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Navigating Impostor Syndrome as Black Women
Quanisha Virginie

At BARE Life Class we are all about owning our stories and sharing our experiences as we believe that by doing so, we can help others own theirs. 

A major issue faced by many women around the world, especially in the workplace is impostor syndrome. After Michelle Obama shared her experience of impostor syndrome in her book, it opened the floodgates for many women who began to share their own experiences. The first step to tackling impostor syndrome is creating a dialogue between friends and family. We need to shed the shame and stigma attached to mental health.

On Saturday 29th May BARE Life Class is holding a session to help women overcome their impostor syndrome and silence their inner critics.

Inspired by the upcoming class, Oby Bamidele and I came together to talk about navigating impostor syndrome as Black women in different stages of life.

Quanisha: Hi Oby. Having worked in different fields, did you ever feel out of place? I know a lot of women experience impostor syndrome and I was hoping to hear about your perspective on the topic. 

Oby: Looking back at my experience of impostor syndrome has changed over time in keeping with the stage of life I found myself. 

After university, I went into a career with great expectations that I would conquer the world and be a success. I think at some point, reality kicked in and I realised that it wasn’t as straight cut as I had imagined. I found myself struggling in a finance career that I didn’t like or enjoy, which I wasn’t particularly brilliant at. My confidence got seriously knocked because I could see others excelling and loving their careers and I felt that should be my experience.  I should be brilliant at my job and I should be climbing up the ladder. In my twenties, I was very conformist, wanted to fit in and follow the trend. I wanted to be other people’s expectations of beauty and success.  It meant dumbing down anything about me that didn’t fit the standard. Unconsciously I fought hard to be the acceptable Black woman, who looked and sounded a certain way so she could be approved of by the mainstream. It was like I ensured that nothing about me would be offensive or give anyone the opportunity to not accept or like me. Of course this was exhausting and after a while, my mental health became seriously affected, depression and anxiety set in.  This was the turnaround point for me. I sought therapy and started my self-discovery journey to find the real and true me. 

I began to realise that the struggle in my job wasn’t to do with incompetence or a lack of intelligence, but because I wasn’t operating in my area of strengths. I was so busy perfecting areas where my gifts and talents didn’t lie.  As I started to make career and life choices that played to my interests, strengths and passions, my confidence began to grow. However, the struggle then became about whether people would accept me as I am. Can I show up as myself? Would people like me? There were times I sabotaged and stayed hidden, out of fear of putting myself out there. I would talk myself out of opportunities because deep down I feared rejection. It has been a real fight to own who I am and not look for validation in others. Over the last decade, I have worked in the tech space which is predominantly white middle-class and male. I have had to make conscious strides to put myself forward, to be visible and be seen rather than waiting for others to bring me in, which has paid off for me.  However, there’s still a battle sometimes within me as to whether I am good enough especially when I am amongst highly intellectual – Harvard, Oxford, Camdridge educated- people in leadership and executive positions. As I progressed into senior leadership roles, I would sometimes question myself and my abilities. Impostor syndrome always shows up as not knowing enough, like I have to prove my knowledge in order to be deserving of my place.  

I would say that the one thing that has helped me the most, is having a strong community and network of trusted friends with similar or shared experiences. Being able to talk about impostor syndrome openly and have people respond with empathy and non-judgement makes the world of difference.  Knowing I am not the only one going through this is so encouraging and liberating in many ways. It allows me to continue to push against the internal script of not being good enough and wanting to stay small and hidden. 

Quanisha: During the first few weeks of my Master’s degree, I felt as though I did not belong. I was a black girl from South East London who somehow ended up at a Russell Group university. It had to be dumb luck, right? But it wasn’t.  I worked hard to get there, but I found it incredibly difficult to shake the feeling that I had not earned it.

During freshers (which is essentially a week to get drunk and make friends,) there was an event called ‘Poly Vs Posh’.  The event was between the polytechnic and Russell group university. The ‘posh’ uni students would wear t-shirts that read “Your dad works for my dad”. This made me feel incredibly out of place. I had just graduated from a polytechnic, and realistically, my dad probably worked for another student’s parents. I didn’t feel comfortable mocking those I related to the most and I refused to pretend to be something I wasn’t. But, I didn’t want to reveal my background to my peers out of fear that they would question my place at university as I had been. 

I also experienced impostor syndrome when applying for jobs. Whenever I saw an ad for a well-established company, I almost automatically prepared myself for the rejection to come. Unlike some of my peers, I did not have the opportunity to complete internships. While I had achieved great grades and worked ten jobs throughout my university career, I still thought I wasn’t good enough. After talking to some of my friends, I realised they were in the same position. Despite our varying backgrounds, we all doubted our capabilities. We all thought that our friends were more capable than us. This taught me that our harshest critic is often ourselves. If we wouldn’t speak so negatively of our friends, why do we talk to ourselves that way? I build my confidence by reminding myself of my achievements. 

What is impostor syndrome?

The term “impostor or imposter syndrome” was coined by psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes in 1978 and they described it as an “internal experience of intellectual phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” Despite having recurring evidence of our success, we often still experience self-doubt. This often leads to feeling like you don’t belong, be that in the workplace, school or even among friends. Our doubt comes in the form of our inner critic. Our inner critic’s voice can manifest itself in a variety of ways such as being terrified of failure, to fear of being exposed as a fraud. People of colour are particularly vulnerable to impostor syndrome and many Black women experience impostor syndrome within the workplace. This could be due to a variety of factors such as the lack of diversity within workplaces, or an individual’s competency being questioned. The feeling of “otherness” and lack of representation in the workplace, racism and discrimination are contributing factors in the increase in impostor syndrome in Black people. 

6 tips for dealing with impostor syndrome

Talk about it and don’t keep silent. Shame festers when we keep silent about it and it loudens the critical inner voice within that tells us we are not good enough. Sharing is caring, and it can be really liberating to know that we are not alone and it is not just me. I love how Brené Brown puts it, “shame cannot thrive in empathy” and that is what happens we can share with like-minded people. Start by talking to a friend that you really trust. This will help you to build confidence, and in turn, will encourage your friend to open up too.

Feelings are not fact. Always remember that whilst your feelings are valid, they are not fact, they are not absolute and they can change. Just because you feel like an idiot does not mean you are one. Acknowledging your feelings gives you a chance to move past them. Just taking the time to say this to yourself “my feelings are not fact” will help you during the difficult days. 

Identify how your impostor feelings show up. What is the trigger? When and how does it show up for you?  What is it that you fear you are lacking in? Perhaps it is feeling not knowledgeable enough, educated enough? clever enough? well-spoken enough? not deserving?  Being able to identify and name the impostor feelings will help to demystify it and lessen its power over you. 

Keep a record of achievement folder. This is your evidence and a reminder to yourself of the truth and reality. Anytime you feel like an impostor, be sure to whip out your record of achievement folder that proves otherwise. You can include examples of the goals you’ve accomplished as well as a list of things you related to things you have created, built or initiated. This will remind you of the amazing things you have accomplished, even when you thought you couldn’t.  

Choose excellence over perfection. Perfectionism is a controlling and conditional task-master, only interested in the end result whilst excellence is all about the journey. Excellence allows for mistakes and sees failures as opportunities for growth.  Excellence is about showing yourself compassion, understanding and grace. Perhaps you were having an off-day and need to go easy on yourself. Perhaps what you need is some help or support or a break. 

Pay attention to your internal dialogue and self-talk. Rather than saying I am so rubbish or I am so stupid for not knowing, try changing your words to  “I may not know the answer today, but I can learn” “I may not know how, but I can seek help”. It is completely normal to make mistakes or to lack knowledge in certain areas. Asking for help can seem daunting, but it is beneficial for further development and growth. 

Wanna learn more? Join our mailing list to get 50% off our masterclasses to help you Heal. Learn. Grow.We are on a mission to change the face of mental health for black women so that they can show up confidently in every space of life.

 

Quanisha Virginie

Quanisha is a Masters student at the University of Leeds. She enjoys sharing her experiences in order to help others. Twitter: @Quanisha_V

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