Around one-third of young people regularly experience imposter syndrome, the feeling or experience of feeling like a fraud. Those who experience it tend to end up sabotaging their own success, overworking themselves or obsessing over minor mistakes. It can have a negative impact on overall job performance, and long-term effects include burnout and depression.
The term “imposter syndrome” has increased its presence in media in recent years — a Google search of the phrase pulls up almost 7 million results — and it was originally coined in 1978 by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. The pair of clinical psychologists noticed many of their high-achieving female patients still felt inadequate or undeserving of their successes.
But imposter syndrome is also the direct result of biases like systemic racism and classism — making women of color the most susceptible to feeling imposter syndrome.
Author, psychologist, executive coach and organizational consultant Dr. Lisa Orbé-Austin describes herself as “living proof” that imposter syndrome can be overcome. Her research also points out how disproportionate members of the BIPOC community are affected by imposter syndrome.
“Black people who experience imposter syndrome also have higher levels of discrimination-related depression,” Dr. Orbé-Austin told In The Know. “The triggers [for imposter syndrome] can be very different for the BIPOC community.”
A 2019 study reported that 45% of women of color interviewed said they had been the only person of their gender in corporate environments — and that percentage is even higher for women in STEM fields. It’s not limited to the workplace either, as a 2020 study on Black doctoral and postdoctoral scholars in STEM found that gender and race played a huge role in Black women experiencing imposter syndrome. These students reported that they were often either the only Black woman in the class or one of very few.
Dr. Orbé-Austin added that, while imposter syndrome can stem from childhood roles and family dynamics, workplace environments can double down on the feeling for BIPOC employees.
“You’re having the experience internally of the imposter syndrome, and then externally, you’re being told, ‘Yeah, maybe you don’t belong. Maybe you are here because of your identity. Maybe this was a mistake,'” she said. “This reinforces the imposter [feeling].”
Dr. Orbé-Austin found that Black people who experience imposter syndrome also have higher levels of discrimination-related depression.
“It’s important to recognize [that] while [imposter syndrome] got started [in people] kind of similarly, [Black people] have additional triggers,” she explained. “There can be additional outcomes and difficulties that we’re contending with.”
While imposter syndrome has been talked about more than ever since Clane and Imes coined the term, what’s rarely discussed is how it needs to be dealt with. Imposter syndrome is not yet a recognized psychiatric disorder, which also makes finding treatment difficult.
A Harvard Business Review piece from 2021 said, “The answer to overcoming imposter syndrome is not to fix individuals, but to create an environment that fosters a number of different leadership styles and where diversity of racial, ethnic and gender identities is viewed as just as professional as the current model.”
While there are steps an individual can make for themselves — part of Dr. Orbé-Austin’s job is to coach people to overcome imposter syndrome — the greater issue is how to end external factors like racial and classist biases that reinforce the syndrome in the BIPOC community.
“Imposter syndrome needs to be dealt with,” she said. “It’s so important for the BIPOC community because it affects our salary negotiation. It affects our advocacy for our promotions. It affects our networking and relationships and community-building. [It] affects so many things that can really affect us and create barriers for us.”
One of the first remedies Dr. Orbé-Austin advocates for is to find a community to support you — especially since people dealing with imposter syndrome often try to handle it alone. Working with a community can also help people pinpoint their triggers.
“Understanding the origins of where it came from is [also] incredibly important,” she said. “If you know your [triggers], then you can actually pause, stop, make different decisions than the imposter syndrome encourages you to make … You’ll actually intervene on the things that are keeping you in the cycle.”
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