The Imposter and the Tutor
February 6, 2021 12:31 AM   Subscribe

It is too late for me to ask for help at my job with a pretty key function and I can't ask for help from others because then people will know how incompetent I am. Can I find a "tutor" to pay to help me? Or is this a lost cause? Also, bonus imposter (maybe truly an imposter) syndrome burnout.

I am 9 months into my job, and there is a key component I am still not fully understanding. I spoke with my boss about this about 4-5 months in because we had gone fully remote and my duties shifted with the pandemic. I hadn’t been able to really settle into that part of my role, but was struggling understanding how to lead our team because I wasn’t an expert on it. That meeting with my boss asking for help was halfway fruitful, but I still left confused. It was part of the job description that I would have some knowledge of this program specific thing (a mix between data analysis and programmatic application) and I did have some, but not to the level to lead the team. I am not a strong data person either. I feel like a complete failure asking my boss for help again. I’m considering paying someone to help me figure it out, like a tutor, but there is no one I can find beyond general data analysis help. It’s a very program specific thing... not like Excel (it is it's own data collection program used only by our programs) and it's less on how it works, but how to apply and analyze the data that leaves me lost. I know it's a confusing system because others with a lot of experience still say they get confused sometimes. I feel like the only other people I can ask are in my field and would heavily judge me for being an idiot. People talk too. The system we use is used across many states, but again, I just don't feel like I can ask others for help. On our team, it's just myself and my boss. Can I find anyone to help me on this or is this a lost cause and I should just ask my boss for help again? I think she will be disappointed and mad. But...I don’t know. I want to do a good job, and I also just want to understand it so I can help our clients.

I am so afraid of failing. This job has made me realize that I am much more anxious and a possible perfectionist than I thought. I'm terrified of mistakes and losing face. I just listened to the imposter syndrome Life Kit episode that really struck a cord with me. Although I know I probably didn't make it here by accident in this position, I know I must be under-qualified compared to my peers. It probably doesn't help that in this new workplace I am the *only* woman of color on my team. Starting this job has unlocked a new realization--EVERYONE IS SO SMART. And experienced. I am not. Or at least not as smart and experienced as the others it feels like.

I am miserable and stressed out. Because I don't feel like I'm smart enough or just not getting these parts of my job, I spend hours after work trying to learn it and then other times completely avoiding it. If I'm not working, I spend time stressing out about how to be better at it and feeling sick to my stomach before the workday begins. I practice before almost all of my meetings, which is a time suck, and I don't believe it really improves my meetings. Some days I wish I could just pass away, it just seems like a better option.

I think about quitting my job, but there aren't many others in my field and in my area that pay well right now. Or it seems to be a similar job iteration where I believe I would struggle again. I need to learn to do this. I am working on starting a side business so I could have a potential backup in case I do get fired, but even that I'm afraid of doing. I'm convinced that if I could just get over this hump, I would feel better I hope.

Something I read about imposter syndrome stuck out--that I am overworking myself to the point where I am putting my work before literally everything. My relationships, my health, anything fun and relaxing, etc. I'm constantly reading books on leadership and field specific topic areas so I can be "better." If I'm not reading, I'm trying to figure out this data/program thing on my own. If I'm not doing that, I'm trying to make dinner in my spare time, and then I stay up reading articles on how to be a more confident person, and I end up going to bed at 1am. All to repeat the next cycle every week.

Somehow I have tricked my boss, because she wants me to try for a promotion and I I barely feel like I'm getting parts of my job. And doing that feels like I will literally die from stress. Yeah, I get good reviews and my clients like me but I am struggling. Hell, I'm getting an award next week at work for excellent customer service somehow, but I am still no good at this technical aspect. I'm just paralyzed with fear at work, and now it's all I think about. Part of me appreciates a challenge, but this feels like I'm about to be found out at any point and it's terrifying. I miss my life from 9 months ago. Sure, I was miserable at that previous job, but I at least felt relatively competent by a year in.

I've been in therapy for years and exploring this recently, my therapist recommended that it's time to seriously consider anxiety medication. I have an appointment coming up but I'm not sure that medication will solve these feelings. Confessing these fears to friends and family just end up with a "We know you're capable and smart! Don't listen to your inner critic!" but I don't feel any better. I feel like they don't understand that I am not understanding this large chunk of my job and that I should be. I also don't want to bug them further with me going in circles.

So, to sum up: is there a way to find a "tutor" to pay and help me understand this quite specific part of my job? Where? Do I suck it up and ask my boss for help again? If so, how do I frame it without fully giving away my stupidity and shame?
Also, how do I solve this imposter syndrome or figure out...I'm really the imposter?
I'm so tired of these habits I've created and constantly stressing myself out about work. I'm so, so tired. I'm tired of crying and feeling like I need to stay later and later at work to be even mediocre at this job. Therapy, self-help books, talking it out with others--just doesn't seem to be helping right now. Thanks to anyone who has any advice. Throwaway email:
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (11 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Make a list of specific technical points in this program that you need help with. It can be long, that's ok. Just be specific (i.e. "it's confusing and I want to be better at it" isn't useful). At your next 1:1 with your boss, tell her that one of the goals you have set for yourself this year is to become fully immersed in this program so that you can provide excellent service to your customers and also support the internal team. Tell her you know you're not there yet but are eager to learn all aspects of this program. This should get a positive response. (If it doesn't, your boss sucks--not you.)

Then what you do is ask if every week at your 1:1s you can dedicate some amount of time (10 minutes?) on a deep dive into one particular aspect of this program. That's where your very specific list comes in. Have a list of topics pre-loaded. "Next week I'd like to learn more about X." This should also get a positive response if your boss is a good boss.

You should also ask your boss if she can recommend some subject matter experts from around the company who would be the most knowledgeable on aspects X Y or Z of this program. Your boss should be able to point you to those people. A little later on down the road, once you've gotten to a place where you're more comfortable with the overview, reach out over whatever messaging y'all use at work. "Hey Laura, I've got a client who's using X and boss said you're the go-to expert on X. Can I grab 20 minutes on your calendar this week to pick your brain? I'd like to be more comfortable in X before running our client through it!"

Anyway, frame this as you want to learn more to excel at your job and you'll put yourself in a position to get the most support here. These are the kinds of questions good managers want to get from new hires. (And at less than a year in, unless you're in some pressure cooker start up hell, you're still just a baby hire. No one expects you to be an expert.)

And remember, if your boss is not providing you with adequate tools, resources, or training for you to successfully do your job, your boss is the one who is failing.
posted by phunniemee at 1:17 AM on February 6 [22 favorites]

Listen, somewhere there is a 24-year-old white dude bumbling around in genuine incompetence on this same system who has no clue and is happy as a clam. I would put money on it. Can a white man get away with more than you can? Most likely (unfortunately). But, internally, you shouldn't judge yourself more harshly than Dude McLaxbro over there. Imposter syndrome was never a huge problem for me, but what took it out into the back alley and beat it to death was seeing not how great I am, but how mediocre 80% of people are. Refer to the prior presidential administration--in addition to being evil, most of those folks were just terrible at their jobs, as were far too many of the people covering them for the media. I may or may not be brilliant, but I can be just as mediocre as those people!!!

I would like to gently push back on the idea that if you ask for help from colleagues, you will be seen as an idiot. I can't think of a single really technically challenging profession that doesn't have formal or informal means for people to get together and discuss technical problems. Look at Stack Overflow sometime. The thing that I miss most working from home in my job, where apparently I am now senior enough to have "senior" in my title, is my ability to wander up and down the hall and find a colleague-victim to pounce upon and bounce ideas off of. You could make a good argument that failing to do so in non-pandemic times would be malpractice. And this includes things like "the rules for filing this appear to have been drafted in 1966 and make no sense, how the eff do I get the clerk to accept this document"--truly ministerial stuff, not Great Ideas.

Phunnieme has some good suggestions, but it also seems to me that if it's a widely-used system, there is probably formal or informal training available either through your company or through the vendor. I'd investigate that. Then use rhetoric as suggested to get it allocated to you.
posted by praemunire at 1:50 AM on February 6 [25 favorites]

Imagine a friend told you that they:

- were really enthused about doing a good job for their clients
- did not get into their technical position by accident
- had been asked by their boss to go for a promotion
- get really good reviews from their clients
- were being given an award for excellent customer service next week

Would you think, objectively, that they were an imposter or a failure?

Your own words suggest that your image of reality doesn't match the actual reality (which I say gently and encouragingly). You appear to be great at your job.

As someone who works in a technical field and helps people get things done, I promise you that people skills are every bit as important as technical skills, sometimes more so. I can't tell you if your technical skills should be better or not, but you won an "excellent customer service award", which suggests they are good enough.

Listen to phunniemee's suggestions for improving your skills, and I second praemunire's point about discussing technical problems with colleagues. I am the "go to" expert in a specific technical thing in my organisation, and I regularly have to work through problems with my colleagues. Anyone who is any good at complex technical things has got there partly by learning from others. If your manager is in any way a good manager they will be glad to help you fill any gaps in your skill set.

There will be other who can speak about the pressures and expectations on a woman of color, which I am eminently unqualified to discuss. I can only say that I would welcome a person with your talent and dedication on my team.
posted by underclocked at 2:28 AM on February 6 [6 favorites]

Holy imposter syndrome! Just to validate your experiences here, your boss wants to put you up for promotion, you get good reviews, your clients like you, and you're winning an award for excellence. Say that a few times: award for excellent customer service. Companies do not give awards for excellence to employees who are failing at their jobs. You are, quite evidently and with ample external evidence, very good at what you do! You haven't tricked your boss—she and others genuinely like and value your work, and the customers you serve excellently do too. I know that hearing that, knowing it intellectually, doesn't do much to change how you feel inside about it, but please keep reminding yourself of that.

First, I'd really encourage you to print out your entire question and take it to your therapist (or send it electronically if you're meeting online) to help talk through this. You've done an amazing job here laying out what's going on in your work and personal life, and I can see you've put a lot of thought and clarity into realizing what's not working for you, and I suspect it would be useful to use it as a tool for discussion with your therapist.

Second, overworking yourself like this is unhealthy. It's easy to get trapped in a feedback loop where you keep feeling like you need to work more and more to stay afloat, but it doesn't work that way: you can't do your best work if you're anxious and stressed all the time and never relax; you can't improve your life if you spend all of it reading about self-improvement instead of living it. Perhaps you'd find it useful to work with your therapist on really specific strategies for how you'd like to spend some of your free time—at least given the unfortunate constraints of the pandemic—and how what you're doing now is different from what you want. Anxiety medication can't solve everything on its own, no, but if a doctor thinks it's appropriate for you, perhaps it could be a tool to help you get out of the "cycle" that you discuss with less worry, and then you can start to feel better if your evenings and weekends better match what you want them to be.

Third, one thing that really resonated with me is when you said "but how to apply and analyze the data that leaves me lost." It sounds like this is really abstract work where there often aren't right answers or clear solutions. It's extremely normal to feel lost doing work like this. You're trying to figure new things out, navigating without a map. If it was easy to figure out, they wouldn't need you to do analysis. This kind of work can be really lonely and frustrating to do entirely on your own: sometimes you hit a brick wall and don't know what you don't know, or spend so much energy trying to make cumbersome tools do something that you lose sight of your goal. You said it's just you and your boss, and working remotely can be really isolating in these situations. Developing ways you can use others, whether that's your boss or others at your company with relevant knowledge, as a sounding board or even just to vent is really helpful, and I agree you're not going to be seen as an idiot for that. See my first paragraph: other people keep telling you that you're very good at your job.

Finally, in terms of specific practical things you can do at work, it sounds like there are others in different teams who use this system and do related types of work. What about organizing a user group if one doesn't exist? You all could get together and discuss the issues you're having and share tips. It sounds like this would be useful because "others with a lot of experience still say they get confused sometimes," so you wouldn't be the only one who would benefit from this at all. If you're not comfortable sharing an issue yourself, you could still learn from the rest of the group, and chances are good you'll be the one saying "wait, I know this one" soon enough.
posted by zachlipton at 2:34 AM on February 6 [4 favorites]

Other people have given you really good, concrete advice, so I'll just add that I struggle with this as well, and it is so hard, and I hope you're able to get clear of this and go a little easier on yourself and look back and see how dedicated and smart and truly excellent you are. And consider your therapist's recommendation to explore medication, and don't settle for something that only kind of works. It can be SO FREEING to find something that cuts back the self-defeating chatter in your head, especially since it sounds like you're doing all you can already with therapy. It's very very common, after finding something that works, to discover you had NO IDEA how distorted your mental pathways had gotten until they've straightened out with a little pharmaceutical assistance. I had to go off my medicine to try to conceive and the difference is really noticeable over time. White-knuckling it is no way to live if there's an alternative.

You are not an imposter, and I so so hope you can get to a point where you see that too, and see your colleagues as wonderful resources and inspirations, rather than sources of unfair comparison. Hang in there. This internet stranger really wants you to have happiness and fulfillment.
posted by bowtiesarecool at 5:58 AM on February 6

Hey, this sounds so hard. I want to endorse everything zachlipton said, and add that it may help to try to reframe in your own head that you should have a little faith in your boss and the other people around you who are telling you you're doing a good job. No one is perfect, and good managers and colleagues don't expect everyone to be perfect at every aspect of their job. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, and if one of your weaknesses really is that you struggle with one aspect of the job that, in your own words here, "others with a lot of experience still say they get confused sometimes" about, that's not really much of a weakness.

You're only nine months in and your boss is recommending you try for a promotion. Sounds to me like they're in your corner. I think you should definitely talk with your boss about this, approaching it with a positive frame: you want to provide the best possible customer experience, you've identified that your understanding of this program is a barrier to you continuing to improve in your skills, you've tried to solve this problem independently but have now determined that you need some help to move forward. You have a few ideas (e.g., have a tutor help you out), but aren't sure the best way to proceed. I honestly think your boss will be really happy that you're capable of identifying your own areas for improvement and are proactively trying to find ways to get better at your job.

Good luck. I think you're going to do great.
posted by biogeo at 6:54 AM on February 6 [2 favorites]

By way of providing some perspective - I have been working in my field for 15 years. I have a ton of experience and people turn to me for help with a range of subject matters. The other day somebody I had never spoken to started a chat on Teams about something they wanted me to confirm was correct. The person was a few levels under mine so I used that as teachable moment and we looked up the answer to their question together. I told them the reason people think I know this stuff is because I know how to find the answers. It turns out he was referred to me by one of our official technical specialists but the topic was outside her experience. I am not a specialist for anything. I just like to look stuff up and if I don’t know where to start with that I ask people what I should be considering or who I should talk to.

The only reason I had the guidance my junior colleague needed to hand was because I had just spent three days trying to resolve a problem on the same general topic, completely different question to theirs. As part of solving that problem I forwarded a report to a specialist asking them to help me understand the science behind something and to assume I was 5 years old when calibrating their responses. And I called my predecessor on the project and asked him to explain what he had done three years ago and to assume I was 5 years old in his explanations. At this point I have no shame, it is only easy if you actually know the answer and finding the answer can be painful and frustrating and extremely time consuming. And it can absolutely take years to get deep into certain topics. And especially with data analysis you also just need a lot of experience to both spot the problems/errors quickly and to interpret what you’re looking at.

I also wanted to nth everybody who said you are doing great. I also supervise a bunch of people on multiple projects and I am under no illusions who is doing well and who isn’t. You may not be able to do the thing to the same level of expertise as somebody who’s been in the role for 10 years but you’re clearly doing it well enough to be so effective they want to give you more responsibility.
posted by koahiatamadl at 7:28 AM on February 6 [6 favorites]

I am assuming by "system" you mean computer system. As a very old programmer I can tell you that there are many non-intuitive user interfaces out there. And sometimes the terminology is non-standard or confusing, or the steps required to accomplish something are subtle. And that's modern systems, which says nothing of "legacy" systems (i.e., old ones that are being nursed along because nobody wants to spend the money to rewrite them). And that doesn't even get into "error messages" and whether they actually tell you enough to solve a problem.

You mentioned "states" which makes me think maybe it is a legacy system, which are more common in local governments (but obviously that's purely a guess with nothing to go on).

I will also mention that my wife has sometimes had similar situations where she was praised and yet could not get traction in some areas of her current assignment, but when all was said and done she ended up "owning the job". She asked her boss if she could write a "How To" manual which helped focus the areas where the system was complex and/or involved multiple computer systems or manual interfaces. Over the years her "How To" manuals have been praised by others as well as an aid to her for infrequent tasks.

I was a "boss" for about 8 years, and I agree with others who say you are being too hard on your self. Some people who reported to me were struggling, others were lazy as anything, others were super industrious, others had particular skills, some were very good at solving the causes of complex problems, others were timid. And guess what? There was overlap! If a boss spends all their time trying to decide if everyone in their team is perfect or even excellent then they're focused on the wrong things!
posted by forthright at 8:54 AM on February 6

"(it is it's own data collection program used only by our programs)"

Who creates/created these programs? Are there any tests that are/were run to get the system to a usable state (unit tests, acceptance tests, etc.)? Can you ask people to create tests that exercise the parts of the system that you don't understand?

Also, go to and type in some search terms that apply to your system and/or data analysis. I've not used wyant, but I recently nosed around for a friend, and it seems like that site might put you in contact with some well qualified tutors. I'm sure there are other similar sites.

2nd'ing @zachlipton's suggestion of forming a user group, if one doesn't exist. And if it does exist, maybe find ways to make better use of it. Maybe offer to give a talk on a part of the system you are comfortable with, and that may put you in touch with people who can help you, even if only to help you articulate where your confusion lies, or to commiserate that the system is buggy/inscrutable.
posted by at at 10:58 AM on February 6

From a fellow perfectionist, anxious woman of color working in a place where I'm not the norm, and where everyone seems to be so much smarter and "with it" than me, first a fist bump (or hugs if you want them). I get you so hard it hurts. I feel so much more pressure to be the best than some of my peers appear to, but it feels like a never ending climb of mountains -- as soon as I feel like I have scaled one, here's another. I hear you right down to the miserable but knew my shit at the old job.

The thing I have struggled to accept is that everyone is not actually smarter or has more experience or is picking it up faster than me -- everyone is kind of faking it. I know this is "true" because people tell me but it doesn't feel true because people sound so much more confident than that implies. People are actually much more willing and less judgmental than I expected when I do ask for help, but I have a hard time trusting that I'm okay, they think I'm okay, we're all okay... Maybe you can relate.

I'm sorry I have little more to offer than commiseration. Therapy and medication have not helped me as much as I'd hoped, but they may help you and I encourage you to consider it more.
posted by sm1tten at 7:21 PM on February 6 [4 favorites]

I retired last year after a life-time in science. Just after I left my penultimate job in 2012, a group of us conspired to get my old boss a National Mentor of the Year Award. We didn't only do it for the free dinner at the award ceremony. One of the boss's Standard Operating Procedures was to fish her students out from the Slough of Despond and get them to go through their first lab books with her. Even for one at the lowest ebb of self-esteem, it is a revelation to see just how plug-ignorant and clueless you were when you started. You cannot but feel better when it is clear that you have learned so much, and that your toolbox is so much better filled with sharper tools now. It may help if you go back, even alone, to when you started at the job and start ticking off the inventory of what was opaque then but you can do now. As @underclocked noted, this will look so much more convincing as a written list with fancy bullet-points (nails?? as in nailed it). It would be too corny to print the list out on an acetate sheet and stick it on the mirror at home . . . but do that anyway.
posted by BobTheScientist at 12:34 PM on February 8 [1 favorite]

« Older Listen, about those bitter songs you sing..   |   Still unclear about job descriptions after the... Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments