“You’re such an inspiration.”
That’s what a young woman said to me at a recent networking event. She’s a journalism student and an aspiring writer who follows my work and wants to one day tell stories that matter to her as a Black woman, just like I do. I graciously accepted her compliment but inside, I was panicking.
On paper (and in my Twitter bio), I’m a writer, an editor, a reporter, a journalist. In my opinion, however, I’m a fraud. I’m on edge that one day, people will stop seeing me as an “inspiration” and pull the rug out from under me, revealing to the world the untalented hack I truly am.
This all may sound dramatic and really self-deprecating, but anyone who also struggles with similar thoughts will understand this internal spiral of negative opinions.
For people of color, imposter syndrome isn’t just an imaginary voice in our heads. We receive almost daily messages from society that we don’t truly belong.
The term “imposter syndrome” was coined by psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes in 1978 to describe an “internal experience of intellectual phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” To put it simply, imposter syndrome is the voice in your head that tells you you’re not good enough, that you’re a fake on the verge of being found out.
It’s the feeling that you don’t belong here, wherever “here” is for you: the office, your friend group, the classroom or the boardroom. It doesn’t matter how qualified you are, how much experience you have or how much reassurance and positive feedback you may receive. With imposter syndrome, you can’t shake the notion that you’re just not as capable as others may believe you are and therefore you’re doomed for failure.
An estimated 70% of Americans struggle with these intrusive thoughts brought on by imposter syndrome. And while imposter syndrome is not a diagnosable condition, it can result in negative mental health outcomes. Mental health experts believe that prolonged feelings of isolation and stress brought on by the phenomenon can lead to other DSM-recognized illnesses such as anxiety and depression.
People of color, like myself, are particularly vulnerable to this debilitating sensation. That’s because for us, imposter syndrome isn’t just an imaginary voice in our heads. We can hear it loud and clear when we receive almost daily messages from society that we truly don’t belong.
This feeling of otherness is a common occurrence in the workplace where, too often, we may be the only person of color present. It also transcends that: It happens in stores when we’re followed around by security while shopping. It’s echoed by the leader of our country and the people who support him. It occurs every time we turn on the TV, open a book or watch a movie and don’t see anyone who looks like us doing anything besides being a sidekick. The world ― subliminally and outright ― tells us that we don’t belong, that we aren’t good enough.
A study conducted by Kevin Cokley, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, found that imposter syndrome can add to the stress minorities already feel. In response to the microaggressions we experience in real life, we become our own aggressors, filling ourselves with negative internal dialogue that can result in poor physical and mental care. With imposter syndrome, it becomes too easy to believe the lies both society and your brain tell you.
Even if your brain and everything around you tells you the opposite, know you are capable, you are talented, you belong.
Imposter syndrome has become a part of life for many people of color but that doesn’t have to be the case. We can battle the phenomenon and discrimination simply by showing up. Increasing our representation in the places that have historically excluded us will not only benefit the institutions we infiltrate, but create an environment where we no longer feel like outliers. Simply: The more of us in the room, the more we’ll feel like we belong there and the less alone we will feel in our minds.
But it’s not solely our responsibility to combat this. Everyone needs to be aware of how imposter syndrome affects people of color and how it creates barriers.
This is especially true for leaders in the workplace, but perhaps it starts at an even broader level, with research. Researchers have a responsibility to examine the roles that race, gender, age and socioeconomic status play in how mental health issues develop, especially those that stem from imposter syndrome.
African Americans are 20% more likely than the general population to experience a mental health problem. However, we are also the least likely to receive a diagnosis or treatment. There are still many roadblocks that prevent minorities from getting adequate mental health, including a lack of understanding of the unique needs and experiences of people of color ― experiences like mine, when you’re one of the only Black women in the room and you feel like you’re a fraud.
The field of psychology is still dominated by white people and the majority of clinical studies rarely include subjects of color. Medical professionals must close this research gap and examine the links between racism and discrimination and mental health issues, including imposter syndrome, in order for us to begin healing.
If you’re struggling with imposter syndrome as a person of color, remind yourself of your own achievements. And if your brain won’t let you believe in them, look to the achievements of others. Historically and today, minorities have been breaking records and barriers in spaces where we have previously been barred. And when we couldn’t get a seat at some institutional table, we created our own spaces where we could be valued. Others have gone before you to make a place for you. And your mere existence creates space for someone else to follow.
With that in mind, maybe I can step fully into my role as a writer, journalist and “inspiration.” We should all try go to be the inspiration we want and need to see. It’s my personal responsibility in dismantling imposter syndrome ― and the discrimination that fuels it ― to be a representation, to be someone who can tell you that, even if your brain and everything around you tells you the opposite, you are capable, you are talented, you belong.