I’ve always tended towards anxious thoughts. They hit a particularly fevered pitch in my first year of graduate school, many moons ago.
I’d just uprooted and moved from the east coast to Oregon to join a dozen first year graduate students at the University of Oregon. Each of them seemed better prepared, smarter, more [fill in the blank].
Taking my persistent thoughts at face value, I decided to tell my advisor, Dr. Jennifer Freyd, at our next weekly meeting that I didn’t belong — that she had made a mistake in admitting me to the program.
Jennifer preferred to walk during meetings, regardless of the Oregon rain. Some days I’d end up back at the doors of the Psychology Department’s Straub Hall sporting a wet rat look, having hustled to keep up with Jennifer as she traced a handful of go-to routes through parks and neighborhoods.
That particular day we left Straub Hall together and the words tumbled out of my mouth. Jennifer listened for the block or so that it took me to explain her error in taking me on, drawing on some combination of ambiguous evidence and certainty of thought. Then, without slowing her stride, she said something to the effect of: Sure, your application was at the bottom of the pile and the pile got turned upside down. Now you know. Since you’re here, we have a lot of work to do, so let’s do it.
And on we went, literally that day and metaphorically over the next many years of working together.
Her irreverence was well timed. No reassurance was going to work against the tidal wave of doubts in my mind. Instead, I had to figure out how to embrace opportunity and take action despite fears and doubts — despite feeling like an imposter.
Of course, I’m not the first person — and especially not the first graduate student — to feel like an imposter. Lots of these anxieties and worries are amplified in our current context. The ongoing pandemics of COVID along with racial and economic injustices have ratcheted up feelings of being small and ineffectual for many of us.
It’s probably not surprising, then, that I found myself telling the story about my walk with Jennifer a couple of weeks ago when I was a panelist at a graduate student professional development event. A student asked the panelists, given what we know now, what would we not have done earlier in our careers. I’m pretty sure that they were asking for examples of activities, like not taking on this project or that role. For me, though, the answer was clear: I wouldn’t have invested so much energy in my anxious thoughts of being an imposter.
Indeed, I can look back now and see clearly the many ways that my penchant for anxious thoughts made me hesitate to take up the mantle of a public scholar — or made doing so more difficult. Over time, I’ve gotten more practiced at overriding such worries. I’ve evolved how I think about and use my own power to act across the different roles I play in life — a professor, a public scholar, a leader, a mentor, a collaborator, a neighbor, a family member. But there have been many missed opportunities, words left unspoken, actions not taken.
The importance of encouraging action even in the face of doubt started to feel more pressing as I was working on my book, Every 90 Seconds: Our Common Cause Ending Violence against Women. A premise of the book is that we need an ever-expanding web of people to see violence against women as our collective problem rather than someone else’s. After all, violence against women is tangled up with the most pressing problems of our time — from gun violence and economic inequities to education and healthcare access and the need for reforms in migration policy and legal systems. We will never to get to meaningful solutions for any of those problems without also addressing violence against women. This means we each have a stake in collaborating across our passions to work together, and in working together, we have the potential to create a world without intimate violence.
Getting people to realize their stake in violence against women is one thing, but awareness isn’t enough. We need to move from awareness to action. And that’s where anxiety and imposter syndrome — or whatever we want to call that itch-of-a-thought that we’re not enough, not the right people, not the [fill in the blank] — serve only the status quo and inaction.
Maybe you’ve experienced a similar thing. A time you swallowed your words because you felt like an imposter. Or didn’t take an action because you were waiting for someone else who you believed to be better suited, better able, better [fill in the blank].
The thing is, even when you feel like an imposter, you still have power. You have the power to collaborate, to engage, to be part of the work of imagining into existence a world we have never known — one without violence against women.
In fact, you are essential to building that world. As I was writing the book, I went down paths of reading works by community organizers and social movement scholars, and reflecting on my experiences with DU’s Center for Community Engagement to advance Scholarship and Learning. Over and over again, the extraordinary role that ordinary people like us play in social change comes through, whether in the history of civil rights and labor movements or contemporary justice movements.
Consider adrienne maree brown who writes about how changes in smaller patterns can lead to bigger social change. Where you might think social movement work requires you to take up a megaphone at the lead of a march on Washington, incremental actions in your day-to-day life can ripple out to create larger shifts, the ones that are needed for fundamental change. Daniel Hunter writes about the diverse kinds of people and roles that are needed in social movements. And he shows that there’s room for you – for your skills, your style, your creativity.
There’s room for your misgivings and worries and doubts — believe it or not, we need those too. Indeed, in Writing to Change the World, Mary Pipher talks about giving people the benefit of your doubts — a powerful reframe to see the importance of showing up with all that we believe and all that we doubt to the work of social change.
And then there’s this: Since you’re here and we have a lot of work to do to end violence against women, we might as well do it together.
Interested in more about working together for change? Check out my forthcoming book, Every 90 Seconds: Our Common Cause Ending Violence against Women, available now for preorder (Barnes & Noble, Indie Bound, Amazon, Grass Roots). Thank you to Dr. Julie Olomi for invaluable comments on earlier drafts of this essay.