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Imposter Syndrome: Impact on Black Women


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.” Imposter syndrome creates feeling of doubt, unworthiness, and fraudulence

Impostor syndrome causes those experiencing the syndrome to doubt their achievements, intellect, and fear that others will expose them as fraudulent. This condition can affect anyone, regardless of their job, age, economic, or social status. However, imposter syndrome is more prevalent in woman, particularly African American women. African American women tend to experience imposter syndrome more than others because of both the verbal and nonverbal messages conveyed to them that alone they aren’t enough, they don’t belong, and will never be as successful as their male counterparts or women of other races.

Imposter syndrome is the voice inside of your head that suggests you are not worthy and the negative things that you tell yourself about your value, competence, and skillset. There is a perception that someone will “expose” you as “fake or “fraudulent” in spite of your achievements, competence, experience, or intellect. As negative feelings turn inward, towards oneself it starts to create negative internal dialogue which can contribute to mental health care and physical health decline.

Notably, an estimated 70% of Americans struggle with the intrusive thoughts brought on by imposter syndrome. Although, Imposter syndrome is not a recognized disorder in the DSM 5, it has been recognized by many experienced mental health professionals as a cause for concern. According to many mental health experts imposter syndrome can lead to diminished self-esteem, increased self-doubt, anxiety, and depression.

African American women are particularly vulnerable to negative thoughts and feelings created by imposter syndrome. African American women, like myself often are told both directly as well as indirectly from society that we do not measure up, not as competent, or do not belong. When milestones are made or accomplishments are achieved, we often view them as a “stroke of luck”, “good timing”, or “the result of someone else assisting or helping us out”

Imposter syndrome is caused by hypersensitivity to comparison and evaluation, and to those with low self-esteem or perfectionist tendencies. Additionally, when people feel different from the images of success they are surrounded by, which is often the case for African American women, they can internalize the belief that they do not belong or they are not worthy of success. Interestingly, when attention is called to one’s success the feelings of unworthiness and inadequacy can be unleashed. This could occur when receiving an award, passing an exam, or being promoted. Failure after a string of successes can also cause someone to critique and question their overall aptitude.

Potential Signs of Imposter Syndrome Include:

  • Stringent and inflexible goal setting
  • Avoidance of requesting promotion or raise when warranted
  • Avoidance of volunteering because it may create distraction that could compromise the quality of other tasks.
  • Attribute success to outside factors
  • Self-sabotage, e.g., not applying for a higher position because you won’t get it anyway
  • Intense fear of failure
  • Overtly confident but covertly low self-confidence
  • Do not feel satisfied when finishing a task until they feel that they know “everything” about the subject
  • Avoid applying for jobs because that call for an “expert” to fill the position
  • Typically turn down help so that they can prove their worth as an individual

Overcoming imposter syndrome involves changing one’s mindset about their abilities. Imposters feel like they do not belong, so acknowledging their contributions, expertise, milestones, and accomplishments are key. If you feel like an imposter, it is important to remind yourself that you earned your degree, position, status, etc. Remain focused on measuring your personal achievements rather than comparing yourself to others. The cycle of making comparisons, accomplishments, experiencing a failure, and perceiving them as what defines you can be hard to break. Understanding that no one is perfect, we will all experience successes as well as failures is important. Imposter syndrome can stifle the potential for growth and meaning, by preventing you from pursuing new opportunities for growth at work, in relationships, or personal hobbies. Acknowledging and confronting imposter syndrome can help you continue to not only grow but thrive. Changing your perceptions of “failure” can change the meaning as a necessary process toward success.




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