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

March 14, 2016 ‐ By Ann Brown

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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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