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Days after our talk, Amanda’s* words reverberated in my head. “Sara* doesn’t think you try with your articles. But I don’t think that. I said, ‘Siobhan does try!’” Amanda, my editor in a former job where I’d reported on social justice issues for two years, told me.

Initially, I thought Amanda had stood up for me. But digesting the conversation, I realized that the seemingly nice words hid manipulation. She was the “hero” in the story and I was forced to feel grateful to her for rescuing my dignity. Even if her intention wasn’t to be hurtful, why would she share such unnecessary and cruel information? Was it a thoughtless oversight by an overworked editor or was she intentionally trying to undermine my confidence?

Amanda was filling in for my main editor, Natalie*, who was out on maternity leave. With Natalie, I’d felt micromanaged, faced excruciatingly drawn-out edits that made me believe my work was subpar, and rarely heard any positive feedback from her despite receiving praise from different editors at that job and other media outlets. So I’d jumped at the chance to work with Amanda, who’d previously encouraged me to grow as a new reporter and impressed me with her story ideas and editorial direction. But after a good start to our working relationship, she transformed into the evil stepmother of my workplace nightmare.

I came to dread interactions with her, as she constantly reminded me I needed to develop my “critical-thinking skills” and told me my stories should be 98% perfect before turning them in. On one occasion, I spent 11 hours working on a story only to be berated over Slack about how it “wasn’t in the condition she expected” when I turned it in. That day, I closed my computer screen blurry-eyed and defeated and raced to meet a couple of friends. I needed comfort and, though I tried to keep my composure, I ended up crying in my best friend’s arms outside one of our favorite restaurants.

A funny thing happened after I left. My confidence soared—and continues to.

While imposter syndrome has haunted me for years, those debilitating work experiences fed my insecurities until they exploded during the pandemic. When I achieved something noteworthy, when higher-ups gave me a shout-out for my good work, or when someone congratulated me on an accomplishment, like a well-conducted interview, a voice in the back of my brain whispered snidely, “You don’t actually deserve that.” And whenever I got yet another biting admonition from an editor, which came to feel inevitable, it just confirmed my fears that I was inadequate.

For about a year, I dreaded leaving my bed on work days and fantasized about what it would be like if I wasn’t around. While I never had a plan to end my life, it was enough of a wake-up call for me that my mind had begun to spiral in this upsetting direction. Imposter syndrome isn’t supposed to be deadly but, in this case, it had nudged me onto a terrifying path and I didn’t want to reach its final destination.

By the time I sought refuge in my friend’s arms, almost a year and a half after the pandemic began, I’d reached my breaking point. I can’t downplay the role of privilege (in the form of familial support and savings), but I also had a rising suspicion that I had no choice but to get out or else irrevocably shatter my mental health—or much worse. Not too long after that day I sobbed on the sidewalk, I took a mental health leave. In October 2021, I quit my job and joined the millions during the pandemic who’ve also resigned.

A funny thing happened after I left. My confidence soared—and continues to.

That may seem contradictory, as people’s mental health often takes a dramatic hit when they’re unemployed, but my own resignation pushed me in the opposite direction. And while I’m not immune to equating my sense of worth with my professional success, my work environment had convinced me I had no value.

About two months after I went on mental health leave, I confessed as much on Twitter and described the good my leave did, including helping me realize I had to quit. People responded to my status in a way I didn’t expect. Many revealed their own mental health hardships and, incredibly, thanked me for disclosing my own. As a once-again freelance writer, I even received a few emails from editors and companies asking me to do projects for them. Those messages blew my mind as someone who, for years, has believed my work wasn’t valuable.

But it wasn’t, and still isn’t, all smooth sailing. More like jagged and unpredictable. Some days, I took time to just be and, for the most part, not judge myself on my productivity (or lack thereof). Other days, I’d sit down to write and feel panic and anxiety take over. “Healing doesn’t feel wonderful all the time,” says Dr. Andrea Salazar-Nuñez, a Chicana/Mexican-American psychologist who has her own practice—and who experienced imposter syndrome as a first-generation college student and, to an extent, still does. “If you think about it as a cut, if you ignore it for a long time it gets infected and then you finally get help, they have to clean it out and that’s going to hurt. And then they mend it and there’s still going to be pain as it heals but eventually it’ll be like a scar,” never completely faded away, but in some lights almost imperceptible.

‘We don’t interrogate enough where these norms or expectations come from.’ But we need to be asking ourselves, ‘Where did I pick this up?’

Andrea Salazar-Nuñez

I finally had the space to confront the feelings that had coalesced over the past two years while merely surviving in a toxic work environment. Not only that, but I had the time to recognize my value outside of work. I remembered I was a good friend, daughter, sister, and niece. And I finally started to question why I’d acquiesced to the lie that I had no worth in the first place.

Imposter syndrome is tricky like that. While you may have persuaded yourself that you’re the source of your self-doubts, imposter syndrome doesn’t happen in a vacuum. You don’t come barreling out of the womb with reservations about your worth or abilities. Rather, there are external factors—say, a boss who takes out their insecurities on you, or a workplace that underpays women and people of color—that stack up over the years and pit you against yourself. I finally accepted the truth that I hadn’t created imposter syndrome for myself. I was getting real signals from my environment that made me feel like I wasn’t good enough—and some of them had to do with the gender and racial inequities our society perpetuates, among others.

But what truly tipped the scales was learning that I was far from the only one being mistreated and gaslighted at my old job. For a long time, I believed I was the problem. But when I realized that subtle—and sometimes overt—bullying was largely my workplace’s modus operandi, the proverbial door was blasted off its hinges. That discovery has helped me let go of unrealistic standards and given me permission to show the world the real me. I slowly started to let go of the fear of making a mistake, no matter how little, like a typo, and stopped trying to mold myself to fit others’ expectations.

Salazar-Nuñez encouraged me to question why I think I’m not good enough. As a woman of color, like myself, she links values like perfectionism to white supremacy. “We don’t interrogate enough where these norms or expectations come from,” she says. But we need to be asking ourselves, “Where did I pick this up from?”

Growing up in majority-white settings contributed heavily to my feelings of imposter syndrome. As a child, I believed white people were perfect, even when they made mistakes. It also meant that as someone who isn’t white, no matter what I achieved I’d always be at a deficit. While it may sound illogical, this conditioning didn’t materialize out of thin air. The unspoken logic was planted and reinforced over and over again, like when I saw my darker-skinned sisters being followed around by a local candy shop owner almost every time we visited as kids while our white counterparts always seemed to be left to peruse freely.

While I doubt my imposter syndrome will ever completely disappear, the more time passes, the more stable I feel in my abilities.

That belief that originated in childhood—and had me trying to color my skin white with crayons when I was eight years old—also materialized in my adult life. At my old job, there were zero women of color in upper management. While my boss was a woman of color, white men and women were largely calling the shots. And from where I sat, it resulted in an environment that constantly made me question my work and left me feeling like I fell short no matter what I did.

Since quitting my job, I’ve surrounded myself with people who are encouraging—whether IRL or online. Salazar-Nuñez has done a similar thing, cultivating a healthy environment with like-minded therapists to buffer her feelings of imposter syndrome.

What’s also helped is processing the trauma I’ve accumulated from my old job with loved ones. Speaking it out loud with people I trust has dulled a lot of the pain and blunted my learned instinct to react to criticism of my work with suspicion. Instead of assuming feedback is a surreptitious strategy to sabotage me, I take a few deep breaths to calm my racing heartbeat and try to absorb the information with an open mind. “After we’ve had a traumatic experience, we’re still going to react reflexively from a protective stance,” Salazar-Nuñez told me. “You almost have to respect how you respond because that helped you survive.” I know why I developed these instincts. And it’ll probably take repeated efforts, but I hope to continue to immerse myself in environments where they’re unnecessary, so that I can eventually release them.

In my post-quitting life, I feel more relaxed and ready to tackle new challenges. While I doubt my imposter syndrome will ever completely disappear, the more time passes, the more stable I feel in my abilities. This doesn’t mean there haven’t been situations that shake my confidence. But no longer do they convince me I’m not good enough.

*Names have been changed.