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  • Writer's pictureDr. Brittny James

This is Death of Imposter Syndrome - Moment of Silence


Introduction

I chose the context of this post very carefully. Emphasizing equity, I wanted to make sure ALL Black adults heard me. This isn't for Black "professionals" - it's for any Black man or woman who've had to hide behind their experiences, talents, and/or credentials. You are enough. Let me give you a few reasons as to why that is and why you should remove imposter syndrome from your vocabulary - mainly when referring to yourself. First, by definition, an imposter is a person who pretends to be someone else to deceive others, especially for fraudulent gain. Similar to an extent, imposter syndrome is generally defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success.


Keep reading if one or more of the following applies to you:

  • You have experience and/or credentialed but often doubt your abilities.

  • You compare yourself to your colleagues.

  • You have counted yourself out of a promotion or new role because you felt you needed to be more qualified or prepared.

  • You feel you need to be more valuable in your position.

Imposter Syndrome is Not F.U.B.U.

If you're over 30, you might recall the 90's/almost-revived-in-the-2000s brand F.U.B.U. by L.L. Cool J (you also may need to be over 30 to know who that is). If you're under 30, you might have assigned the ownership of F.U.B.U. to Solange; however, it is etched in your mind the acronym stands for "for us by us," with "us" meaning Black people.


Imposter syndrome is not F.U.B.U.


The term "imposter phenomenon" was coined by two Georgia State University psychologists, Drs. Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Ament Imes. Their breakout publication on the topic was introduced in the 1978 publication of ​​Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, describing a study in which they summarized data from over 150 individuals who were "highly successful women — women who have earned Ph.D.'s in various specialties, who are respected professionals in their fields, or who are students recognized for their academic excellence" (p. 242). In short, their results uncovered consistent, pervasive feelings of fraudulence among their study sample. Despite their doctoral degrees and academic honors, they did not experience any internal sense of success. The juicy part is that study participants were described as follows:


"They were primarily white middle- to upper-class women between the ages of 20 and 45. Approximately one-third were therapy clients with specific presenting problems (other than the impostor problem); the other two-thirds were in growth-oriented interaction groups or classes taught by the authors" (p. 242).


Nowhere in that description of participants does it describe American women from racially or culturally minoritized backgrounds. Furthermore, regarding the availability of data on "high achieving" women (likely defined by education status), there was little, if anything, to say about Black Americans in college or who had college degrees. An October 1978 Census Bureau report notes that from 1968 to 1978, the percentage of college students who were Black was up four percentage points, from 6 to 10%. Despite Black Americans receiving degrees since 1826, the enrollment increase was attributed to the establishment of historically Black colleges and universities (H.B.C.U.s) from 1860-1890. Black students began founding their own sororities and fraternities for Black college students and alumni. Black students who attended predominantly white institutions founded their own Black student unions. They were forced to make their own spaces because there weren't any made for them.


It wasn't until the landmark 1954 ruling by the United States Supreme Court in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, that data and statistics began to exist for Black Americans related to their education. Even with the progress made, institutions still lack the technology, human resources, and general infrastructure to accurately report data to national entities.


During 1978 on the campuses of a "private midwestern co-educational college" or "a large southern urban university," it was unlikely that researchers were interested in the self-perception of Black men and women, nor was it possible that there were many to gain opinions from.


The inception of the imposter phenomenon went like this:

  1. White women thought about it (authors).

  2. White women affirmed it (study participants), and likely,

  3. White men and women deemed it honorable for publication (journal/editors).

Not only was having credentials an inclusion criterion, but it was also reported that many were in therapy and/or growth-oriented interaction groups. This means additional mental health concerns might be confounders or contributors to the participants' "phony" feelings. It's an exciting read overall, but it needs to mention that these results are not generalizable to the larger population of women, college students, or Americans overall.

"Worry 'Bout Yoself!," Respectfully.

I'm not sure when, but over the past decade or so, I've mainly heard Black women talking about imposter syndrome as it relates to their accomplishments. I think the majority of the surprise (primarily related to getting hired or promoted as a white-led/founded institution) is in the inherent racism and sexism of the job market, followed by feeling like "I don't belong here."


Black and brown applicants have the knowledge, skills, experience, and credentials for the positions they've applied for - what they don't often have is a network of personal connections that have a historical relationship with the employer. Having an association within a company or a college-educated parent who was roommates with an organization's leadership (see above about how few Black people were in college in the 70s - our parents!) can open more doors than a degree alone can. Combining those four attributes and selling themselves during the interview, the initial excitement of a new role often breeds some anxiety or fear about the social expectations in the workplace - especially when you don't have someone who can call your name out to leadership.


Here's a word of advice for everybody at any level and position: WORRY' BOUT YOSELF! Having a human level of empathy and social interaction as a colleague is leaps and bounds different from just speaking to fill your perception of an awkward silence - yes, my cousin works in the other department; no, I've never been to a Lil' Baby concert (yeah, I have, though); yes, I CHANGED MY HAIR; and no, I do not want to talk about how long braids take!


Worry. Bout. Yo. Self. At. Work. And don't hesitate to communicate what isn't people's business. You're not being mean; you're setting boundaries.


Conclusions

Long story short - imposter syndrome is outdated. It does not apply to minorities. It's just not for us. As a culture, let's commit to not ascribing to the various non-diagnosable illnesses created for us. Strong Black Woman/Superwoman syndrome, John Henryism…death to it all. Instead, let's live softer lives, be confident in our abilities, speak up for ourselves when we need to, get therapy to unlearn poor communication, and most importantly - do our best daily.


Go be great. You've got this.


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