Tuesday, August 11, 2015

You Are Not Your Job: Identity and Impostor Syndrome

I spend a lot of words and space on this blog giving you advice on what to do with yourself professionally. Today I want to talk about something outside of your professional lives. I have something important to tell you:
You are not your job/profession.
That might seem obvious at first. "Of course I'm not my job," I can almost hear you saying. But there have been days in my professional life when things were going Titanic-Sunk-By-An-Iceberg bad for me and I felt like a complete failure not only as a librarian but as a person. I think that happens when I let myself get too wrapped up in labels, which I still do even though I haven't had a day that bad in a while. I'm giving you advice here that I need to hear as well. I need to hear it regularly. Take, for example, my Twitter bio:
"I've a distrust of labels, but these generally apply: librarian, feminist, Buddhist, rad fatty, nerd, academic, & usually she/her/hers."
It's hard for me to separate myself, and my sense of identity, from my twelve years in the field and a couple of years before that preparing to enter it. It's also hard to separate my sense of self from all those other descriptors (metadata?). But it's important for me to try, because - as I already said - I am not my job. And trust me, I know this is going to sound weird coming from the writer of a blog that is 90% about librarianship and higher education and related fields. But the other 10% is important. Let me tell you why...
I've started taking guitar lessons recently. I've only had one lesson so far, but I love it. I love learning new things, things that stretch me just a little but not too much. And learning to play the guitar is definitely that. I had lots of different kinds of music lessons when I was growing up, both at school and outside. I studied violin, clarinet, piano, and lots and lots of voice lessons. I have vague memories of being taught to sight read music, especially in piano and voice, so learning to play guitar is syncing up with that dormant part of my brain that I used to use so much when I was younger. Learning guitar is so much fun.

More importantly, though, this is something I'm doing just for me. It feels odd that this half hour lesson every other week and 15-30 minutes of practice every day isn't in service of my health or my religious practice or making something for a friend or my profession. But it feels good.

Now onto the reason why I wanted to tell you about my lessons. I'm no expert on impostor syndrome, but I wonder if some of that phenomenon is tied to how we form our sense of identity. For example the reason I resisted calling myself a Buddhist for so long is that I felt like I was faking it and I didn't want to be a bad Buddhist. I had daydreamed up this nightmare scenario about someone who was raised Buddhist suddenly quizzing me on the life of Siddhārtha Gautama or the Four Noble Truths. I eventually let go of that fear, more because I studied a lot and have a solid base of knowledge. I think I would have been better served by letting go of my attachment to that label, and I wonder if the same thing could work for librarianship. Maybe, just maybe, if we stop basing our identities on "librarian" and start letting each other just be, maybe we can get over that feeling that we're faking it. Having something in our lives that is just for us can help, I know.

What do you think? I know this is a nascent thing, but seriously, I want feedback on this pet theory. And thanks.


  1. From what I've read on impostor syndrome in order to understand my own feelings, I do agree that it's tied to how we identify ourselves. I also feel that with some professions the reason we find it such a good fit is that it's the perfect job for our personalities. I'm an introvert who wanted to teach but found a classroom too overwhelming. Being a reference/adult services librarian fits me. I get to teach, I get to help, but I also get alone time. I feel that because my job is such a good fit for my personality, it's hard to separate myself from that label.

    I've learned to accept some labels and that I may not live up to other people's ideas of what it means to wear that tag, like being a geek or a foodie (hence I use mini- with each). I don't have to know the minute details of this comic series or have an ultra refined palate. I just have to like and enjoy how I interact with those areas of my interest.

    I hope this answered your questions and or made sense.

  2. I've approached it from, perhaps, the other end -- that is, to fully inhabit all of the labels. I am a librarian all of the time. But I am a musician all of the time. A grandfather all of the time. A writer all of the time. Think of it as the Walt Whitman approach to the multiplicity of one's selves. On any given day I don't entirely live up to my aspirations for each of these, but it's okay. I don't expect to be perfect in any of these roles. From the Lakota I learned the discipline of walking one's own path as well as one can. We have no way of knowing where the path leads or when it will end, so we try to make sure that each step is the best step we can make in that moment on that day.

  3. Please write more posts on this topic!!! I think it's so important for librarians who have impostor syndrome to be vocal about it, because it makes me (a library student plagued constantly by feelings of inadequacy) and everyone else like me feel a little better knowing I'm not alone in grappling with it.

    Maybe it's just the library school atmosphere, but I feel very weighed down by expectations of what/who a librarian "should" be, and that if I don't fall into that category then I should not call myself a librarian and I probably shouldn't even be a part of the profession. I care deeply about the work of information literacy and community advocacy, but I'm never going to be a leader or an innovator or at the bleeding edge of emerging tech. I am shy and quiet and struggle with mental health problems. Conferences scare the sh*t out of me, and so does Twitter. I love what I do as a reference assistant and instructor, and I believe my work currently allows me to self-identify as at least a proto-librarian, but I worry a lot about whether that'll be enough in the future, and whether I'll be able to compete with my peers who more closely align with expectations.

    I hang on tightly to the label of "librarian" because I want to include myself in that group, and I'm afraid that if I don't self-identify, then no one will want to include me because I do not conform enough to group expectations. But maybe this is typical new-librarian anxiety and I am overthinking things (as I often do).