The Imposter’s Dream
I started writing this letter to you before I left the office because of what happened this afternoon. I wish I could say it all eloquently and effectively in person, but I have never really been good at one-on-one in-person communication. It’s like my brain freezes and I can’t think of what I need to say. Written form is better for me because it is my comfort zone; I hope it also gives you space to really think about what I say instead of feeling on the spot or embarrassed.
As a reminder…
You are on my team; you report to me. As such, I’ve requested we meet once a week for you to update me on your properties and any progress, problems etc. We were supposed to meet and this meeting had a big agenda: we were going to do a review of your long term forecast to see if I could help fine tune it, or offer suggestions, before presenting it on Thursday. You are a diligent worker, eager to learn, and with an open and good attitude. You are capable. Which is why, when, from my office, an hour before we were to meet, I was surprised to hear you making sounds of frustration. I stood, went out to your cubicle and asked if everything was okay. You explained that Excel was giving you an error message when you tried to open it, and you were afraid you’d lost the work you had spent so long on. The deadline to turn the forecast into the occupancy team was in three hours. I patted your shoulder.
“Oh no. Let’s see. Do you mind if I drive?” I asked, nodding to your computer. You stood so I could sit. I tried all the normal tricks – restarting, etc— but that file was not opening. I went back to my office and was able to successfully open the file; its links seemed to also be in good, working order. So we knew the issue was your computer, not the file itself. We called IT: they couldn’t fix it then either; the issue was escalated internally and they said it might be a few days. We didn’t have a few days. Tears welled in your eyes. “I’m not going to finish. I haven’t eaten all day and I can’t—“
My heart melted. You needed a break. So I did something I never do. “Come on, lunch time. When we get back, you can have my office and my laptop. The file is working on my computer. And I will help you finish it, I promise. But first: you need something to eat.” While we’ve worked together for awhile, we have not done so face to face until recently and only surface level, so you are still getting to know me. But, believe me: lunch is odd for me.
Would you like a secret I virtually never admit to feeling? Truth is: I don’t like food. I am scared of food. I have no thyroid, you see, and I took strong steroids and have had some really serious surgeries—all of which an create issues that make me leery of food. I eat one meal a day and, sometimes, when I’m really hungry, a snack. But I subsist mainly on water, tea and Dr. Peppers. Also, I am very task oriented: if there is something due, especially something as important as this forecast, I will not break until it is completed. In fact, I don’t break at all at work; not even a single 15 min break usually. The most I’ll allow myself is a bathroom break. So, going to lunch at that moment went against a lot for me.
Except what’s most important. Work is not that important. We are not saving lives here. You are that important. So, off we went to the cafeteria. By the time we sit, you’ve composed yourself. Food helps restore your energy, and I start to think she’s fine; she’s good. Then, casually, almost off-handedly, you say, “Thank you, Tiffini. Your always have it so together.”
Warning bells started going off in my head. Pay attention.
“How do you mean?” I ask.
“Nothing fazes you. You always have it so put together. You’re always smiling, you never need help. And you are always so stylish, too,” you added laughing.
I was not laughing.
So, this is the reason I wanted to write to you. In the moment, I said something lightly about how I am not any different than you. You shrugged, and before I could think of how to share what I felt, mentioned you needed to get back to work on the file. You thanked me again for letting you borrow my office and for lunch.
Put together. Stylish. Did you know almost a year ago, others laughed at me because of how I look? Also, I legitimately drove to work with two completely different shoes on my feet and I’ve had to turn around to go back home because I left the house with no shoes multiple times. I now keep a pair in the car to avoid this mishap. Shopping tires me; I can’t do it for any length of time, not even online shopping. I’ve been told before that I am stylish but it feels like an alien word to me. On the inside, when I go to church, grocery shopping or the playground, I am uber aware that I fall way short of stylish compared to others; I always feel like a clumsy, awkward teenager pretending to be a grown up.
But it is deeper than that. See, today, I felt like someone wearing a mask, like an imposter, for not adequately correcting you. Listen, you can ask anyone who has spent any amount of time trying to get to know me and they will tell you that I am more trouble than I’m worth. Some of them might tell you I’m crazy or weird. Certainly not someone who has it all figured out or who is put together. If you think that because of my title… I can share with you the backstory of my path and you’ll find it justs as astoundingly shocking as I do. If you think that because I have a lot of ideas for how to lead a team… well, I’d be pretty impressed with your ability to sculpt, I’d wager, and I’m definitely already impressed with your ability to speak so many languages. And, if you think that because I appear more confident or something than you feel, remember: I’m good at pretending.
You see, Dear Colleague, my family is a mixed group. My grandmother still lives without indoor plumbing. She pumps water from a well. She gets milk from goats that roam her land. Meanwhile, the other side is made up of doctors, nurses, CEOs of big corporations—money. Private plane kind of money. And then there’s me. I grew up leery, and sometimes afraid of, gifts. That’s a complicated story for another day, but the thing to note is that I don’t care any money. Truly, I don’t. Whether I have it or whether I don’t is irrelevant; I’ve lived in cars and motels and I’ve also lived in fancy HOA-run Mr. Rogers’-like neighborhoods. I have learned not to depend on anything but my faith, family and my own creativity to survive, not money. Beneath all that stuff exists a woman who simply wants to take care of her daughters, who wants to help others and who is trying to make it all the way through this earthlife believing that good will win; that evil will lose. Some days I wake up and don’t forget my shoes, homeschool and go to work and pay the bills and advocate for abused children. But those are the days God is moving; those mornings, for whatever reason, He breathes a little extra life into me that gives me the energy to be put together. On those days, I walk through the day terrified that someone is going to see through the mask—that the real me is going to show up and drop all the balls being juggled. I fear people suddenly realizing that I’m just pretending to be good and, when they do, they’ll leave. So while it may look to you like a strong day I’m happy—internally, I am holding a quaking heart in palms that are shaking. I control my speech more. I surreptitiously watch others and mimic them because, alone, I don’t know how to do life.
Other days, though, my eyes swell with tears as I drive to the grocery store, and I don’t have any idea why. On those days, when the sun rises, I can’t remember think of a single reason it matters is I get up or not. These days feel closer to who I am, but I know they don’t provide the full picture. For on these days, I survive by pretending. Only, on these days, I’m not pretending to avoid failure because I’ve already failed. On these days, I’m pretending to care. I will ultimately get up. I will ultimately teach homeschool and fulfill whatever is expected of me that day. But it saps all my energy because I have to pretend to be okay when I am not. If I don’t pretend, my girls might suffer.
So, you see, on both kinds of days, I’m an imposter. If I were to be brave enough to peel back the layers—to speak as openly and unedited as I write—who would she be? If the mask were removed—who would that Tiffini be? The same as you. Every emotion, and its polar opposite, whisked into one being. The only thing that makes me put together is a perception. Perception can make me feel intimidated, insecure or fearful. Perceptions are influenced by our pasts, by our culture, by all kinds of things. They aren’t always real.
What is real is the impact we have on others. You’ve made a lasting impact on me-not just from today but in general-and I genuinely care about what happens to you. I left lunch today more conscious of how I word things – I don’t want to sound overly confident and I don’t want to be telling you things. Instead, I care about your overall development – I want you to succeed. This is why we played Lava the other day even though people looked at me like an alien from outer space. What is real is how we make others feel. You make others feel noticed, seen and appreciated. That matters more, so much more, than the percentage of growth we’ve shown YoY or anything else we can demonstrate on that forecast you’re not going to remember two months from now.
Congratulate yourself. You are the kind of person who, though very new to this yourself, was the first to offer to play my Lava game. You are the kind of person who welcomed me by being so willing to try my unique approaches you’re not fully sure you trust (it’s ok!) because you want to grow and because you are respectful. Long after we both leave here—this, this shining personally, is what I, and the others, will remember of you. That is real. That is what matters. Deadlines for a report no one will remember in three months—they simply aren’t.
You are braver than I. You were true to yourself-you felt frustrated and overwhelmed — and you made that known. When I feel tired or overwhelmed — I shove it down as deep as I can until I am alone and I can write about it. You chose to be authentic and real and that is more admirable than anything you might have gathered from the confident leader role I play at work. You were more put together and stylish than I.
Today, when we went back, I helped you finish the forecast. You sat at my desk, using my computer, and I sat quietly by, offering a second opinion occasionally. And I never saw anything but a strong, capable, dedicated and genuine woman. And isn’t that the imposter’s dream?