Friday, September 23, 2022

#696 : Day 2 - Tackling Impostor Syndrome

Disclaimer - This is a lengthy and personal account of tackling a mental health issue. Seek professional help as needed. 

Wikipedia defines Impostor Syndrome as a psychological occurrence in which an individual doubts their skills, talents, or accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud. 

A bit of context before diving into mechanisms to tackle it, 

This is the story of my 10-year-old career. I got out of college with an employment offer in hand - The offer was in no way related to the coursework I did, but it did pay well. Being the bull head that I am, I wanted to build a career related to my education - It was the only logical thing to do. I ended up joining an Industrial Automation start-up which was working on supplying a relatively new technology. It is important to note here that I was in a technical role and spent long stints working out of factories. 

I then moved on to work for a tissue paper manufacturing unit as their Instrumentation Engineer - This was undoubtedly the best role I ever held - I had the chance to do good engineering stuff like designing instrument hook-ups, selecting instruments and co-authoring the process flow document. Again, a very technical role which included some exposure to budgets and analytics. A word of thanks to the PM and my manager who helped an eager young professional help learn a lot. Never imagined working out of a tiny village in a remote factory would be super fun. 

My short stint there ended with me joining a French MNC who among other things, was into process safety and automation. For almost 7 years straight, I played the role of a safety and control system engineer doing multiple things including designing and testing hardware cabinets, designing  architecture, creating function block libraries, setting up networks, testing and interacting with the end-user/customer. I managed to be a part of almost all phases of the projects except of course for the commissioning phase - Also a very technical role with sufficient amount of exposure to costs and planning - a small chunk from the whole "management" game. 

Fast Forward to 2022, I moved to a very different role - Handling cybersecurity project management - if you've followed so far, nowhere there has been a mention of Cybersecurity or Project Management - Those were not my core skills. Those were any secondary skills which I picked up due to project needs. 7 years of working with the same system gave me a sense of stagnation. So I invested time (and money too) to develop my secondary skills - i.e. I up-skilled and cross-skilled. The universe offered me a difficult choice between staying technical (as a cybersecurity OT consultant) or moving to a technical management role. I picked the latter after much deliberation. 

Impostor syndrome started creeping in right at this stage. The shift from a purely tech career is evidently unnerving.  

Moving to a compliance role which converted my secondary skills to primary skills, made me feel like a blithering idiot most of the time. The first two months were nothing short of hell. I'm a fairly confident person who can get around cracking any challenge thrown at - I persevere. This role, broke that for a while. There was no tech manual or write up or a hardware setup for me to tinker with and learn - the role needed needed experience. 

Add in the anxiety of not having any relatable same gender peers, I felt like a true impostor. The industry that I am in, has been traditionally male dominated. It bothered me a lot, but it never made me anxious until now. 
 
I told you, I persevere. So here is what I did to tackle that helpless feeling of being a fraud who might be ousted any day, 

1.  Fighting feelings with evidence - While my role did not "require" me to be too technical, I made it a point to take part in technical discussions, read up tech stuff related to my role - My confidence went up several notches when I could process most of the stuff even when I didn't participate in technical decision-making like I used to. 

2. Network, participate, volunteer - Women are very poor when it comes to professional networking, especially with the opposite gender. I had already worked on this as I up-skilled but now, I began interacting with people who are much older and experienced than I am. I also joined technical societies and volunteered. 

3. Mentors are a blessing - Fruits that professional networking bore for me. Women need all allies that they can get. Especially if your mentor identifies from a different gender, it leads to a shift in the mindset - I am lucky to have one such mentor. Vijay, thank you for all the gentle pushes! Also to the awesome Women In Cybersecurity Mentoring group - Nicola, Jalpa, Ruhee and Jane - We discussed a lot of important topics all through the year which slowly helped me in all the little ways that snowballed to a paradigm shift in my thought process.

4. Owned my progress - I upskilled using scholarships, I hacked away things, I participated in online challenges and aced them - Couldn't have done all of these without real skills. I owned my progress! 

5. Visualized success - Mental rehearsals, self-talks, meditation. I was like this kid from the video that made rounds in socials - she pushed an adult down the slide and pushed herself too down it. I was her, most of the time! 

6. Conversations with peers - I have to thank my some of my colleagues from my new and old role - I didn't really discuss much about what I was going through but the encouragement I got in general because of the switch helped me a lot. It also helped to have an extremely supportive manager in my new role! 

7. Supportive family - My parents are the best sounding board I could ever ask for! The love of my life - my husband - has always been my personal cheerleader - Right from the days of our college campus placements to my latest switch.  Special mention to my little sister for being the most entertaining meme sharer! 

A mental down time of 2 months may not seem much but it's effect can be plain horrible. 

Fast-forward to almost 5 months from taking up the role - I don't persevere anymore, I thrive! I'm back to being my confident self. 

PS. if you ever feel like you need a non-judgmental ear to talk to about this very topic, I'm all ears! 
 


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