Slaying Self-Doubt

Imposter phenomenon – Feeling you’re not as good as others think you are, and worrying you will be unmasked as a fraud—may be sparked by family messages or systemic cultural biases. But those feelings are changeable.

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Olivia Taylor tried to talk her way out of a job she truly wanted. After years of coaching clients to resolve internal barriers, Taylor—a certified leadership coach whose passion is working with women of color—had been seeking opportunities to facilitate large groups. But when she was invited to do exactly that, she felt so unsure of her preparedness that she challenged the hosting organization’s perception of her qualifications.

“I said, ‘Just to be clear, I don’t have a lot of experience in this space,’” Taylor explains. “My inner critic was telling me I wasn’t ready.” Despite her training and professional experience, Taylor was experiencing impostor phenomenon: a sense that others have mistakenly overestimated your capabilities, regardless of your tangible successes, and will soon discover that you are lacking. The experience can be painful and embarrassing.

In fact, Olivia Taylor is a pseudonym, as she felt uncomfortable having her story published under her real name.

The term impostor phenomenon was coined in 1978 by now retired psychotherapist and professor emeritus Pauline Rose Clance and clinical psychologist Suzanne Imes, in a paper they titled “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention.”
They wrote, “Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the impostor phenomenon persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.”

In the years since Clance and Imes published their work, the concept of impostor phenomenon (IP) has taken hold in pop culture and scientific research. Stories about IP appear monthly in outlets ranging from NPR to Forbes to Cosmopolitan. Scholarly papers are equally abundant, analyzing
everything from IP’s potential to be “a risk factor for poor psychological adjustment among Black emerging adults” (Journal of Black Psychology) to IP’s prevalence rate in the general population—which is anywhere from 9 to 82 percent, according to a study published in 2019 in the Journal of General Internal Medicine (JGIM).

In general, the expert consensus is that impostor phenomenon is common among people of all genders and ethnicities, especially high-performing professionals, and that it can be debilitating and tangibly negative. The JGIM article (which synthesized data from 62 other IP studies, half of which had been published in the previous six years) concluded that IP “is often comorbid with depression and anxiety and is associated with impaired job performance, job satisfaction, and burnout.” Experiencing IP can lead you to reject new job opportunities—as Taylor almost did—lose out on being promoted, or shy away from tackling challenges that would expand your skill set.

What’s more, the JGIM study states, “rates of impostor syndrome are particularly high among ethnic minority groups.” Not everyone agrees with this last assertion. There are voices calling for a reexamination of impostor phenomenon, especially as the term is applied to women of color.

The pushback

One of these voices belongs to Seattlebased speaker and writer Jodi-Ann Burey, who has tired of hearing about impostor
syndrome in professional women’s circles. “It comes up so much, and it just doesn’t resonate with me,” Burey says. “The popularized concept of impostor syndrome doesn’t reflect why I feel like I don’t belong in the workplace.”

In early 2021, Burey and inclusion strategist Ruchika Tulshyan coauthored an article for Harvard Business Review titled “Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome.” The pair specifically wrote “imposter syndrome,” using the term that has overtaken “impostor phenomenon” in popular discourse. “Imposter syndrome puts the blame on individuals, without accounting for the historical and cultural contexts that are foundational to how it manifests in both women of color and white women,” Tulshyan and Burey wrote.

They argued that women of color, who “are implicitly, if not explicitly, told we don’t belong in white- and male-dominated workplaces,” have abundant reasons to feel less than fully confident at work. Rather than making women responsible for “fixing” themselves, Tulshyan and Burey say, “[fix] the places where women work.” This framework may provide relief to many. Tulshyan says, “People have reached out to us and said, ‘This reframed the relationship I have with my workplace, and myself.’”

But in writing that “the fact that [impostor syndrome] is considered a diagnosis at all is problematic,” Tulshyan and Burey have highlighted, and perhaps perpetuated, a broad cultural misunderstanding about impostor phenomenon. “It is not a syndrome,” says Suzanne Imes, who still sees patients in her Atlanta practice, runs support groups for professional women, and collaborates and remains best friends with Clance. “It’s gotten
woven into pop culture that way, but impostor phenomenon is not a disease.

Experiencing impostor feelings doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with you.” What’s more, she says, “I agree, stop telling women they have impostor ‘syndrome’! What they have are feelings, beliefs. And those are subject to change.”

Leadership advisor Margie Warrell, author of You’ve Got This! (a guide to building “self-trust”), says, “Impostor phenomenon deals with our bias against ourselves. There’s a difference between being hampered in rising to professional heights by sexism and racism, which women legitimately
face, and doubting your self-worth once you’re there.”

So, should we take on or discard the concept of impostor phenomenon? “It’s not an either/or,” says licensed marriage and family therapist Camille Tenerife, who provides career counseling to professionals of color. “We shouldn’t overlook the impact of microaggressions, or the pressure created
by being the ‘only one,’ burdened with representing your entire race,” she explains.

“But at the same time, labels can help normalize and validate a person’s experience. If there’s a name for this feeling I’m having,
that means I’m not alone. And impostor syndrome isn’t a permanent state. Naming it is different from staying in it.”

Slaying the doubt

Being able to see that feelings of displacement or lack of confidence may be the result of inequitable and biased systems, rather than internal weakness, can be empowering. This reframing—seeing that self-doubt is seeded externally—is in keeping with Imes and Clance’s conclusions about how impostor feelings originate and how they can be shifted. The latter process can be summed up as “separating fact from fiction.”

Clance and Imes aimed to help people mentally and emotionally own their successes and strengths by identifying the external messages undermining their self confidence. Those messages, Imes says, can come from “the microcosm of your family, the macrocosm of the larger culture, or the subculture of your work environment. And research has shown that the impostor experience is exacerbated if you are a woman in a male-dominated culture, a man in a female-dominated field, or a person of color in a white-dominated culture or career.”

As Aisha R. Shabazz, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist who specializes in anxiety, puts it, “One question I ask [clients experiencing self-doubt] is, Where did this story come from? Are these your words you’re using, or words someone passed on to you?”

Talking with a therapist is one good way to identify and separate from external messages triggering self-doubt. Conferring with a trusted friend or mentor can also be helpful. “Sometimes when we’re stuck in our own head, having someone else validate the facts can be very powerful,” says Taylor. Tenerife agrees. “It’s normal to need validation,” she says. “Mentors can be so impactful for that.” Tenerife also recommends keeping concrete reminders of achievements to serve as a factual resource when impostor feelings surface. “Collect evidence—a written list of your professional successes, cards from friends, good performance reviews— and revisit them as needed. It’s hard to think clearly when you’re feeling distress.

Tangible resources can remind you of your strengths.” Shabazz also prompts clients to look carefully at the impact of perfectionist tendencies. “If I pursue perfection or even the appearance of perfection, I reinforce insecurity and self-doubt, because it’s unattainable,” she says.

In arguing in favor of changing systems rather than labeling women, Tulshyan says, “We want to shift society to reward people who say, ‘I’m not really sure, I don’t have all the answers.’ We want to normalize ‘I don’t know what to do.’ Because that’s a universal feeling.” Imes agrees, saying, “Our society elevates competition and success in a way that puts people under tremendous pressure. We want to help people feel less pressure to be perfect.”

With growing awareness, you may be able to catch and shift impostor feelings as they arise. After Olivia Taylor heard herself
expressing concern that she wasn’t ready to facilitate a large group, she regrouped. “I countered the disempowering voice in my head with the facts. They wanted me for the job! And it was an opportunity to do something that’s important to me—give courage to others.” She accepted the role.

By Darcy Brown-Martin 

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