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Feeling like a fraud: How impostor syndrome affects marginalized communities

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Photo by Min An / Pexels
Photo by Min An / Pexels

I glanced at my fellow panelists' tall stack of publications, their copies piled into a makeshift book stand, with their most recent accomplishment propped up front and center. Glossy hardcovers boldly displayed their name, physical proof that they belonged there as one of the many professionals speaking at this convention.

Then side-eyeing my two publications on display, I nudged the flimsy little printout of the cover of my soon-to-be-released work. My self-doubt turned to a roiling boil, and I tried desperately to hide the steam.

I'm not smart enough, talented enough, or accomplished enough. My being here is pure luck.

Except, I did belong there. The convention director had invited me, and I was moderating a panel I had proposed. Two of the guests of honor liked the topic so much that they decided to sign up to be my fellow speakers.

The topic was impostor syndrome.

Impostor syndrome, or impostor phenomenon (IP), is a combination of fear of failure and self-doubt; people with severe cases cannot recognize their achievements and competency when they compare themselves to others. Instead of attributing their successes to merit, they will believe themselves frauds or the beneficiaries of pure luck. In turn, they worry that it's only a matter of time until one of their "betters" realizes and exposes them.

For many people, being vulnerable about how they struggle with IP is a daunting task; being honest about finding it difficult to feel like an authentic member of your community can heighten the fear of exposure. IP is often associated with creatives and high-level professionals, but what is not commonly known is how it affects those who are marginalized.

People who have historically been outcast by our society based on race, gender identity, or sexual orientation have higher rates of IP. Drs. Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes initially identified the phenomenon in 1978 to describe high-achieving women's reports of feeling fraudulent.

In 2021, Kira C. Rideout sampled college students at California State University, who were asked to complete the Impostor Phenomenon Test (Clance 1985) and answer a questionnaire about their sexual and gender identities. The results were that those who reported that their sexual identity was other than heterosexual were more likely to score higher (the higher the score, the more severe the case of IP).

So what can you do about it?
Many studies on IP have proved that marginalized people in our society often struggle to feel worthy. So what do we do about it?

If this were G.I. Joe, I'd say, "Knowing is half the battle." Learning about it is the first thing you can do if you believe you are experiencing impostor syndrome. I'd recommend taking the Clance Impostor Phenomenon Test. This will not only tell you how severe your self-doubt may be but give you some serious food for thought, with prompts like "When people praise me for something I've accomplished, I'm afraid I won't be able to live up to their expectations of me in the future."

Personally, when I took the test, I received a score of 83. (A score higher than 80 means "intense impostorism.") I was not surprised. Luckily, I have spent much time thinking about my fear of failure, and even though I still have these feelings, I have learned how to mitigate how they affect my daily life.

By nature of one's identity, society's biases have socialized some to think less of themselves. For example, members of the LGBTQ+ community often feel pressure to hide who they are. The shame and fear of exposure that those still in the closet experience could be compared to IP, if not outright called a form of it.

So once you have given how IP may affect your life some thought, the next step is to learn how to recognize these feelings as they arise. Catch yourself when you start negatively comparing your work to others, and before tumbling down the rabbit hole of thinking everyone else has it more figured out than you, consider taking a colleague's perspective. It's safe to say they have also not felt competent enough at one point or another, yet here they are.

Has a friend or colleague ever praised you? Have they decided to include you in an activity or project? If so, think about if you were in their position. What motive would you have to give praise or include someone if you didn't think highly of them? Trust that most people are being genuine with you.

Vulnerability is the next essential factor here. Let someone know you're struggling, someone who can remind you that you're worthy is a valuable resource. Allow yourself the grace to be open about what's going on in your head and ask for reassurance.

Members of the LGBTQ+ community strive to spread pride and love but sometimes forget to apportion a little to themselves. Your friends adore you. You deserve that promotion. You are more than capable of passing that test with flying colors. Marginalization be damned — you are far from a fraud.