conditioning, having received implicit and explicit messages that they are frauds or doomed to fail. Stereotype threat can be a notable factor for impostor syndrome sufferers marginalized by society. Naming these issues can return power to the individual confronting them and deepen someone’s self-compassion, which can be a turning point in combating factors of impostor syndrome.

Before my fateful, lowered-pants day, I knew that putting these methods into practice isn’t as easy as talking about them, but “dropping trou” in public was a whole new level of education on the matter. I’d like to say that I took some deep, calming breaths and chose an appropriate method to address my feelings. The reality of the situation looked a bit more like me quietly hyperventilating while I dug in my pockets for my phone. If I recall correctly, I was reminding myself over and over that I do this for a LIVING and this will be a GREAT STORY someday if I can JUST SURVIVE THE NEXT THREE HOURS.

When my phone finally emerged, however, I discovered something magical had occurred.

While I’d been panicking on stage, my beloved spouse and my housemate had been chatting away in our household chat app. My housemate was enthusiastically talking about how their latest job interview had gone — this might be a perfect new position for them. My spouse was offering hearty congratulations, and delivering the good news that he’d received a raise at work. There were many high fives and hugs in text, all around.

This chat log had an instant positive impact on my emotions and outlook. It was a strong reminder that there was a part of my life going well regardless of what kind of day I was having, professionally. Witnessing the support and cheer of those two, both so important to me in a very different facet of my life, was enough to brighten up my mental landscape despite my predicament. I took another breath, checked the time, and announced to the room that we’d begin shortly.

 

Image of a countertop full of tomatoes and cucumbers of various colors and ripeness. All harvested from Crystal's garden.
One example of a completely separate area of my life is my garden. Remembering how productive my garden was this year definitely makes me smile.

The group chat I encountered in that instant was the result of serendipity. I certainly couldn’t count on my spouse getting a raise every time I felt overwhelmed! The key, though, was the reminder of my life as a multi-faceted effort; I felt reassured that no matter what happened at work, it would not change how my loved ones felt about me. As a human being, I was more than any embarrassing experience I had, even one as excruciating as this.

I’ve thought quite a bit about this event in the years since then. What else could I have done, in the moment? I talk with folks in my workshops about keeping some quick, essential “pick-me-ups” on hand — happy-making things that are in some way sensory or even visceral, to help direct our thoughts and feelings in a more productive direction. I have a friend who carries a smooth stone in her pocket, a reminder of the beach where she got married. A former colleague told me he put a picture of his grandparents in his wallet. The smell of leather and the smiles on their faces are very evocative for him. For me, it’s a folder on my phone full of friends’ baby photos and silly internet memes, the kind that make me laugh out loud.

The things we carry with us through life can have a huge impact on our emotional well-being. These items may be only of temporary comfort, but sometimes we need to get through the moment in order to arrive in a better frame of mind in the future, and positive impact can be just as cumulative as negative.

In terms of the longer-term outlook, there are some deeper introspections one can do to combat impostor syndrome. Something else that I carry in my phone is an exercise I did a few years ago with a close friend. We each spent a few minutes making lists in our notebooks — “What Makes Me Awesome” and “What Makes You Awesome.” Writing about what was super about my friend was easy! And writing what I admired in myself was hard! My friend felt the same way, though, and they helped me see myself differently. “You are awesome because you learn how to say thank you wherever you go in the world.” I cherish what they wrote, because I never would have noticed or valued this aspect of myself if not for their words.

Perspective from others who suffer from impostor syndrome, even strangers, can also provide aid and solace in this struggle. For example, I have long admired Maya Angelou, the celebrated Black American poet, singer, and activist who received countless honorary degrees, three Grammy Awards, a Pulitzer Prize nomination, and the National Medal of Arts. Angelou, too, appears to have suffered from impostor syndrome. Before her death in 2014, she wrote, “I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’” I take comfort in the fact that Maya Angelou shared my struggle, and I appreciate that she spoke publicly about it. I feel that Angelou did an amazing job of leading by example; I strive to be more like her in this.

 

Headshot of Crystal in grey suit in 2015
Definitely a moment in which I felt more professional.

Going back to the day in question, eventually my pants-defying impostor syndrome workshop drew to a close. After the last student exited the room, I girded my loins, so to speak, and walked over toward my friend to begin an Awkward Conversation.

“Thank you for distracting everyone when I tripped,” I said (and yes, I was the color of a ripe tomato then, too). “So, uh, not to be weird or anything, but … could people see the color of my underwear? I just need to know how bad it was.”

“Oh!” My rodeo clown friend looked over at me. “I’d forgotten that happened!”

I will never forget the indignity of dropping my pants in public, dear reader. I can’t. But I will also remember that the day concluded with this perfect moment, a reminder that what’s going on for me, psychologically, is far less likely to be noticed or recalled by others. When I’m feeling like an impostor, it’s really hard to put workshop exercises into practice, but I try to remember that I can pull through, and have done so successfully in the past. That helps me feel like a pro, in fact. I hope that reading this story helps you, too.

 

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