Updated: Apr 5, 2021
I came across an article this week exploring what imposter syndrome is really all about. The authors, quite brilliantly, dismantle the theory that this syndrome stems from our, in particular, women, and going even deeper, women of colour's sense of feeling inadequate, unworthy of the professional position they're in. Often, they, we, feel like we don't belong in a job or should have that title. Reading the article felt like having two hands on my shoulders shaking me into reality. In the piece written for Harvard Business Review, Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey write, "In truth, we don’t belong because we were never supposed to belong. Our presence in most of these spaces is a result of decades of grassroots activism and begrudgingly developed legislation. Academic institutions and corporations are still mired in the cultural inertia of the good ol’ boys’ clubs and white supremacy. Biased practices across institutions routinely stymie the ability of individuals from underrepresented groups to truly thrive." I read that line again. "In truth, we don't belong because we were never supposed to belong." And it all became so much clearer. And then I became angry.
Angry because in my past, I wasted so much time worrying about opinions of others, about whether I was qualified enough to do my job, whether I was good enough and deserving of having that coveted position. I am angry because actually, my "imposter syndrome" wasn't mine to begin with. It was linked to a system that never felt the need to recognise my worth. My anger is a good thing. My anger has given me the energy and confidence I need to keep going forward on a path that has often been riddled with insecurities. My anger is just the fuel I need to keep feeding my creative fires.
Imposter Syndrome, or imposter phenomenon as first described in the 1970s by psychologists Suzanne Imes, PhD, and Pauline Rose Clance, PhD., "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." While it is not an official diagnosis, it is real. And it can happen to anyone, but women are more, seemingly, susceptible. When I was working in television, not a day went by when I didn't feel I would be found out; that it would be discovered that actually, I didn't know what I was doing, that I had no clue, and that it would come to light that someone had made a terrible mistake in hiring me. It would take me years to feel more confident in my abilities and that not only did I belong, I deserved to be there. What enabled me to start holding my head up high and walking in to any room with a straighter back, was, well, pretence. At first anyway. I acted as though I owned the space in which I was in. Not arrogantly. But deservedly. I acted it until it became comfortable enough for me to finally feel it and believe it. Yet, I shouldn't have had to go through the charade In the first place.
I have always believed that my work should speak for itself. I have never gone around around boasting my abilities or how hard I work, nor have I shouted from the rooftops my successes. I always kept quiet, thinking that the powers that be would recognise good work when they saw it. I realised later rather than sooner, that being meek and being humble wasn‘t actually doing anything for me. Not only that, I naively (or some may argue, arrogantly) assumed I was on their radar. That said, I realise now (after reading that article in Harvard Business Review), that actually the onus was not entirely on me.
Growing up in a relatively conservative Indian family, I was always taught to just lay low, not attract too much attention and just work hard. I mean, I was expected to do well, get awards even, but just reserve the attention I should get for the right kind of attention. It's not my parents' fault. They were raised in a culture where girls were not meant to draw attention to themselves. The quieter, the more demure, the better. And as for the workplace, they believed it was best to never rock the boat. Boy, I wonder how shocked my parents were when they realised how their daughter was not quiet, demure, or even a “team player” (it has to be said though, my mother is one of the most independent women I know and she embodies female empowerment in the workplace having ran two businesses of her own, managing a large staff, and not giving a toss about what anyone thought of her). But here is the context. My parents were immigrants to a new country where at times they were made to feel they didn't belong. So, they just kept their mouths shut in order to find jobs to pay the rent and make sure we had enough of everything to survive. That kind of work ethic and mindset stays with you and seeps into your very being so much so that the conscious becomes unconscious. And it influences everything you do. Even how you raise your kids.
The idea that I should feel like I deserved to belong anywhere I chose was so alien to everyone, especially me. Instead, what was normal was to feel I was lucky to have that job or occupy that space to begin with. This kind of thinking is definitely true of corporate culture. The thing is, it's not arrogant to feel confident in oneself. It's not arrogant to believe in one's abilities. It's not arrogant to know your worth simply because you exist. Why is the alternative even suggested? Because, as Tulshyan and Burey wrote, "The same systems that reward confidence in male leaders, even if they’re incompetent, punish white women for lacking confidence, women of color for showing too much of it, and all women for demonstrating it in a way that’s deemed unacceptable. These biases are insidious and complex and stem from narrow definitions of acceptable behavior drawn from white male models of leadership."
This week it was determined that there is no institutionalised racism in the UK. And no, that report conclusion is not an April Fool's joke. The conscious is unconscious. The obvious is obscure. The reality is when the same flawed systems are used to uncover faults in the flawed system, one can't expect there to be a breakthrough discovery. Instead of getting angry, it actually has helped me feel stronger, more confident. It has helped me recognise that this really isn't about me or my abilities. It's about a perception that is deeply embedded. So, because it isn't about me, I will, as Beyoncé has taught us all to, "bet on myself". And it isn’t about always having to show an extensive CV to feel worthy. Our willingness to show up, to work well, to give our time and effort, and our desire to be part of something bigger does it for us.
Here’s the key, if a culture that has often been rigged against us is doing its best to hold us back, even if it’s a possibility, what have we got to lose by constantly putting ourselves forward and betting on ourselves? If anything, it becomes a practice in self-awareness, self-confidence, and ultimately, self-preservation. And this is not just about and for women, or people of colour. It's anyone who has ever felt unseen, forgotten, insecure, unworthy, left behind.
Stefanie Sword-Williams, author of the book F*ck Bring Humble writes in an Instagram post, "Stop waiting for the permission of others before you can show up how you want to be seen. It's the biggest mistake we make (particularly in the creative industries) as we think that we have to abide by the rules of hierarchy or 'earn our stripes' before we can promote ourselves. It’s not true and it's the most common way people waste time not getting seen. Stop waiting for the permission to self-promote and start doing it now." And if you're still uncomfortable about holding your head up high because you don't feel you have worked enough to do so, consider this from Steven Bartlett, an entrepreneur, a CEO, and writer: "Stop telling yourself you're not qualified, not worthy or not experienced enough. Growth happens when you start doing things you're not qualified to do."
And anyone who tries to stop you can go f*ck themselves.