Saying 'Yes' with Imposter Syndrome

Posted on January 2, 2018

I hear the words somewhere in the background “Peter’s probably the best person”. Even before my nervous system can invoke my flight response someone is putting a photography rig, which bears more resemblance to the International Space Station than it does a camera, into my hands. “Would you mind taking a photo of The Family?” my friend asks.

We’re at her birthday party and her whole family is there. In my head, at this precise moment, is the awareness that I am not being asked to take any old family photo but take “The Family Photo” capturing one of those rare the-whole-family’s-together moments. Then, the dewiness of her eyes reminds me, her mum has been given months to live and this is actually The-Last-Whole-Family-Together Moment. And I’m standing there, staring at the blinking displays and switches and knobs of thousands of pounds of professional photography equipment in my hands.

I don’t really know why I’ve been chosen for this task. I’m not a photographer. I am a techie though, and I guess this is technology? I mean this things sure looks like it’s got an operating system to compete with iOS running it. Did someone conflate the two and I incorrectly came out best qualified for the task? It’s not really a camera, it’s a computer, so give it to Peter? Or was it because I once owned an SLR and know about ISO speed, aperture and the rule-of-thirds? Or is it just because, at this exact moment, I was the only non-family member not struggling to manage a child?

My mind races for an excuse. I’m being asked to capture An-Important-Moment here and I don’t want this pressure. I scan the room, in an attempt to find something more important to do - some dirty mugs and plates; make another cup of tea; break up a sibling fight - but it looks like everything’s covered. I mean She’s the Photographer here why can’t she take her mum’s Last-Ever-Family-Moment photo? Doh!

I’m internally torn: I want to help but at the same time I fear I will let her down. Worse still, this conflict is manifesting as an urge to revert to a stroppy teenager and blurt out “can’t someone else do it?”, before storming off to one of her children’s bedrooms.

I’m used to feelings of Imposter Syndrome at work. That feeling you’ve somehow ended up on a team of evidently-more-qualified-people-than-you, when one of them incomprehensibly asks you for advice, whilst inside you’re screaming “why are you asking me? You’re the smart one, I’m just a kid!”. Then all you can hear is that little devil on your ear whispering “they’re gonna find you out” as you try and string together the answer you hope they’d expect. Yet now, the exact same feelings are stirring up in a social situation, with a close friend.

This is the moment I learnt to say “Yes” whilst under the influence of Imposter Syndrome. I knew I couldn’t put my friend off and let her down; I knew I had to step up. But I couldn’t do that on my own. So I was honest. “Of course I’d take the photo” I told her “and I can see it’s important and it should be the best possible photo. I’m just a bit worried that I’m not the best when it comes to composition”.

“You’ll be fine Peter, you know what you’re doing, just make sure everyone’s in the shot”. Seeing I wasn’t totally convinced she suggested “why don’t we do a test one first?”. So we did, we took a test shot, she checked it “it’s great; perfect. Can you just take a few more?” This time I took the shots with confidence, perhaps even the small feeling of professionalism.

Later, when reflecting on what happened I felt I had discovered something. Not only had I dealt with my imposter syndrome but I’d completely turned it round. Rather than being eaten up with self doubt, I had a sense of pride from capturing a significant moment in my friend’s life.

In the past Imposter Syndrome meant I ran away from things but now I had a way to say “Yes”. I just had to be clear with those around me where I needed help.

Since then I’ve used this technique many times in my work. At first I didn’t feel as safe as I did with my friend but I’ve found that being very specific about the support I needed made a big difference. And sometimes simply asking “what made you think of me for this?” was enough.

By practicing this my confidence has gone up. It’s also given me the opportunity to work with others to get over my perceived weaknesses and opened up new opportunities. And the more I say “Yes!”, the rarer my imposter syndrome becomes.