You don't belong here. You didn't earn it, and it's only a matter of time before everyone finds out.
For black people, especially women, sometimes having these nagging feelings of self-doubt, despite clear and tangible evidence to the contrary, is not uncommon. It's called impostor syndrome, and left unchecked the dream-crushing, joy-sucking, destiny-robbing culprit can be debilitating.
If you suffer from a constant, gnawing feeling of fraudulence, trust me when I tell you you're not alone. From Dr. Maya Angelou to Lupita Nyong'o to Serena Williams, many amazingly talented, super smart and dynamic women have admitted that they too struggle with impostor syndrome. While it may seem surprising that such proven successes would flirt with the extremes of self-doubt, it's not at all unreasonable.
Given the pervasiveness of racism, sexism and societal stereotypes designed to feed assumptions of inadequacy and undermine our value, there are some very real reasons why impostor syndrome is a legitimate thing. So how do we overcome that fraudulent feeling, when for many of us code-switching is a matter of survival?
If you work with a black woman it’s likely she’s censoring herself most of the day. Everything from her hair, attire, tone of voice, hand gestures, accent etc is being internally policed. Most of us don’t get to be ourselves at work.
— Christiana Amarachi Mbakwe (@Christiana1987) September 9, 2018
I recently sat down with renowned expert Dr. Valerie Young to gather insight on this matter and gain some practical tips on how to overcome impostor syndrome. With a doctoral focus on understanding and eliminating self-limiting attitudes and behaviors, Dr. Young is well-versed in the effects of impostor syndrome within marginalized groups. The author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer From Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It, she shares her highly practical solutions on college campuses and corporations across the globe.
If You Suspect That You Have Impostor Syndrome, Here Are 10 Questions To Ask Yourself:
1. Do you credit your success to chance, connections or some other external factor?
Humility is great, but don't discredit the value of the actual work you put in. You didn't get lucky, and it's not just "by the grace of God" that you're successful. You've earned it. You've worked and prepared for this, so own it.
2. Do you deflect responsibility for your actions?
When things go wrong with your project or accountability, is blame your go-to defense? Do you stay perched and ready to throw someone under the bus? Are you always ready to recite your mental list of justifications when you come up short? Neglecting to take responsibility for your actions is often a symptom of impostor syndrome.
"You are entitled to have an off day, or not know the answer, or make a mistake," Dr. Young said. "Intellectually, we know that nobody wins them all, but when it happens to us, we're devastated."
Often, it's easier to point the blame elsewhere than to own the fact that you're flawed. You're doing yourself no favors by deflecting responsibility for your actions. In fact, you're truly robbing yourself of the opportunity to grow.
3. Do you feel you have something to prove?
Many of us grew up on the old adage that we have to "do better, be better and perform better" in order to get ahead. But where's the line?
It's not all in your head. Dr. Valerie Young affirms that the social aspects of marginalization can certainly multiply "normal" feelings of self-doubt, and with good reason.
"A sense of belonging fosters confidence. When you walk into a college classroom, when you choose a field of study, or when you walk into a job site, the more people who look and sound like you the more confident you feel," said Dr. Young. "Conversely, the fewer people who look and sound like you can impact your confidence. That's especially true when you belong to any group for whom there are stereotypes about competence."
Do your best, but in the event that your best falls short of perfection, cut yourself some slack. In the words of Jesse Williams, "Just because we're magic, doesn't mean we're not real."
4. Do you self-sabotage?
Whether it's procrastination, impulsiveness, over-committing or apathy, most of us have sabotaged ourselves at some point. According to an article published in Psychology Today, when it comes to chronic self-sabotage, the culprit can typically be traced to feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness.
The first step to combating this is self-awareness. When you find yourself falling into self-sabotaging behaviors like procrastination, avoidance or negativity, check yourself before you wreck yourself. Acknowledge what's happening, and then keep moving forward.
5. Are you a workaholic?
Amongst your colleagues — specifically those who actually earned their spot — you secretly feel that you're a phony. Therefore, you compensate by going harder than hard in order to measure up.
"People who feel like impostors have unrealistic, unsustainable measures for what it means to be competent," Dr. Valerie Young said.
No one is ever going to rein in the overachiever on the team, but the work overload is unsustainable and harmful to your mental health, sis. Fall back.
6. Do you avoid challenging yourself?
When you're not able to pick up on something right away, it frustrates you to no end. For you, not trying is better than trying and failing.
According to Dr. Valerie Young, "Lowering your goals is a coping mechanism when you feel like an impostor. The thinking is, 'I'd rather people think I'm lazy than stupid.'"
If this is you, try reminding yourself that not everything is going to come easily, and just because it's a struggle doesn't mean you're not smart. Don't be afraid to try and fail, and try again.
7. Are you a perfectionist?
You're a micromanaging control freak, and believe that if you want something done right, you must do it yourself. But after failing to achieve whatever ambitious goal you've set, you're plagued with major feelings self-doubt and worry.
Perfectionism and impostor syndrome often go hand-in-hand. But you can't always do it all, sis — and that's OK. Just breath and delegate as best as you can.
8. Do you have a hard time receiving constructive criticism?
The approval of your boss and your team means the world to you. Conversely, criticism of any kind cuts deeply. It can be hard to recognize the difference between constructive criticism and sincere cruelty.
"People who feel like impostors are crushed by constructive criticism. When you add the dynamics of race and gender, it can be hard to sort out if you're getting rightfully criticized or if it's coming from a sinister place," said Dr. Valerie Young.
Criticism can be tricky and sometimes hard to hear. But no matter the source, the key here is to remember that if the criticism you receive is genuinely constructive, take it seriously — not personally.
9. Are you addicted to degrees?
Education is lovely. It's great to be a lifelong learner, but is the real motivation behind your pursuit of varying certifications, training and degrees due to the fact that you believe your skill set is just not up to par?
If your hunger for knowledge is fueled by deep insecurity and fear of being exposed as inexperienced, unqualified or unknowledgeable, you may be pursuing a good thing for all the wrong reasons. Sometimes earning a promotion and climbing the ladder requires learning things as you go along. But if you've made it this far, it's likely due to the many qualities you possess, in addition to your accolades. Others trust you, so trust yourself.
10. So how do I go about changing this mindset?
Break the silence, sis.
Shame keeps a lot of people from “fessing up” about their feelings of fraudulence and inadequacy. Being able to clearly identify these feelings with a formal name and recognizing that you are not alone can be tremendously freeing.
"Don’t confuse the discomfort caused from feeling outnumbered with thinking you’re not smart enough or are in some way not worthy of being there. You are where you are because you deserve to be. Being one of a token few can be stressful. Which makes it all the more important that when impostor feelings do strike, you give yourself extra points for performing as well as you do. You may be expected to represent your entire social group, but you need not accept that responsibility. Assert your right to fall as flat on your face as the next person."