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Impostor syndrome hurts people of color in specific ways

While Lisa Orbé-Austin was in college, a group of women approached her and asked what she’d scored on her SATs. “I knew in that moment, they were questioning whether I belong in my college or not, or gotten in there on some kind of [diversity] program,” says Orbé-Austin, now a psychologist and executive coach in New York City, who identifies as Afro-Latinx. “I remember feeling that very, very powerfully.” The interaction triggered her impostor syndrome — and showed how systemic racism can reinforce it. Although anyone can experience it, impostor syndrome affects us Black and brown people in specific ways.

Impostor syndrome is a phenomenon in which a highly skilled or highly credentialed person fears being exposed as a fraud, says Orbé-Austin, co-author of Own Your Greatness: Overcome Impostor Syndrome, Beat Self-Doubt, and Succeed in Life. They engage in the so-called impostor cycle: Worried that their performance on a task will expose their perceived deficiency, they work hard as a "cover." They self-sabotage through, say, procrastinating, followed by overworking to compensate. When they get feedback, they maximize the negative and minimize the positive, and they repeat the cycle.

So far, the research on whether BIPOC experience impostor syndrome more frequently or acutely than our white counterparts remains inconclusive, Orbé-Austin tells me. But she notes that navigating impostor syndrome as a BIPOC can be especially thorny, since it involves grappling with both internal and external societal messages about our abilities.

“You experience the impostor syndrome internally, but externally you’re also being told by systemic oppression and racism that you don’t belong, you’re an impostor, you’re a fraud, you’re only getting things because of affirmative action or quotas,” Orbé-Austin explains. “As you’re trying to convince yourself that you’re not an impostor, the world is telling you that you are an impostor.” The more intersecting oppressed identities you occupy — if you’re a Black woman, for instance— the more you receive external cues that you don’t belong.

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The roots of impostor syndrome can stretch back to certain family dynamics in childhood, Orbé-Austin explains. Although we see these same dynamics in white families, they’re exacerbated in BIPOC families by experiences of oppression and/or immigration, where they often stem from a need to survive and the belief that “no one is going to roll out the red carpet” for us, she says.

Families that expect perfection can lay the groundwork for impostor syndrome, she explains. So can parents or caregivers who discourage us from accepting compliments, so that we stay humble and motivated. “We fear [compliments] and think they’re dangerous," she explains. "We think they’re going to affect our performance and affect our ambition.” Growing up feeling like nothing we do is ever good enough, or learning to view overworking as the path to success can promote impostor syndrome, too. Not observing elders modeling self-care can cause us to see it as indulgent, spurring us to adopt habits that promote burnout later on.

I felt a pinprick of recognition hearing Orbé-Austin list these examples. As immigrants who couldn’t attend college, my parents saw education as the surest route to the opportunities that lay beyond their reach, and pushed me not only to succeed academically, but to never let myself slip into complacency. “When you’re good, you don’t know you’re good,” my dad would say, instilling in me a wariness of praise. Seeing him work through fatigue and illness made me feel inadequate if I didn’t do the same. Looking back, I realize that the strategies that allowed my parents to survive as new immigrants don’t necessarily allow me to thrive — still, they’ve taken years to form, making them hard to break.

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Growing up with parents or caregivers who assigned us strict roles, like “the smart one,” “the hard worker,” or “the survivor” can breed impostor syndrome, too, Orbé-Austin says. Since “the smart ones” were upheld as naturally gifted, they believe everything should come easily to them, viewing tasks that require them to work hard as proof that they’re not really that smart. “Hard workers” owe their success to diligence rather than skill or talent. “Survivors,” as their name suggests, had to succeed to survive and overwork out of fear that they’ll lose everything otherwise.

So how can you overcome impostor syndrome if you’re a BIPOC? “The better sense you have of your own racial identity, the more likely you are to understand the external systemic and racist factors that are more likely to reinforce impostor syndrome,” Orbé-Austin says.

Building a sense of connection to who you are, working on your internalized racism, and understanding how systemic oppression and racism operates enables you to observe microaggressions like the one Orbé-Austin experienced in college as evidence of systemic racism, not fraud. In other words, if you can identify situations informed by systemic racism, you can more easily externalize the feedback they provide rather than internalize it.

Now, Orbé-Austin sees that the women who asked for her SAT scores years ago were trying to other her. “The mere color of my skin threatened them,” she says. She no longer perceives their inquiry as a sign that she doesn’t belong, but as a message to make her feel like she didn’t.

Research points to finding a community of people whose racial identity is similar to yours as one of the most important factors in recovering from impostor syndrome if you’re a BIPOC, Orbé-Austin says. If you’re Black and dealing with impostor syndrome at work, finding Black colleagues in your industry — both mentors and those at a similar career phase as you — can help you understand that you’re not alone and recognize the systemic oppression in situations that make you question your abilities. “Someone can tell you, ‘No, that’s not true, I went through it myself.’”

Get curious about the origins of your impostor syndrome. “You have to understand where it came from, very specifically, so you can understand how it operates currently," Orbé-Austin says. In drawing these connections myself, I theorize that the perfectionism and suspicion of praise that I learned as a kid explains why I tend to shy away from public-facing roles, feeling more comfortable as what Orbé-Austin calls “The Behind-the-Scenes Leader.” Not only do I worry about failing in front of everyone, I struggle to believe that I deserve to lead.

Insight into how your impostor syndrome took shape is also key to rewriting your narrative, or how you talk about yourself, your skills, and your accomplishments, Orbé-Austin says. If you have impostor syndrome, you likely talk about yourself in narrow ways, she explains, citing the statement “I work really hard” as an example (and making me feel both attacked and seen, in the most nurturing way). Have a robust understanding of who you are, and how you got to where you are, beyond your hardworking nature.

Orbé-Austin also recommends valuing self-care and broadening the roles you play. For me, that means not always defaulting to Behind-the-Scenes Leader roles. Examples of other roles you might play if you have impostor syndrome include The Failure Avoider (you don’t take risks even if they could boost your career, out of fear of failure) and The Helper (you’re everyone’s go-to shoulder to cry on, which can lead to your own needs going unmet). “It’s really allowing yourself to take other roles on outside of our comfort zone, because that comfort zone is maintaining the impostor syndrome,” Orbé-Austin explains.

That said, she believes companies also bear responsibility. It’s tricky because they can benefit from employees with impostor syndrome, who tend to overwork, struggle with career advancement, and get paid less. Many companies start employee resource groups, meant to foster inclusivity, but they often receive little funding, don’t have senior or executive members, and add to people’s workloads. As a result, they tend not to yield meaningful change. “It sends the message, ‘You can gather, but we’re not going to support you.’”

As Orbé-Austin explains in her book, impostor syndrome is not innate, but learned, however deeply ingrained it might seem — which is encouraging. It means that although systemic racism might bolster these feelings of fraudulence in us BIPOC, we have the power to unlearn them, too.