LET ME TELL YOU A QUICK STORY OR TWO.
I grew up with 16 siblings. Yeah, I know, that’s a lot of humans! We weren’t just poor; we were relentlessly poor and under the constant attack of poverty. We didn’t always have heat, so we would boil water on the stove or leave the oven door open while it was running. When we didn’t have soap, we used Ivory dishwashing liquid. When there wasn’t any Ivory, we used powdered Tide. I can tell you all about hand-me downs! You haven’t lived until you’ve worn a pair of pants your sister wore, and you were a grade behind her. Yeah, THAT poor.
As far back as I can remember, I was taught that education would be the
key to changing my fortune and future. I immersed myself in learning everything that I could. I would even read the dictionary, thesaurus, and encyclopedias just for fun. It was empowering!
I became a voracious reader.
Until one day, on the bus to school, a Black boy turned around in his seat and blurted out, “Why you act White?” It was a question that I had never been asked before. “What do you mean?” I replied. “You talk like a White dude. You sound like a White dude. You act White!” I thought for a bit before responding. The only thing that I could think of as a response was, “What is acting Black?” I was in the fourth grade.
Fast-forward many years later.
A company that I worked for wasn’t very diverse. This isn’t an issue for me, since I’ve been the only or one of the few Black men in the classroom or building for most of my educational and professional careers. After a presentation and a follow-up email, a manager called me to discuss the details. Before ending our discussion, she made mention of how well-spoken I was. That phrase “well-spoken” struck me as particularly odd. Did she expect me, an educated person, not to write an email or deliver a presentation? Was I being extra sensitive about this? Was she really impressed by what I’d accomplished? I couldn’t stop asking myself the question: “Would she make this statement to one of my White co-workers?” Did she believe that I even belonged in the position that I had?
After nearly ten years in that position, my manager removed me from that role. He did this while I was on bereavement leave after my mother passed away. I was given the news upon my return. He explained that he wanted to create a position with a new formal title.
This was something that I had been requesting for years. I was forced to reapply for the position, which was ultimately given to a White counterpart with zero experience. Maybe I didn’t belong in that position.
The first year Cadillac came out with the CTS, I had to have it. I was fortunate enough to find one that was black with black interior, it was a beauty! It was the first car that I bought on my own. However, I couldn’t enjoy it. I remembered how modestly I was raised and felt guilty about having such an extravagant vehicle. Every compliment I would get, I would deflect by saying, “Well, my buddy is a salesman, and he got me a good deal. I probably should’ve gotten a Taurus.” I was the same about my first home. I thought back to how so many of us lived in a four-bedroom house with one bathroom, and now I’m in a 5-bedroom home with three bathrooms, and it’s just my daughter and I. I spent the first year convincing myself that the house was an investment.
Maybe moving into a smaller home would’ve been better. In both of these cases, I didn’t feel like I deserved the blessings I received. Surely there must be someone more deserving than me. What makes me so special?
Why should I have these nice things?
This mindset had to have developed from somewhere. The undeserving feeling that grows inside of me whenever I have any success. The assumption that everyone “knows” that the success I earned was given to me because of some affirmative action initiative or some quota to be filled. Why do I feel this way?
Hello, Imposter Syndrome the term coined to describe this mindset. According to an article published by the American Psychological Association (APA), it’s not a new concept at all. The article states that imposter syndrome, first described by psychologists Suzanne Imes, PhD and Pauline Rose Clance, PhD in the 1970s, “occurs among high achievers who are unable to internalize and accept their success. They often attribute their accomplishments to luck rather than to ability, and fear that others will eventually unmask them as a fraud.”
People affected by imposter syndrome feel that their achievements are fraudulent and undeserved. That any accomplishments were achieved through pure luck. People experiencing imposter syndrome are highly driven, hardworking, and overachieving (like me!), so any differentiation from their peers can energize feelings of illegitimacy.
The condition seems particularly common or minorities, mainly in African-American and Latinx communities. The pressure to be successful, provide for my family, rise in my company’s hierarchy, and be accepted by my peers who do not look like me or have my background made me feel completely unworthy of my success. Everything that I took on had to be done perfectly. Anything less than perfection I would consider a failure.
Those fears were embedded within me on that school bus in the fourth grade and lingered throughout my adult life.
The APA article further states that though impostor syndrome isn’t an official diagnosis listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), “psychologists and others acknowledge that it is a very real and specific form of intellectual self-doubt. Impostor feelings are generally accompanied by anxiety and, often, depression.” So, it can mess with your mental and physical well-being. So, how does one overcome this?
Confronting these feelings of not measuring up and managing those feelings is possible. According to Dr. Imes and Dr. Clance, taking these steps will help mitigate experiencing imposter syndrome:
// TALK TO YOUR MENTORS: Find someone that can help you understand your experiences are normal and can help you manage your feelings so that they don’t become overbearing.
// RECOGNIZE YOUR EXPERTISE: Use your expertise in overcoming imposter syndrome to help mentor others.
// REMEMBER WHAT YOU DO WELL: Imes suggests writing down the things you’re truly good at, and the areas that might need work. That can help you recognize where you’re doing well and where there’s legitimate room for improvement.
// REALIZE NO ONE IS PERFECT: Seeking perfection shouldn’t be the driver if handling imposter syndrome is your goal. Clance says, “Do a task ‘well enough,'” and “Develop and implement rewards for success — learn to celebrate.”
// CHANGE YOUR THINKING: Though it has to be done incrementally, Imes helps her clients chip away at the ideals that influence imposter syndrome — for example, allowing a friend to read an unfinished article like I do. It’s not easy.
// TALK TO SOMEONE WHO CAN HELP: Therapy can help break the phases of imposter syndrome.
I still have difficulties managing the insecurities that come with any success that I attain. Those feelings aren’t as strong as they used to be, mainly because I have taken the steps mentioned above, including therapy. More and more Black people are seeking therapy and facing their mental health challenges head-on. Therapy has helped me tremendously by giving me insight into how and why I suffer from Imposter Syndrome. It has helped me compartmentalize my fears, manage the emotions that are affected by my feelings of inadequacy, stop chasing perfection, and protect my mental well-being. However, this condition is not going away any time soon. Because of that, imposter syndrome and overall mental health must be discussed openly and often within our community.