Let me start off by saying that I have a self-imposed blog rule. I do not talk about my parents, or childhood, except in passing… on this blog. I don’t say anything good about it that would make my mother (who is reading this right now) feel awkward, and I don’t say anything bad about it that would make her feel regretful or sad. It’s very unlikely that my father is reading this, but the same rules apply.
Now let’s begin the story of the ever looming Redneck Police.
When I graduated from college, I moved to Norfolk, VA. I had been to Virginia Beach to visit a boyfriend who was in the Navy at one point, and thought hey… why not? They have a beach, it’s nowhere near my hometown, and it’s not so far South that I won’t fit in… so I grabbed a college friend, and we went.
I got a job as an underpaid financial products sales-rep during the day, but worked at Morrison’s Cafeteria at night. Sadly, Morrison’s Cafeteria paid more. I had waitressed at Friendly’s Restaurant during college. This was different. In a cafeteria style setting the customers would get their food, and essentially I would refill their drinks and bring them extra napkins. There was no assumption that I would receive a tip, so I was forced to get creative and make them feel as though I had earned one. I’m a hustler, I did well there, but it was not fun. It was, often times, humiliating.
One evening, a very Southern man and his family came in for dinner. I engaged them in conversation and refilled their drinks and napkins quickly, essentially securing at least SOME tip, even if it was just a dollar. The father asked me if I had considered college, and I replied that I had recently graduated. I turned and saw a teenager across the room drop her entire tray of half eaten food on the floor, and walk out. As was required, I went over and started to clean it up. Beef stew does NOT come out of a carpet easily, Plus, who puts a carpet in a cafeteria?
I felt a tap on my shoulder, looked up and saw the Southern man from earlier. I stood and asked him what he needed. He put his hands on my shoulders, paused and stared at me for a moment. I said, “Are you ok? What can I do for you?” He said something I will never forget. He said “Marie. You don’t belong here. You need to stop cleaning up after rude customers and start the rest of your life. Quit this place. Quit and never look back”. I looked over his shoulder and saw his wife, nodding in agreement. He squeezed my shoulders, and walked out of the restaurant. I still remember exactly what he looked like and what he was wearing that evening. He also looked and sounded like Morgan Freeman, and somehow that makes the advice much more powerful for real. That is the day I decided to elude the Redneck Police and take control of my professional life. 2 weeks later I moved to North Carolina and got a job as a paralegal. I’m skipping a short stint at a sewing factory when I first arrived… but trust me, you want that to be its own blog story.
Fast forward to the next 20 years of my adult life. In 1997 I started working as a claims adjuster at a Fortune 500 Insurance Company in Warwick, Rhode Island. Fast forward a few years later and I was managing a team of complex claim adjusters at a Regional Insurance Carrier in Central, Massachusetts. Fast forward to me running all Claim Management at one of the world’s largest retail companies. Today I’m an adjunct Economics Professor at a Private College and a Strategy Director at a large insurance carrier.
I hope to be adding to this progression in a couple of years: Assistant Vice President of XYZ. I feel confident that this is on the horizon. Yet, I’m still an imposter.
Imposter Syndrome is a term coined in 1978 by clinical psychologists Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes referring to high-achieving individuals marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. What does this mean? How does it apply to me? How might it apply to you?
There is even a debate on the spelling of “Imposter” vs. “Impostor”. Both are correct. “Impostor” is more widely accepted, so I chose to use the underdog. The imposter of the imposter choices, if you will.
Imposter syndrome is especially prevalent in woman, and even more prevalent when crossing over social classes. My bosses and colleagues over the years have expressed nothing but confidence and appreciation for my work ethic, work product and friendship. I have no evidence that I’ve ever disappointed any of them in any professional way. I would also argue that I’m one of the most confident people you’ll ever meet. Yet I still, at times, feel like an imposter. Why?
I’m currently surrounded by co-workers who were seemingly born and bred for success. Their stories are almost identical to each other’s, even though their personalities are very different. They don’t appear to even realize how similar their backgrounds are. You’ll often hear them talking about having struggled as children with parents who were perhaps middle or upper-middle class.
I nod in acknowledgement as they re-tell the horrors of only vacationing locally or having a job during high school. They usually have very deliberate, and readily available, examples of not having everything handed to them, even though it essentially was. It doesn’t mean they aren’t hard workers or good people, but there’s a lack of perspective on the reality of the experience of being in another social class. Just as other social classes lack the perspective on having resources or proper guidance and what that might be like. Overall I would say that the middle class and rich can never really understand how the struggle feels and evolves for the working class. The working class can never really understand that the middle class and rich have struggles as well, just different ones.
I avoid talking about myself in most work situations, with the exception of a very select few (who are probably reading this right now). Even then I try to keep it to a minimum whenever possible. It is what it is… “normal” means something different to everyone, as does “struggle”.
The vast majority of my friends from childhood did not go to college. I, personally, always assumed that I would go, and I did. I got a B.A. in Sociology and went on to get an MBA. I don’t see my high school friends very often, but when I do I try to downplay my job and my education to the point where it’s probably ridiculously obvious that I’m doing so. I truly care about them and want them to know I’m the same person. But, it is what it is. I’ve never believed that you need college to be smart, or successful. But I always knew that I would go to college, to give myself as many options as possible.
My first day at a real corporation was on January 17th, 1997. I felt very proud wearing my professional dress and heels, walking into the building. I met my training class and immediately realized I was not with “my” people. People talked about graduating from Brown University or Salve Regina and their family vacation homes in Newport. They asked questions about being taken off their parents’ health insurance (health insurance?!!!! I get health insurance?!!!!) while I asked questions about how health insurance works. They lived in condos in the city, and in Westerly near the beach. I lived in a basement apartment in Pawtucket, in the parking lot of a working factory building, with 2 roommates and a dog that we hid from the landlord.
I participated but was, for some reason, assuming there would be more people like me there. There weren’t. At UMASS there were all kinds of people. Rich kids who couldn’t get into better colleges, poor kids on scholarships, people from other countries… A lot of us working toward the same goal, a degree. Not here. This was a group of people born with resources. People born with the assumption of a white collar future, and health insurance! I made friends and did well. 3 friends I made there (Lisa, Stacey & Cyndi) I still speak to today and cherish their friendships and opinions. One of the 3 is a black woman, which was as close as I could find in the group to another person not from the exact mold. Years later the two of us left on the same day to go to another company together.
20-ish years later I’ve come to understand that being an outsider isn’t a bad thing. I actually believe that it’s an asset. That said, it’s VERY hard to find like-experienced people once you’ve crossed a line like that. Walking into the building with my dress and heels back in 1997 I didn’t realize I was passing through an invisible portal separating one life experience from the other. It’s probably even harder crossing in the opposite direction.
It’s best not to try too hard to find our counterpart portal-jumpers. We tend to gravitate toward each other seemingly driven by some unknown force. Once the realization hits that you have this common life experience it does reduce the amount of times a day you question your decision to cross the line. You create a sort-of secret society of people who have infiltrated the system. It’s one of the strongest bonds I’ve seen in a professional setting.
Don’t get me wrong, I am certainly not one to pretend I’m someone I’m not. I’m not a new person. I’m just me. I’m the same person I was in 1985 in high school as I am in 2017. I’m the person who drinks cheap beer and smokes generic cigarettes in a 2 bedroom apartment with 9 residents AND am also the person who eats lobster and drinks bloody marys in downtown Boston. I’m both of those people, but also an imposter in both of those situations.
This is a fairly accurate pre and post-portal depiction, sans black hair.
For the most part, both of those groups of people continue to accept me. I like to think it’s because they recognize that it’s possible to be both of them at the same time. I think it’s really the assumption by both groups that I’m strictly theirs. I won’t say it’s easy, because honestly it’s not. You’re in a constant state of feeling like you’re betraying one group or the other just by simply existing. You belong everywhere and you belong nowhere… and there’s no going back.
I’ll be at a party and feel like people are staring at me because my earrings are expensive or because I’ve had a manicure… or maybe they “KNOW” that I went to grad school. I’m in a conversation thinking “Please don’t ask me what I do for work.” I’m an imposter there.
The elevators of the tower I work in will open and I’ll begin to step off the elevator in my suit, as my co-worker complains about the contractor for her beach house working too slowly or not meeting her expectations. I’m an imposter there. I’ll start to feel faint and look to the left and look to the right. I’m looking for the Redneck Police. They will tap me on the shoulder and say the same thing the Morgan Freeman doppelganger said at Morrison’s Cafeteria in the summer of 1994. “You don’t belong here.” … “It’s been a nice ride lady, glad you enjoyed it, but the jig is up. No time to pack a box, just leave. We don’t want your non-beach house having a$$ up in here.”
As of today, the Redneck Police haven’t shown up. I’ve learned that they are a figment of my imagination, and the imagination of those like me… and that there is a real term for this: “Imposter Syndrome”. As a middle aged woman I tell the women I mentor and the men and women who will follow in similar footsteps… you are not an Imposter. Be strong. Stick together. You belong everywhere. Infiltrate the system, and take it over. It’s up to you. If you can’t trust Morgan Freeman’s doppelganger, who CAN you trust?!