Untangling Imposter Syndrome

by Leadership Development, Personal Growth

Imposter Syndrome

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“We need a new narrative, one that acknowledges that systems that exclude and discriminate against professionals whose identities have been marginalised must be reformed.”

I have felt like an imposter since my first year of university. Although I was accepted into a university that seemed out of my league — and even though I received good grades in high school — I believed my acceptance was a fluke. Looking back, I now realise I had been grappling with imposter syndrome, not just at university, but for the first 15 years of my adult life.

“Imposter syndrome” refers to distrusting our abilities and feeling like a fraud in the spaces we inhabit. The term was coined by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes (1978) who wanted to understand why “despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the imposter phenomenon persist in believing that they are not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise”. On reflection, my feelings of being an imposter were so strong that I constantly felt like a fraud though I was doing my best, working hard and achieving desired outcomes.

My earlier experiences of imposter syndrome took up a lot of my mental space as I often second-guessed myself while also navigating inexplicable feelings of anxiety and distress. For example, in a job at an international organisation, I often doubted my inner perception of how I was doing. Despite many affirmations from my colleagues, partners and people across my networks, I still felt like nothing I did was ever enough. I felt a constant pressure to prove myself, to prove that I was worthy of being there and to prove that I had something to offer. In the beginning, because I was new at the job, it seemed quite natural to question if I was a good fit for the organisation, to worry if my colleagues would like me and to try to ascertain if I was able to do good work. But this questioning never left. Instead, it became a constant internal struggle to gauge if I had the right to feel confident in my role. Not surprisingly, at the end of five years, I was completely exhausted and burnt out, and I left that job not entirely convinced of my capability.

As I look back at these experiences, I again realise that my view of my experience and my self-doubt was both narrow and naïve. Rather than trying to understand why imposter syndrome existed and what systems fostered and exacerbated it, I was placing all the blame for a lack of confidence on myself.

What makes current definitions of imposter syndrome problematic?

The concept of imposter syndrome places the blame for a lack of confidence on individuals, rather than on the historical and cultural intersections that affect how and why it shows up for diverse marginalised identities. To illustrate, in my third year of high school, I discovered that the subject choices offered by my school were not appropriate for entry into a South African university. Still functioning under apartheid-era administration, the school management assumed that students from what was labelled a working-class ‘coloured’ community would not be interested in pursuing a university education. Given the influences of racism and classism in my formative years of education, it is no surprise that when I eventually got to university, I felt like I did not deserve to be there rather than question the invisible rules of exclusion informing my learning experiences.

Similarly, it is not surprising that when the theory of imposter syndrome was developed in the late seventies many important questions concerning systemic racism, classism, sexism, xenophobia and other biases were not asked. More than fifty years later a lack of intersectionality still affects prevailing approaches to counter imposter syndrome. As a result, most approaches still focus on ways to boost the confidence of individuals rather than challenging and transforming biased and discriminatory systems and workplaces. However, no lasting transformative change will occur if the burden of change is placed on the individuals against whom these systems discriminate.

Bias and exclusion exacerbate feelings of doubt

Based on my own experience, I know that when we hold an intersectional marginalised identity, we are often plagued by feelings of self-doubt and of not being enough. It is important to distinguish that this feeling does not arise from an innate deficiency or lack. Rather, our experiences at the intersections of race, gender, class, neurodivergence, bodily appearance, disabilities and so on mean that we can never truly feel seen, safe or secure in workplaces that are historically biased towards white-male or able-bodied identities. In these spaces many of us are implicitly, if not explicitly, shown that we don’t belong.

The very invisibility of implicit exclusions and microaggressions is what fills us with self-doubt, especially when they are accompanied by more explicit claims and gestures of diversity and inclusion. While almost everyone might experience imposter syndrome in some form during their lives, for some it is but a small problem that often shifts as they integrate into a new environment. For example, white men might experience doubt when starting work in a new environment, but because society makes positive assumptions about their work and intelligence, they are validated, and their feelings of self-doubt start fading away. Moreover, they are exposed to role models that mirror their identities at work and in the media. Their contributions, leadership qualities and expertise are taken for granted and rarely questioned. Conversely, those of us with marginalised identities are often judged as incompetent based purely on a bias against our identities, and when subsequently we too start questioning our worth we are encouraged to “overcome imposter syndrome” — rather than to challenge an unjust distribution of systemic power and privilege.

Taking on the label of imposter syndrome is stressful and devaluing

Assigning the word “imposter” to feelings that we don’t belong attaches a stigma to feelings of uncertainty or anxiousness about work performance. Similarly the word “syndrome,” suggests that our justified anxiety is a symptom needing therapy. In other words, your lack of confidence in a workplace means that there is something wrong with you rather than acknowledging that ongoing battles with microaggressions based on stereotypes and racism are what steal your power, motivation, strength and resilience.

Most existing interpretations of imposter syndrome ignore this reality. As a result, they perpetuate the problem by suggesting individual responsibility for problems unreasonably inflicted by systems of discrimination and abuse of power. I remember working in one of the leading human rights organisations globally, and because I was the only person in the team from the global South, I felt extraordinary pressure to meet a standard that no one like me had met before. The pressure to excel became almost too much to bear. I was convinced that should I not live up to this standard, I would eventually be told to leave, and this would make things worse for others like me, who come after me. I was so caught up in my internal struggles, that I did not at any point shift my attention to the unacknowledged battles I was fighting — systemic bias, ableism and racism — possibly because, at that time I lacked the vocabulary needed to name the biased practices across the institutions in which I worked. These practices invisibilised and denied what did not fit into the organisation’s ways of working and biases derived from white supremacy culture. Such biases are often implicit, subtle and complex and impose narrow definitions of what acceptable behaviour should look like.

Today, I can say that it took considerable work to understand which parts of my experience were rooted in the systemic, and which parts were truly linked to needing to work on my confidence and sense of self-worth.

How to move away from a fixing people approach towards addressing systemic bias

#1. Take a systemic view of imposter syndrome.

Recognise that imposter syndrome is extensively present in biased, exploitative environments that focus on individual, rather than collective, wellbeing.

Reframe the narrative that imposter syndrome is an individual feeling of not being good enough that can be fixed with therapy. We need a new narrative, one that acknowledges that systems that exclude and discriminate against professionals whose identities have been marginalised must be reformed.

#2 Identify what aspects of your confidence can take a boost.

Spend some time reflecting on spaces where you feel confident in your ability to shine. What do you notice about the people, processes and systems? How are these spaces different from spaces where you feel like an imposter?

Your confidence is also affected by comparing yourself to others. Comparison, however, is an act of violence in itself. Comparison damages your mental health and compounds feelings of imposter syndrome. Remember that everyone has their own journey. What works for someone else may not work for you.

#3 Create circles of support.

Find others who may be experiencing the same thing. Only by sharing our experiences, can we find alternatives to self-doubt and build healthy self-enquiry, which is best fostered within a supportive community. We can also use such spaces to surface our internalised biases, talk about them with others in our communities and ask for, or offer, support to do things differently.

#4 Seek professional help.

If you discover areas where unjust biases and stereotypes have been internalised it can be powerful to work through feelings of shame, self-doubt, and “never good enough” with a professional. Don’t give up when you experience such bumps in your journey. Courage, support and community will help you get through it all in the end.

Author: Shamillah Wilson

Author: Shamillah Wilson

This post was first published 13 February 2024.

Shamillah Wilson is a writer, speaker, thought leader and feminist life coach. She supports activists and leaders to navigate systemic challenges and to achieve greater fulfilment, freedom and success as they work to transform our world into a just place for all.

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