Imposter syndrome comes up more than you might think in my PR conversations.
Like me, my clients and colleagues have doubts about their positive impacts in the world. I hear creative, thoughtful, and innovative people question the value of their contributions.
Their doubt affects the reach and influence of their work. It’s intense sometimes just how significant the effects of this kind of thinking can be.
Because it comes up so frequently, I’ve been doing some of my own research about imposter syndrome. I’ve been discussing it with friends. Mostly, I’ve just been gathering stories about what this experience is like and how to transform it.
I have been inspired by both personal stories and psychological analysis. I’ve been especially inspired by a piece Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey wrote for the Harvard Business Review. Among their many accomplishments, Burey is the creator of Black Cancer podcast and Tulshyan is the founder of Candour. Their article articulated so clearly what is obvious to many — imposter syndrome is not the problem.
This exploration has clarified for me how I want to relate to imposter syndrome for myself and how I want to contribute to a positive, supportive workplace with my clients and colleagues.
I’m no expert, but I hope sharing a bit of my excitement on this interesting subject adds something valuable to your next conversation.
Imposter syndrome keeps people from doing something they love, something they’re good at, and often something the workplace (or the world) really needs.
But, contrary to some assumptions about imposter syndrome, for many this experience is based on specific aspects of our political, cultural, and social settings. These settings shape our business environment. When it comes down to it, if you’re in business, this is the water you’re swimming in.
And when folks get stuck in this particular way of thinking, imposter syndrome can actually perpetuate the circumstances that led to it in the first place. So we keep swimming. In that same murky water.
The idea of imposter syndrome should not be a cop-out for growth and learning. There is value in knowing our limits. It’s important to understand our growing edges and defer when necessary or beneficial to someone with more knowledge, skill, or expertise.
So if you're finding you’re using imposter syndrome as a shield from doing the work of enhancing your skill or knowing your boundaries, this is your chance to make some changes! Go get that education, that certificate, that mentor who will further your skill.
But we know that often this isn’t the case at all. Highly qualified, skilled, and creative people experience imposter syndrome all the time. When it’s really imposter syndrome, it isn’t about a personal boundary or learning opportunity. And there’s a reason behind it that has nothing to do with a person’s flaws.
I’m starting to realize that the mainstream assumption that imposter syndrome is a common experience and personal issue isn’t in service to actual change. Because it too easily blames the individual without naming or doing anything at all to change the shape of those oppressive circumstances that instigate imposter syndrome. This just keeps the political, cultural, and social cycles of power and oppression well-oiled and working.
However, there’s no doubt in my mind that we can change this dynamic.
I think awareness about imposter syndrome can evolve your work, your workplace, and the work cultures we create together. So let’s talk about these details and build some curiosity and common understanding.
Do you have a personal experience with imposter syndrome? I’m curious to know what it feels like for you. When does it show up in your life? How do you know it’s imposter syndrome?
There’s plenty to learn about overcoming imposter syndrome. In 1978, Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes identified “imposter phenomenon.” Since then, the research and understanding on this subject have grown what we know about imposter syndrome.
We’ve expanded the ways we talk about and identify imposter syndrome. We’ve especially grown our awareness of who it affects and how.
Here are some words that reflect the experience. Do any of these cross your mind from time to time?
On a personal level, these experiences are shaped by ideals of professionalism, standardized qualifications, and unfair criticism from others. Many people feel anxious about success at work. Maybe you’re being told your confidence is unacceptable. Maybe your voice is dismissed because your perspective differs from the majority of your peers.
The idea of imposter syndrome can help us understand our experiences. But these thoughts can keep us trapped in the idea that imposter syndrome is just a personal issue we should be able to fix ourselves.
So what if imposter syndrome is not a personal issue? What if it isn’t something we can eradicate just by doing personal work to overcome it?
What I loved about Tulshyan and Burey’s article was the clear, experienced way they presented imposter syndrome as yet another insidious effect of historical oppression.
While it may be that anyone can experience something related to imposter syndrome, it is disproportionately problematic for women and especially for women of color. I’d recommend gaining some insight about this through the Harvard Business Review article, “Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome.”
There are probably infinite ways beyond my knowledge that women of color experience prejudice in the workplace. And it’s all reinforced by the same political, cultural, and social structures I’ve been referring to.
First of all, there’s the pervasive racism and bias that characterizes our systems and institutions. It can be difficult to visualize yourself achieving at high levels when there’s literally no one who looks like you in leadership positions at your workplace.
We know that women of color have been denied responsibility and leadership opportunities in the workplace. Women of color frequently have ideas shut down or co-opted by colleagues. Microaggressions, exclusion, inadequate feedback, and insensitivity to different experiences are a few more problematic experiences women of color disproportionately deal with regularly at work.
It seems clear to me, isn’t it, that imposter syndrome is a problem of the workplace and workplace dynamics. It’s not the fault of the people who have to deal with it.
Oppressive dynamics have persistent, long-term effects. And that’s especially true when they lead to more and more people experiencing imposter syndrome. It certainly seems to me that we can do a lot more to change things by being real about it.
What happens when we name it like it is? I’m going for it…
Imposter syndrome is an effect of problematic workplace institutions, dynamics, and culture. It exists in response to a mainstream culture that prioritizes a certain person with a specific personality type, skill set, and presentation, over others.
As someone in a leadership role, I know that playing into biased expectations holds me and my team back. It keeps us from being open and leaning into new ideas. Fantastic new projects, processes, ways of communication, and so much more just fall by the wayside when we so overtly deny people respect in the workplace.
While imposter syndrome is a pretty commonly known term, the problems behind it are rarely acknowledged or addressed. Tulshyan and Burey really highlighted for me the ways that workplaces and work culture in general continue to dump responsibility for change and resolution on the individual. These workplaces are so far from addressing discrimination and abuse of power.
It gets exhausting — so much so that many, like Tulshyan and Burey, shift away from corporate workplace culture by becoming entrepreneurs and starting their own businesses.
Truth be told, moving away from toxic workplaces and doing things differently is part of my story. And it’s how I meet a lot of my brilliant PR clients.
So, if we’re really committed to doing things differently, how do we want to address this massive issue of overcoming imposter syndrome?
It can be a bit daunting to consider all the time and energy that has gone into creating and maintaining those systems. But even within the big picture, there are also subcultures of opportunity.
These are the places where change is born, where we can be purposeful about doing it differently. These are the places I want to be, to contribute to a healthier, more equitable workplace.
Start with yourself. Consider the way those norms impact you. Do they benefit you or challenge you? Maybe it’s some combination of the two.
If you find you’re contributing to these ill dynamics —
Where are the places you can change your behavior and your workplace today? How do you want to work towards bigger changes? Who can you talk to? What values do you want to center?
And, if you are someone who experiences imposter syndrome because of those problematic dynamics —
How do you want to care for yourself in that space? Can you seek out a mentor who relates to your experience? What else would support look like for you?
Small choices build to bigger changes. When we grow our awareness and shift the ways we think about power at work, it shows.
We can build supportive work cultures that move us towards healthy relationships that include respect, support, positive motivation, and connection.
I have a lot to learn, but I appreciate the impact of small steps towards big change. Karen Catlin puts out a weekly Better Allies newsletter that offers five tangible actions to take at work and in collaborations. What else is out there? What resources do you value?
A lot of y'all are in small business and startup settings. These, to me, are the perfect opportunity to do something differently!
Anyone in leadership — yes, you — has a profound opportunity to address the instance of systemic bias and racism among their team and operations.
Here are some simple ways you can contribute to the culture shift.
Breaking patterns that lead to imposter syndrome:
As a white woman, there are ways I benefit from these dynamics and other ways that I can be harmed by them. As an entrepreneur, I can contribute to change. I can contribute to cultural evolution and the dissolution of power structures and workplace dynamics that perpetuate imposter syndrome.
I’m interested in taking responsibility for the culture I’m building at Symbiotic Public Relations. As we become aware of the ways our ideas are distorted and limiting, we can change them.
I’m here for these conversations. We need each other to make real change happen.
Let’s do away with imposter syndrome for good.