Black Women And Impostor Syndrome: What It Is, How To Overcome It

March 14, 2016  |  


Ever feel like a fraud on the job? That someone, someday will find out you really don’t know what you’re doing? If you have nagging doubts about your skills more often that not, you could be suffering from what’s called impostor syndrome. According to most definitions, impostor syndrome is when you have persistent feelings of inadequacy, even when you have proof of the opposite. It is highlighted by chronic self-doubt and feelings of “intellectual fraudulence.”

Unfortunately, quite a few African-American women deal with imposter syndrome, especially if they work in a homogeneous workplace where they are the odd woman out. And when you consider women of color comprise just 5 percent of managerial and professional positions in the workforce, according to American Progress and Catalyst, impostor syndrome is a real possibility.

“Impostor syndrome is something that happens to many minorities, Dr. Towanna Freeman, president of CoachDiversity Institute, explained. We’re often placed in work environments where there are few others—or no others—who look like us, share the same experiences we do, and sometimes even have the same values we do. It can lead to a feeling of isolation and being ignored.”

This is exacerbated by the stereotypes Black women in corporate America face. Many Black women have a unique professional style and perspective that, historically, has been viewed as “‘aggressive” and “non-conforming.” This only contributes to the occurrence of imposter syndrome, noted Brand Influencer Aniesia Williams.

And given that employers sometimes outwardly doubt the abilities of minority workers, it only adds to the stress of impostor syndrome. “Black women have historically been undervalued and many of us were taught to serve others before ourselves. Many of us were taught to be unassuming and not boastful. We simply haven’t been told enough that we are beautiful, intelligent and valuable,” Freeman said.

But how do you know if you’re humble, having a moment of self-doubt, or truly suffering from imposter syndrome? “When you tell yourself, ‘I’m not ready.’  The single most common self-defeating thought is, ‘I’m not ready.’  Thinking that you are not the perfect one for the job or that everything in your life must be perfect, causes many of us to hold back and sit on the sidelines while others pass by.  Even after you have done all your research, practiced your lines in the mirror, and purchased the perfect outfit to build your confidence, you still believe ‘I’m not ready.’  Possibly waiting for some imagined date in the future when you will feel better… but that day never comes,” Freeman explained.

Other signs, according to Mater Mea’s Janet Asante, include: “Feeling that your presence is merely tolerated, and if you left the next day, no would notice or care; Feeling that no one really listens to what you have to say; a sense that others don’t appreciate your contributions, as if the work you delivered could have been done by anyone, while others can do less intensive work and receive tremendous praise and kudos; feeling overlooked for projects, which can lead to anxiety about your abilities and exasperation; and constant distrust of colleagues and managers. You’re never really sure where you stand with them, so you’re always working harder to be seen. You live in constant fear of making a mistake that will blackball you forever.”

There are steps you can take to rid yourself of this way of thinking. “Whenever you are growing, learning, and moving out of your comfort zone, fear will be a constant companion.  However, the good news is every one of your fears can be conquered.  You will greatly benefit from developing a daily practice that centers your thoughts and allows you to focus on your added value,” Freeman said. “The next time paralyzing fears and self-doubt show up to stop you from accomplishing a goal, break through them by taking the following steps: Admit the fear exists and make a list of those fears; surround yourself with positive friends and eliminate those who foster negativity; list your goals and the actions you need to achieve them; and develop a timeline to complete those actions and find someone to hold you accountable to your action plan.”

You also have to believe you can accomplish the task ahead of you. “Overestimate your abilities: We tend to underestimate our abilities because we think our skills are no big deal. Some of us didn’t grow up in households where our talents were constantly praised, so we grow up thinking our awesome sauce is not much to report on. You have to act like your skills are unique and like you are the only one that can bring them to the company to be recognized,” wrote Asante.

It’s also crucial to understand and own your value. “The most important thing to do in this situation is re-affirm your worth to yourself. One way you can do this is by owning your professional accomplishments. While there is no ‘I’ in ‘team,’ it’s important to recognize that you, directly, are responsible for your excellent work. When working on a project and presenting it to others, use ‘I’ statements: I created the…; I worked with the client to…Yes, you did that! So own it,” advised Williams.

Take up space–and don’t be afraid. “Go against the grain,” wrote Asante. “Don’t try to fly under the radar and don’t let your office’s environment erode your confidence. Be bold and comfortable in your skin—only then will others be comfortable with you. An added bonus is that you will stop wrestling with thoughts of inadequacy.”

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  • Sapphire,of two minds

    All the jobs I worked at , to fit in you most go through imposter training, imposter clothes wearing and hair doing. Finding a real person is like finding a needle in an hay stack.

  • Jrussell

    Regardless to the Industry I have experienced this psychological problem every time. I can now see this coming a mile away. There has not been a time I have not been overly prepared with completing all tasks and projects before the due date, researching issues prior to meetings, and making sure my Managers , Manager was aware of work I am doing well. It is important to ensure you are validating yourself because many times you might be the only one doing that. I have been successful in promoting myself and being upwardly mobile in MY career path. Interesting, that every time I went a level up (which my current companies always tried to make me believe I needed to stay at the level I was for awhile longer – another psychological game I have seen with other Black women) when I switched companies and increased my salary. My advice is Believe in yourself, always be prepared and know your worth. Your success begins in your mind. Stay firm in eradicating this game and stop it before it erodes you and your confidence.

  • Dr.Rue

    My supervisor called me impatient…after I asked her for her part on the project…we’ve literally waited a year. i’m the one to speak up and ask her about it and she calls me impatient.. Girl bye.

  • shawn

    “Chronic self-doubt and feelings of “intellectual fraudulence” sounds like something a person of any race can experience so why try and make it a black thing? All of the professional black women I know are too busy working hard and being successful to worry about nonsense like this.

  • Yvonne

    When we start to understand and celebrate heritage preservation of who we are individually and collectively, we can start to converge on a solution that will reveal the true impostor is the one who creates the label and aspires to your greatness (they will bleed your energy dry) . What language are we giving power to? As we seek our own uniqueness and our own beautiful blend, we will find the power and Soar with it from within….. Invest internally to extend externally, then let your Spirit Rise!
    (I bleed the blood). I created YDG Compositions because my uniqueness required an expansion and the contraction required I give birth to my own special blend! To my sisters, our heritage is strong and innovative. Know you can create and sustain your own vision. You are worth it!
    YDG Compositions….Embracing the Blues with Excellence!

  • Brigette Hyacinth

    Very true post. It’s like you always have to fight. After publishing my book and being an expert in the field, as a Black Woman you always have to prove yourself. The journey is hard but just remember Don’t give up!!! Eventually all those who have joined in rejecting you, will join in applauding you. Love yourself and believe in yourself. What you have to offer is unique and beautiful. God is good and faithful! Be Blessed my sisters! Wishing you all continued Success! 🙂

  • Oahu Surfer

    Everyone–white, black, Latino, Asian, male, female, whomever–have feelings of “Impostor syndrome.”

    But for blacks, Affirmative Action and our whole 21st century culture of “white guilt-driven patronization of blacks” significantly compounds the psychological conflict.

    Because let’s be honest: all smart, hardworking, correct-thinking blacks KNOW that the way is paved for them. Because whites are so quick to placate and elevate earnest blacks– and by doing so, exonerating themselves from historical guilt–black professional success is virtually an entitlement. In a way that it never is for the majority of whites and Asians.

    This conundrum may cause psychological consternation for some professional blacks. And perhaps justifiably so, because blacks can never know if they TRULY earned that promotion–if they were truly better than the competition.

    • WTears

      Just so you all know, this article has been posted on the front page of yahoo which is the wsupremacy hangout spot. there will most likely be very strange comments

  • Deenorwomen

    I felt that way even when I was training new people.

    • miamac63

      So did I and no, it wasn’t just in my mind. The fact, for me, was racism, which is basically fear of difference.

      ‘They’ broke me, made me feel (back then) that I was the problem, that I was too blunt and honest. That I wasn’t qualified but yet like you, I trained my entire crew; design the program we used at work, wrote the technical manuals, etc., and I had no formal training, lol.

      I recall specifically one comment Laura (my threatened white co-worker) made to me, which back then I was too naive to call it what it was. After several meetings with our vendors, she pulled me aside prior to the next one and said, “Tell me what you are going to say so you don’t make me look bad.” lol Back then I was taken aback because it wasn’t like I practiced what I was saying, my thought process was organic, I was confident in the subject matter. So it wasn’t some conspiracy to make her look bad. Heck, I didn’t give a rat’s behind about her. No, no hate; I was just task driven and only cared about my goals and objectives.

      I agree it starts at home and fighting against societal ills and curses (racism and peer hate/jealousy). The thing is, if you are ‘running the show’ or being trusted to ‘train’ everyone, know for sure you not only ‘got the stuff’ but honey, you are AWESOME SAUCE and yes, a threat to some.

      Yes, today I can say St. Louis and Missouri, the most racist city/state I know, taught me well. If I can overcome the evil racism permeating there, I can make it anywhere and I have!!!

      • Connie

        I agree with miamac63. Black and 61 yrs of age. I pretty much ran my own department and knew my business, Never did I feel inferior because I was black. We cannot go back 50 years or 150 year for what slavery did to the backbone of our black men, we as sistahs stood strong. they men of color and America need to step up and value the black woman.