If you ever felt like your success wasn’t yours to rightfully claim, you’ve probably experienced imposter syndrome. Discovered by psychologists Pauline Clanes and Suzanne Imes in 1978, imposter syndrome, or the imposter phenomenon, is the belief that your achievements are solely due to luck. You dismiss the contribution of your skills and qualifications. Clane later made the Imposter Syndrome Test (that you can take) for a standard measure of this phenomenon. If you have experienced this phenomenon, you are amongst 70% of other people who have felt like an imposter in their lifetime.
Though the feeling of being an imposter is common to anyone, it is especially heightened for Black women. As many Black women navigate spaces like PWIs that weren’t designed for them, they feel like they don’t fit into the environment. This feeling can follow into a lot of other parts of their life and even seep into the workplace.
Psychotherapist Brian Norton says, “when you experience systemic oppression or are directly or indirectly told your whole life that you are less-than or undeserving of success and you begin to achieve things in a way that goes against a long-standing narrative in the mind, imposter syndrome will occur.” It is common for many Black women to feel like a fraud amongst their peers or colleagues because they continuously have to prove that they belong in a space. The notion that Black women have to work much more to obtain the same positions as their white counterparts is not a myth.
Imposter syndrome tends to show up in people characterized as “perfectionists,” “experts,” “natural geniuses,” “soloists” and “superheros.” There are adjectives I’ve often heard used to describe the experience of Black women in PWIs.
The perfectionist is someone who sets such high expectations with no margin room for mistakes. They are quick to feel like failures at any little mishap. The fear of failure is simply greater for Black women because we are often one of few in a space and feel like universal representatives of all other Black women. The pre-existing expectation that we will fail also makes our standards that much higher. As we open doors for more Black women in spaces, making mistakes puts those opportunities at risk. The perfectionist holds themself back from being human.
The expert is someone who feels pressured to know everything, so they tend to be hesitant to ask questions or to even start projects. This person has a huge fear of people judging them for not knowing something. Many Black women fear confirming the biases of others by being wrong, because making a mistake is often associated with being dumb. And with the many prejudices that Black women are undeserving of spaces and simply there to fill a quota, many would avoid making a mistake at all. This can hold us back from learning and growing. Afterall, how can you get anywhere in a project without asking clarifying questions or starting?
The Natural Genius
The natural genius is someone who is used to constant success, so struggling to complete a task makes them feel fraudulent. This experience might resonate especially with a lot of Black women who transition to a private school. If the workload is significantly harder than at your previous school, the transition to adapt to the work will be more challenging. Yet, you may start to rethink that you don’t belong in the space and doubt your intelligence. This is the case of many who are used to being the smartest in their old schools, and struggling in the new ones.
The soloist is someone who is very independent and feels shame in asking for help. This person is pretty similar to the expert as seeking help is also a type of confirmation bias to those who demean Black women. Asking for help can be seen as weak in a lot of instances, and is the exact opposite that a lot of Black women who are the first in a space want to seem. They don’t want to seem like they can’t take one the challenge. The soloist will often struggle to feel like they belong if they can’t do something alone.
The superhero is one who feels the need to overperform to prove that they aren’t an imposter. They need to control and succeed in all aspects of their lives, relationships and career alike. The labeling of Black women as “superwoman” is nothing new. It puts an enormous amount of pressure on excelling at everything in life and not taking a break. The superwoman is often on top of everything, and not completing someone right away makes them seem ungrounded. Black women face many challenges in the world, and many don’t feel like they deserve a break.
We all know people who fit into one or more of those categories, and it may even be you. I know I’ve experienced a lot of these personas, and have felt like an imposter because of my expectations. One tricky thing about imposter syndrome is being able to assess when you actually don’t know something. A lot of times, we do enter new spaces feeling like “imposters.” But the truth is, all beginners are going to be beginners. It is one thing if you don’t feel like you belong in a space because you feel like a quota or such. However, it is a different thing to feel like an imposter because you don’t know something when in that situation, you might not.
What I find interesting about imposter syndrome though, is the idea of being a “sellout” by leaving a space of comfort for opportunity. This is something I’ve often thought about being in spaces without a lot of other Black people. I think it often invalidates my feeling of being an imposter since I chose to enter those spaces myself. This very feeling is a form of gaslighting, downplaying your experiences because you like you don’t deserve to feel them.
But you do. Not only is your feeling of being an imposter real, it’s also more common than you think. With the unrealistic expectation placed on Black women on top of them being gaslit for their experiences, you might feel like a lot of your feelings are in your head. The feeling of being an imposter doesn’t have to always be so isolating. Now that you know your feelings are completely valid, make sure to remind yourself of your accomplishments. Affirm yourself. Tell trusted people around you who will affirm you as well. Speak to mentors about your feelings. Understand that failure is ok, and oftentimes the best way to access success. And lastly, it is ok to be a beginner. Where would we be in life if we already knew it all?