Imposter Syndrome in the Workplace

By Ayesha Misra

Imposter Syndrome, defn. — “a collection of feelings of inadequacy, chronic self-doubt, and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success, despite external proof of one’s own competence. An inability to internalize one’s own success.”

Harvard Business Review

The title of this article is truly ironic considering I find myself having imposter syndrome even thinking I’m “certified” to speak about imposter syndrome…

But, actually, isn’t that the crux of the issue? We work and work all our lives to be “someone”. To make ourselves proud, to make our parents proud. Then, once we finally attain a goal we had forever dreamed of and worked hard to achieve, there’s a whole 3 seconds before pride and confidence quickly switch to inadequacy. And then we have a new goal. And the cycle repeats and repeats. 

Imposter syndrome can be particularly difficult for the brown community. We’re supposed to be the “smart” minority, and that comes with pressure of living up to our stereotype, whether we agree with it or not. As a brown girl, it (personally) feels particularly difficult. Part of living in patriarchal cultures means proving we’re a worthy match against men. No matter how liberal our own families may be, and regardless of whether anyone actually imposes this pressure on us or not, we feel it, and we internalize it. We overcompensate and push ourselves harder than necessary to defeat the pressure, and to make dealing with it look easy. 

As a brown female in the legal industry, I have felt this all through law school. To be clear, this imposter syndrome usually is not explicitly imposed by others. It’s an internalized mind game and fight within ourselves. Law school came with recruitment (3 times every year) for fall, spring, and summer internships. This was an emotional rollercoaster of supreme confidence every time I secured an internship I had my eye on, followed by the insecurity of potentially letting down my new bosses. Followed by pride of doing well at the internship, and then again feeling insecure for every subsequent recruitment season.

 “Okay I got here, but what if someone thinks I’m dumb?” → “Okay I impressed my professor and did well on finals, but what if I screw up next semester?!” → “Okay I got to the third interview for this internship opportunity, but what if I say something stupid?” → “Okay I did well in the internship, but what if I’m a trainwreck at the next internship?” → “Okay first year of law school went well, but what if I screw up the second year?!” → “Okay now I’m a lawyer but what if my bosses think I’m a burden?”

 A never-ending cycle. 

It gets harder when some industries (medicine, law, finance, STEM, etc.) are male-dominated, and in fields where people of color are rare. My personal experience with the legal industry in particular has been positive, but that’s not the case for everyone. I’ve been lucky to work with the best, most inclusive mentors/companies, but still noticed myself worrying I would mess something up. There was literally no reason at all for this worry besides the “what if”. I’m sure everyone feels these “what if” jitters to some extent, but what’s frustrating is when it causes you to have self-doubt in scenarios where you have truly EARNED your place.

Sorry, I know I’ve painted a terrible picture. But, all that being said, I have a love/hate relationship with imposter syndrome. On one hand it crushes my confidence and somehow makes me feel like a puddle of incompetence despite years of evidence to the contrary; I have to remind myself all over again why I DESERVE to be in any workspace I toiled so hard to get to. On the other hand, it humbles me and prevents any complacence that may arise from overconfidence. My proudest grind moments are a result of my imposter syndrome in any new job/position. So yeah, double-edged sword.

It’s especially important to remember that we ALL feel like imposters:

I have written 11 books but each time I think ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.”

— Maya Angelou

“Every time I was called on in class, I was sure that I was about to embarrass myself. Every time I took a test, I was sure that it had gone badly. And every time I didn’t embarrass myself — or even excelled — I believed that I had fooled everyone yet again. One day soon, the jig would be up … This phenomenon of capable people being plagued by self-doubt has a name — the impostor syndrome. Both men and women are susceptible to imposter syndrome, but women tend to experience it more intensely and be more limited by it.”     

— Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In

The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania and a complete feeling of: ‘I’m a fraud! Oh God, they’re on to me! I’m a fraud!’ . . . just try to ride the egomania when it comes and enjoy it, and then slide through the idea of fraud.  

— Tina Fey

I guess the point of this article, if there is one, is to cut ourselves some slack. To be confident, to know that we deserve to be in the places we’ve worked so hard to get to, whether it’s in entertainment, medicine, law, finance, STEM, whatever. Easier said than done, for sure. But if we can’t be our own advocates, who will? The least we can do is celebrate the milestones we achieve, and root for ourselves (and each other) as we push forward to achieve our goals. 

The key to taming imposter syndrome, for me at least, is to remember that even the most accomplished/intimidating people in the room feel the same way, or have felt that way at some point. I have yet to meet a single person that hasn’t related to this feeling. As sad as that is (for all of us collectively), it’s also comforting. To know that even our biggest inspirations feel out of place is an oddly comforting sentiment. Not because of their discomfort, but because no matter who we are or where we are in our journey, we’re all just trying our best.

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