As summer quickly fades to fall, the month of October has already started to embrace its annual traditions of pumpkin spice, harvest festivals and Halloween. But the masks we wear in real life aren’t always relegated to costume parties and “Trick or Treat.”
Many of us Black and brown folks have had to navigate life with a degree of duality (and in many cases, a state of multiplicity) that requires us to switch from the street corner to the corner suite with ease and fluidity. It has become so much of our survival tool kit that it is more instinct than intention.
However, there is a condition that can hold us back from achieving our fullest potential – regardless of how adept we are at wearing the masks we need. It’s commonly known as “The Imposter Syndrome” which Psychology Today defines as a condition in which people “…believe that they are undeserving of their achievements and the high esteem in which they are, in fact, generally held.” The publication goes on to say that those with Imposter Syndrome, “…feel that they aren’t as competent or intelligent as others might think—and that soon enough, people will discover the truth about them.” These individuals are “often well accomplished” and “may hold high office or have numerous academic degrees.”
I remember the first time I encountered Imposters Syndrome, and it was at a time and place before I even knew that such a thing existed. It was my freshman English class when I was in college. I went to Duquesne University to study journalism after achieving a fair degree of success as one of the few African Americans to serve as an editor for a prestigious high school newspaper— at Central High School in Philly – from which other accomplished journalists had graduated and gone on to award-winning careers. On the first written assignment, the professor decided to make an example of me by physically holding up my paper before the entire class, clearly showing the liberal smattering of red ink and a big “D” on the front, then purposefully walking it to my seat and placing it firmly on my desk.
As one of the few African Americans at the university in the early ’80’s and the only Black student in the class at the time, I was mortified and embarrassed, but extremely motivated. I came to Duquesne very confident in my writing and was one of the first from my family to go to college. So, I leaned into my Imposter Syndrome by being determined to prove this professor wrong by eventually acing his class, being named to the Dean’s List and going on to have a successful career in the field.
Unfortunately, this response of “leaning in” is not always our reaction to this situation. Too often, we “lean out” because of the history of business practices designed to exclude people of color from these spaces. As a result, we’ve always had to fight for having our presence known and our expertise valued. In this instance, it seems easier to retreat, and the syndrome becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, rather than a rallying cry to put the haters behind us.
While the Imposter Syndrome is a very real condition, the antidote may be all in how we approach the cure. Dr. George James, the chief innovation officer and staff therapist for the Council for Relationships, says there are some techniques we can use when we find ourselves in the swirl of doubt that typifies the Imposter Syndrome, beginning first with convincing yourself that you belong wherever you are. “No matter how many credentials or degrees you may add on, your ability and confidence to perform is the best way to counter the effects of The Imposter Syndrome,” James said. “It’s important NOT to let those negative thoughts pull you down into that swirl of self-doubt and unworthiness.”
Other tools we can use to overcome this begin with surrounding yourself with people who support you. While we can always do better, we don’t need a constant chirping of negativity in our ears. Secondly, find an accountability partner with whom you can safely share your doubts and fears. An occasional dose of reality can help shape your plans and strategies in a healthy and meaningful way.
The bottom line is that none of us need to endure the journey we’re on alone. Shedding the masks we wear can be a powerful act of liberation that enables us to be our fullest selves in overcoming the challenges yet before us.