In late 2018, Michelle Obama embarked on a book tour for her memoir Becoming, which sold more than 2 million copies in the U.S. and Canada within 15 days of its release and hit bestseller lists around the globe.
Yet during an appearance at a London school, when asked how she felt about being seen as a symbol of hope, the former first lady admitted she still suffers from impostor syndrome.
“It doesn’t go away, that feeling that you shouldn’t take me that seriously,” Obama replied. “I share that with you because we all have doubts in our abilities, about our power and what that power is. If I’m giving people hope then that is a responsibility, so I have to make sure that I am accountable.”
People in all walks of life are affected by the persistent inability to believe their success is legitimate and due to their efforts, knowledge, or skills. While as many as 70% of Americans have experienced these feelings, known as impostor syndrome, research shows a racialized component that intensifies its impact on the mental health of Black individuals.
What Is Impostor Syndrome?
In an article published by Medium, Maryville University associate professor of strategic communication and leadership Dr. Leilani Carver-Madalon defines impostor syndrome as the experience of someone who “feels like a fraud, intellectually and/or professionally. People who are experiencing imposter syndrome feel like they are not good enough, like they don’t belong and/or that they are a fraud, and it is only a matter of time before they will be found out.” The term “impostor syndrome” was coined in 1978 by American psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, who believed that women were less likely to internalize success. Subsequent research has found that impostor feelings are not limited to women, and that they interact with racial discrimination to particularly affect people of color. “Imposter syndrome limits people because they never feel like they are truly successful. Underneath the façade there is often a lack of confidence,” Carver-Madalon continues, adding that another possible downside is that impostor syndrome may prevent people from acting on their ambitions — applying for the “safe job” rather than the dream job — and they may regret that decision in the future.
Why Impostor Syndrome Is More Prevalent in Black Individuals
Black men and women are particularly vulnerable to impostor syndrome, both in the workplace and in day-to-day interactions. In a HuffPost article titled “Imposter Syndrome Hits Harder When You’re Black,” author Jolie A. Doggett notes that for Black individuals, impostor syndrome isn’t just an imaginary voice in their heads.
“We can hear it loud and clear when we receive almost daily messages from society that we truly don’t belong,” she writes. “This feeling of otherness is a common occurrence in the workplace where, too often, we may be the only person of color present.”
Causes of Impostor Syndrome in the Workplace
- Lack of representation in senior leadership roles: Only 3.2% of senior leadership roles at large, U.S.-based companies are staffed by Black professionals, according to a 2020 Coqual study.
- Prejudicial attitudes: 58% of Black professionals report having experienced racial prejudice in the workplace.
- Performance expectations: Approximately two-thirds of Black professionals feel they need to work harder to advance.
- Lack of support: Black professionals may lack access to higher-level managers and professional development resources, and may also experience wage gaps.
- Workplace environments: Workplace culture is often built around dominant white identities, making it difficult for Black people to fit in socially.
Causes of Impostor Syndrome in Society
- Societal messages that people of color don’t belong, such as being followed by security while shopping
- Internalization of various microaggressions, such as being asked, “Why are you flying in first class?” or the assumption that Black students were accepted into college on athletic scholarships
- Lack of representation in elected office and the media
Common Patterns Among People Experiencing Impostor Syndrome
People who struggle with impostor syndrome share several common traits. Prevalent among these are self-doubt, fear of being exposed as a fraud, and an inability to own and internalize success. Others include self-sabotage via procrastination, negative self-talk, and perfectionism.
In some cases, people in a new job or embarking on a career change temporarily experience symptoms of impostor syndrome. However, if these feelings linger, they can negatively impact job performance. This can spur a self-fulfilling prophecy, externally confirming feelings of self-doubt.
Systemic racism can compound these feelings. Black professionals who doubt themselves, even when they’re eminently qualified, are less apt to ask for a raise or apply for a promotion. These feelings are often rooted in measurable bias: for every 100 men promoted into management, only 58 Black women are promoted, according to a recent study from McKinsey and LeanIn. Coqual reports that 19% of Black professionals believe that someone of their race could never achieve a top position at their company.
Tips to Overcome Impostor Syndrome
While oppressive systems and cultures must be dismantled to truly alleviate the high rate of impostor syndrome in Black individuals, there are some steps that Black people can take to ward off impostor feelings.
- Create a “brag-on-me” list: If you struggle with impostor syndrome, create a list of your accomplishments and attributes. Do you have skills or qualifications, such as speaking a foreign language, that your colleagues don’t? You may want to compile awards, diplomas, or accolades you’ve received in a “brag book” to review before a job interview or annual review.
- Practice positive self-talk: Lots of people repeat sayings to themselves, which psychologists call scripts. Although some scripts are positive (“I can do this!” before a tough workout), others are negative. If you fall into saying things to yourself that you would never say to a friend or colleague, stop, regroup, and shift your inner mono
- Own your accomplishments: Black professionals who struggle with impostor syndrome may be quick to attribute their success to others. Instead of saying that the only reason you accomplished a task was because of luck or help from a colleague, recognize your own efforts. If you struggle to do this, every evening make a list of all that you accomplished that day. This can be a powerful tool for building self-confidence.
- Accept that it’s OK to make mistakes: Impostor syndrome and perfectionism often go hand in hand. Although wanting to exceed others’ expectations is healthy, striving to be perfect is not only unrealistic, it can spur anxiety and exhaustion, and enhance the sense of being an impostor. Accept your failings, and understand that making mistakes is OK.
- Celebrate Black achievements: Throughout history, Black Americans have achieved milestones that have shaped the modern world. Remember people like Shirley Chisholm, who in 1969 was the first Black woman elected to Congress, and in 1972 became the first African American to run for a major party’s presidential nomination. Remember Benjamin O. Davis, who in 1940 became the first Black general in the U.S. Air Force. Celebrating and publicizing these accomplishments normalizes Black excellence.
- Seek out support resources. One way to gain confidence is to seek advice from others who have overcome challenges, including through books, podcasts, and websites. For instance:
- Minda Harts’ book, The Memo: What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure a Seat at the Table, provides actionable advice for Black women who face workplace challenges ranging from unequal pay to microaggressions.
- Podcast Balanced Black Girl offers insight on impostor syndrome, self-love, and personal reflection.
- The website Therapy for Black Girls works to destigmatize mental health and encourage wellness for Black females.
Learning How to Thrive
Overcoming impostor syndrome can be difficult, but it’s not impossible. Accept your skills, accomplishments, and that your voice deserves to be heard. When you make mistakes or feel unworthy, talk to people you trust about what’s harming your confidence. Focus on the facts, such as your qualifications, instead of your feelings. Flip your script from negative self-talk to positive affirmation. Remember, the most important tip in growing past impostor syndrome is to shift your perspective. You’ve got this.
Know Your Worth: How to Negotiate — or Renegotiate — Your Salary
Year in Review: The Power of Self-Reflection
Balanced Black Girl, “Feel Good Friday 8: How to Deal with Imposter Syndrome”
BBC, “Michelle Obama: ‘I Still Have Impostor Syndrome’”
BBC, “Michelle Obama’s Memoir Becoming Breaks Sales Record in 15 Days”
Coqual, “Being Black in Corporate America: An Intersectional Exploration”
Diversity Inc. “Imposter Syndrome Can Take a Heavy Toll on People of Color, Particularly African Americans”
HuffPost, “Imposter Syndrome Hits Harder When You’re Black”
McKinsey, Women in the Workplace 2020
Medium, “Dr. Leilani Carver-Madalon: ‘How One Can Thrive Despite Experiencing Impostor Syndrome’”
O, The Oprah Magazine, “26 Black Americans You Don’t Know but Should”
Pauline Rose Clance & Suzanne Imes, “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention”
Time Magazine, “Yes, Imposter Syndrome is Real. Here’s How to Deal with It”
University of Texas News, “Impostor Feelings Fuel Negative Mental Health Outcomes for Minority Students, Study”