Black Women and Imposter Syndrome

What Is Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome is a psychological pattern in which people mistrust their abilities and are constantly afraid of being exposed as fraud, despite proof of their skill. The term imposter syndrome was first coined in the 1970s by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. Imes and Clance found that high-achieving women believed they were incompetent despite their academic and professional achievements. They believe their accomplishments result from chance or factors other than their qualities or credentials. As a result, they downplay their skills or worry about being ‘found out.’

Black Women Have Imposter Syndrome, Too

It's important to acknowledge that imposter syndrome is not limited to any specific group or gender. People from all backgrounds and walks of life can experience imposter syndrome. However, the intersectionality of race and gender can amplify imposter syndrome for Black women, especially as they may face unique societal pressures and expectations. These challenges can include navigating systemic racism, stereotypes, discrimination, and underrepresentation, contributing to feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. They juggle cultural expectations, gender biases, and professional demands, increasing stress and burnout. The constant balancing of multiple identities can be exhausting, and combining these factors exacerbates imposter syndrome, making it more challenging to internalize achievements and feel a sense of belonging. Women of color may experience the added burden of stereotype threat, which is the fear of confirming negative stereotypes about their racial or ethnic group. Compounded biases make it harder to reach leadership positions and increase the likelihood of imposter syndrome.

Blaming the Victim

Imposter Syndrome is controversial because it blames the victim, those with intersecting identities such as LGBTQIA+, Black, and Trans women, for the external conditions and oppressive practices that lower self-confidence and increase self-doubt. Additionally, the term ‘syndrome’ implies that a person has a disease or disorder not unlike Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome that creates feelings of shame and increased isolation.

Common ‘Imposter’ Thoughts

Though they may vary slightly among us, here are some common internal criticisms or negative self-talk statements that Black women with imposter syndrome may encounter: "I don't belong here; I must have gotten lucky." "I must work harder than everyone else to prove my worth." "I feel like a fraud; sooner or later, everyone will realize I'm not qualified." "I'm afraid to ask for help or support because it will expose my weaknesses." "I can't speak up or share my opinions because they won't be taken seriously." It's important to note that these statements are generalizations and may not apply to all individuals, as experiences and perspectives vary.

‘Fixing’ Imposter Syndrome

‘Fixing’ Imposter Syndrome is both an inside and outside job. The ‘inside job’ is a mindset change. Becoming conscious of how imposter syndrome leads to pathological negative self-talk statements and internal criticisms is crucial. You must actively and repeatedly challenge negative self-talk statements by systematically replacing them with more positive and empowering thoughts. One way to do this is to keep a log of your accomplishments and read them daily to remind yourself that you are not an imposter, a fake, or a fraud. Ask trusted family members or friends to remind you of your qualifications or credentials if your memory fails you. Another way is to find your tribe or a village of like-minded people who look like you or have similar interests. Find people who validate and celebrate you for the beautiful human that you are. The ‘outside’ job of dismantling imposter syndrome includes major societal and work culture adjustments. Recognizing the consequences of imposter syndrome in the work environment and society is critical in assisting those suffering from it. Cultivating a community or work atmosphere that fosters inclusivity and a sense of belonging helps counteract imposter syndrome.

Fostering Support

Fostering inclusivity includes amplifying diverse voices, celebrating various achievements, providing mentorship, and introducing access to more professional development and advancement opportunities. Fostering supportive networks that offer guidance, encouragement, and opportunities for growth is essential for mental well-being and success. Research suggests that the more diverse a group is, the more creative the approaches are to solving problems. Diversity in leadership roles allows women of color to thrive and overcome self-doubt, which is essential to slaying imposter syndrome.

When To Get Help

As a mental health professional, I’ve supported many women who have experienced moderate to severe mental health challenges due to working in male-dominated fields. Black women are usually grossly underrepresented in these environments. They are vulnerable to sexist, racist, and ageist practices leading them to believe that they are an imposter and don’t belong. In severe cases, the help of a mental health professional provides psychological safety where her experiences are validated and normalized. It is a place to explore and process harmful thoughts and feelings, learn new coping and relaxation skills, role-play effective communication methods, and strategize the next steps in her life or career, free of judgment or reprisals.

Gena Golden, LCSW, NBCFCH, is an integrative, anti-oppression psychotherapist and a culturally attuned, board-certified fellow of clinical hypnotherapy. She practices from a holistic, intersectional, liberation-focused lens that seeks to validate your humanity, cultural nuances and lived experiences.