How Marginalized People Can Overcome Imposter Syndrome

Woman at coffee shop with laptop

Studies show it, anecdotes illustrate it, and entire movements are built around it: When it comes to professional and even personal success, historically marginalized people — women, racial minorities, sexual minorities, people with disabilities, and others — are judged negatively for their strengths.

Whether it’s women being punished for academic success or people of color being judged less competent than their less-qualified white peers, discrimination continues to hamper us, from the classroom to the boardroom.

With so many people around us questioning our worth, it can be hard for women and historically marginalized people to maintain confidence in ourselves, even though we work our butts off and know we’re just as capable as the “good ol’ boys.” This, in turn, can lead to imposter syndrome: The persistent feeling that we don’t really deserve our success or that we’re just “faking it.”

What is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter syndrome isn’t an actual psychological diagnosis, it’s more a pattern of thinking. And it’s not just women and marginalized people who feel like frauds: People from every demographic suffer from imposter syndrome.

But for women and historically marginalized people, imposter syndrome can be particularly lethal, amplifying discriminatory messages we continue to receive in the workplace: subtle, daily reminders that others consider us “less-than” or that our accomplishments aren’t really ours.

Having others doubt our abilities to the point that we doubt ourselves can really do a number on our mental health, lowering self-confidence and hampering professional success. It’s truly unfair that marginalized people in particular have to deal with a history of discrimination that isn’t our fault. While it’s not our responsibility to change the world, we can change how we value ourselves. And by kicking our own imposter syndrome to the curb, we can level the playing field for others.

Fighting imposter syndrome starts by recognizing that negative self-evaluations just aren’t true, and flipping that script to turn our perceived weaknesses into strengths. Next time you’re plagued with self-doubt, here are a few tips.

It’s not you

Let’s get one thing straight: Imposter syndrome isn’t just a personal problem. It’s an historic result of who gets to be in power and define success, based on categories like gender, race, sexuality, and ability.

People from groups who have historically dominated your field may doubt themselves, but they don’t have their abilities questioned in the same way women and minorities do. They can move more fluently through the workplace, academic, or political environments, because it was built primarily with them in mind. They don’t face the same kind of daily discrimination you might.

Next time you feel self-doubt wiggling in, remind yourself: The problem. Is. Not. You.

Flip the script

Whenever you feel that your gender, race, sexuality, ability, or other permanent characteristic make you less worthy of your position compared to the “big guys” — and yes, they normally are guys — remind yourself: You deserve to be here.

You are a person with inherent value and worth because you worked your butt off to achieve success and overcome obstacles on the way. Not only have you conquered the normal obstacles that everyone faces to get ahead in their education and field, you’ve also had to demonstrate the grit, determination, and competence to get ahead in a field where the barriers to entry may be high.

This is an asset, not a hindrance. It gives you insights and perspective people who come from more “conventional” backgrounds simply wouldn’t think of. Your difference isn’t your drawback: It’s your secret superpower.

Team up

One tricky problem women and racially marginalized people often face in the workplace is that we can be punished or censored for speaking up and claiming space, while men and people from a majority group may be rewarded. This can create a ton of anxiety, as we navigate the tricky balance between asserting ourselves but not wanting to appear “too” assertive. While it’s frustrating and definitely unfair, remind yourself (again and again and again) that you know what you’re talking about, and can find allies in your workplace who will back you up.

Get in touch with a prospective mentor who may have had a similar experience to yours. Team up with a workplace peer, or offer to help out someone just starting out. Finding allies for mutual support will not only encourage your confidence, it will boost each of you up, giving others around you models of success. Plan together so you can support each other’s ideas at key meetings, and give each other genuine compliments and loving criticism.

An ally in the struggle can help reflect a more realistic self-image back at you, when everyone else may be giving you a distorted one.

Pass it on

At the end of the day, the imposter syndrome we feel as women and marginalized people isn’t just an individual problem, it’s a reflection of what kind of environments we study and work in. When we think of our imposter syndrome as a collective problem and not an individual one, we can take the blame off ourselves. And while the tendency for women and minorities to be the go-to people in the office for “diversity” is exhausting and unfair, lifting up other women and marginalized people in the workplace not only helps them — it helps us.

So go ahead: Love yourself. Remind yourself of the fight you’ve put up to get where you are. Compliment your own work. Remember that your differences are strengths. When you quash that voice inside you that says you’re not good enough, and let yourself shine, you give others permission to embrace yourselves for what you are. The real deal.

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