Have you ever felt imposter syndrome? I think most people have. I’ve learned that it usually means I’m at my growth’s edge, on the verge of learning and way outside of my comfort zone. And it makes me feel anxious as hell.
I felt this way in my masters program. I somehow got into a leadership program and I was certain that the class – a group of high-level professionals – would find out I was a big phony.
In one of my first online classes, I hadn’t met anyone, but I had built them all up in my mind to be smarter, more professional, and more deserving of acceptance into the program than I.
No one had video on. It was just dark zoom boxes and the professor.
The Prof said: “Okay. Just a quick icebreaker. No pressure, just fun.”
She wants to break the ice. Oh. God. Please don’t pick me, please don’t pick me.
Prof: “Okay, I want you all to think of something about yourself that you don’t usually tell anyone.
I HAVE MULTIPLE SCLEROSIS! Jenn, get a grip.
Prof: “Let’s see…Jenn. You go first.”
SHIIIIITTT. MS MS MS. NO, Jenn, not that, something else, something light, something fun… MS MS MS!
Prof: (waiting in silence)
Classmates: (waiting in silence)
…So much time is going by…they’re waiting, Jenn. MS! NO!
Prof: “Okay, nothing? Okay, how about, if you can’t think of anything, tell us what is on your feet.”
Gulp. Strange pivot, but ok. I look down at my feet.
Me: “Uh. Socks.”
Prof: “Okay, socks. Carol, what about you? Something you never tell anyone.”
I am an idiot.
Carol: “I raise chickens and they all have names.”
Classmates: “Aww!” “Chickens!” “Wow” [insert a million enamored questions and adorations here]
Prof: (chuckling and smiling at what a great icebreaker success this is) “Okay,…Nikki? Something you never tell anyone?”
Nikki: “I’ll go with what’s on my feet. They’re bare because I hate socks, I never wear them. They are the worst.”
Yep. I totally agree – I hate socks, too. But I just came from the chiropractor, rushed to eat dinner and then logged into this class so that I could feel like shit right now and my feet are still in these bloody socks and everyone believes I’m a G-d sock lover!
Classmates: “Yeah, I hate them, too!” “Oh, Nikki, YASSS!” “Hate ’em!” “Socks = poop emoji”
K. I made the poop emoji up. But this whole icebreaker made me feel reduced to a single, misunderstood identity – I was now a sock-wearin dumb dumb.
Now that I’m on the other end of the agonizing journey that was my masters (apparently not an imposter), it’s much easier for me to see the ridiculousness of that situation. When I’m feeling anxious about being vulnerable, my brain does destructive things.
I mean, I was embarrassed that people might think I liked wearing socks! Who cares?! Most likely, folks were thinking of their own answers and relieved that they weren’t picked first to share.
As a teacher who has asked students to participate in a million icebreakers herself, someone who has even said the words, “No pressure. Just for fun.” this experience made me reconsider the icebreaker…And I hate to say never, but I will never ask students to volunteer something that they don’t usually share with people. That’s different than asking students to share a fun or little known fact. It’s personal, and there is probably good reason for them not sharing with people, let alone a group of unknown peers.
Reflecting back, my brain froze on one thought in particular and the more I tried to escape that thought, the louder it became. It’s like when I cry at inappropriate moments: I can feel the prickliness in my eyes and the lump in my throat threatening to break the damn, and the more I try to overcome them, the more they become uncontrollable.
What would have happened if I had just turned on my mic and said that only inappropriate things were coming to mind at that moment? Probably connection – people feeling similar human feelings.