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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Buyer

#80: A Sprained Ankle... and Return of the Impostor Syndrome

Last Monday, I slipped on a piece of plastic and sprained my ankle. I was bound to be injured at some point, although it happened in a way I’d least expect it. As I was crossing the street on the way to work, I saw a piece of plastic in the middle of the crosswalk – I thought it was glass. I also thought that I stepped around it, but I didn’t. As soon as I put my foot down, my body slid out from under me. I landed on my butt in the middle of the street right before the light changed. I couldn’t stand, but I knew I had to get out of the street. I scooted myself out of the street onto the sidewalk, backpack and all. My ankle was in so much pain that I could barely make it to the office. Even though it was cold outside, I was sweating from being overwhelmed in frustration.

I’ll admit that I was relieved for a second that I wouldn’t have to fight myself to leaving work for the gym because I couldn’t work out anyway. That lasted for exactly one workout. On Tuesday, when it was time to leave work for the gym, I was lost. My gut told me that I shouldn’t lift, but my brain had other ideas. I limped my way nearly to the gym (also a bad idea) debating it on the phone with my mom. I knew I shouldn’t go, but I had to try. No matter how much I craved a lift, I knew wholeheartedly it would be a mistake. I limped home sobbing. I cried even more when my mom suggested a ‘hobby,’ as much a I appreciate that she wanted to help. After getting off the phone, I naturally proceeded to have an intense panic attack. On a scale of 1-10, this was definitely a 10. Uncontrollable hyperventilating, sobbing, spiraling, etc. Eventually, I cried myself out and went to sleep. I was afraid that I’d immediately gain weight if I ate as I usually would since I couldn’t be active whatsoever. By 4pm the next day, I felt my productivity suffering. I could feel all the pent-up anxiety that I couldn’t release in days prior and how it was preventing me from focusing. I decided in that moment that nothing would stop me from working out. I was back on schedule from then on. I modified each of my workouts to be seated so that I could still exercise the left and right sides of my body equally. I’m never taking any chances on worsening muscle imbalances. That’s a one-way ticket to further injuries. I also figured out that I could ride a stationary bike while talking on the phone to make up for the lack of walking. I even figured out how to do leg day. When asked about my ankle, I joked that my attitude growth was +100 pts day over day. It wasn’t a joke at all.

As silly as it sounds, I’m proud of myself. Sure, I lost my mind for a day. Instead of continuing to spiral or feeling bad for myself after that day, I found a reasonable solution. I Ubered everywhere to avoid making the injury worse, but remained active by riding the stationary bike and modifying my lifts. I took it as a new challenge to figure out how to challenge myself in the gym despite my limitation. Ultimately, I figured out how to have complete workouts that still include all muscles and stretches, and had fun doing it. By the end of last week, I had a 4-pack for the first time ever (which has since disappeared due to bread consumption but will return eventually). I laughed to myself that a piece of plastic invoked the craziest rule #2. If you don’t know what rule #2 is, you’re missing out. And yes, it applies to inanimate objects too.

My sprained ankle was the side event of the week. The main event was reviewing a project (the one I wanted work on when I was hiking) with the leader of my business area and his directs. I’m grateful for input from engineers and my manager, but I owned it from start to finish. The leader of my business area oversees 500+ engineers and product managers. Each of his directs oversees ~25-100 managers, who each have direct reports. I have approximately 18 months of work experience. Yet, each of those people gathered (in-person!) or joined a call because they thought my work product was valuable. It was valuable. I knew what I was talking about, and people listened. I couldn’t have asked for a better meeting. Not to mention, I baked a Lambda cake. How wild is it that? How many people get to say that before age 25?

It’s rare that I genuinely feel like my work is good enough to be proud of, but this time, I’m proud. I’m afraid that being proud of any of my accomplishments makes me arrogant. Moreover, I’m afraid that my accomplishments are too good to be true. I guess we’re back to impostor syndrome. Huh. I believe facts. When I receive positive feedback in the form of a fact, I should be happy about it. That doesn’t mean I need to share it. But, what if I become arrogant in believing that fact? Where’s the line between arrogance and confidence? Don’t get me wrong, I know what I’m capable of delivering, I just don’t want to fully believe it on a daily basis as a way to protect myself.

However, if I’m not allowing myself to internalize the positive feedback for myself, then I rely on additional external feedback. I want others to be proud of me so that I feel like I can be proud of myself. I’m really grateful to the people that recognize what I accomplished and were proud – that means so much to me. Even more than recognizing what I accomplished, it’s recognizing how much it means to me.

I went to a happy hour full of engineers to share the cake. I got to talking with a few of the engineers my age, mostly wanting to learn about them as people and what they do. At various points in the conversation, they gave me that blank stare in response to something that I said, and I didn’t even mention the gym! An engineering happy hour was the last place I expected to get that blank stare.

Even though I’m happy with the results of the review, I left the office feeling alone. I want to know that someone empathizes with how I value and enjoy my work, the gym, etc. I shouldn’t need anyone to recognize that I accomplished all of these things with a sprained ankle, but I felt like that was missing. I wouldn’t have had it any other way, but people expect that of me by now. Just because that’s who I am doesn’t mean I’m not fighting like hell every day to get things done. I just don’t think about it that way on a regular basis.

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