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Impostor syndrome: 6 successful black women on how they tackle it at work

New research reveals that 85% of us have suffered from impostor syndrome in our careers, despite having at least three years of experience in our fields of work. Here, six successful black women reveal how they tackle these feelings of inadequacy, and share their best advice for beating impostor syndrome.

Last year saw London host the second annual Black Girl Fest, the UK’s first festival dedicated to celebrating black women and girls. I launched the festival back in 2017 with my co-founder, Nicole Crentsil, and we were thrilled that so many black women came up to thank us for what we had done. Some said the festival had made a huge impact on their lives, which made us so proud.

But while I could recognise the ways in which the day was important, I felt overwhelmed by the feeling that I didn’t deserve to receive these comments. Despite knowing all the work we had put into building Black Girl Fest, I still felt like it was a matter of time before people clocked onto the fact that I was a fraud.

These feelings are often attributed to a condition called ‘impostor syndrome’. Coined by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978, the term refers to a “psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments… despite external evidence of their competence, those experiencing this phenomenon remain convinced that they are frauds, and do not deserve all they have achieved.”

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Impostor syndrome is surprisingly common – especially in women. A recent report found that two-thirds of women in the UK had experienced impostor syndrome at work in the past 12 months, while men were 18% less likely to do so.

woman impostor syndrome
Impostor syndrome: “I felt like it was a matter of time before people clocked onto the fact that I was a fraud.”

The feeling of not deserving what you have accomplished is further compounded by being a black woman. I am well aware of where I rank according to wider society, so when you exist in a world that always questions your success or your right to particular spaces, it’s not hard to start doing it to yourself, too.

Here, six brilliant black women share their own experiences of impostor syndrome. All of them are dominating their respective fields, yet each of them still has to combat feelings of inadequacy.

Tanya Compas, 26, youth worker and freelance writer 

“I first heard about impostor syndrome through a meme on Twitter and it just made so much sense. It affects me a lot. I’m a youth worker who has somehow managed to build a platform and voice on social media, which has provided me with opportunities to write for mainstream publications and work for brands. When I’m in youth work and charity sector spaces, I’m often the younger person in the room and one of very few people of colour, which causes me to question myself a lot. On the other end, when I’m in creative spaces, I often feel out of place as a youth worker.”

“I have this saying – ‘exist loudly’ – that I repeat whenever I start to doubt myself. I also have a lot to thank my friends and community for, because they constantly remind me that I deserve what I have achieved. In fact, I recently quit my job so that I can start working towards building my own alternative education organisation that will work with young black and mixed race women and non-binary people, alongside giving me more time to write. I’m proud because I feel like I finally said ‘yes’ to myself.”

Tolani Shoneye, 29, writer and podcaster 

“For me, impostor syndrome is the inability to enjoy your success. It is an awful feeling that arises within me every time I have a big moment; a feeling that says, ‘don’t enjoy this because it will be taken away, and it will be taken away because you don’t deserve it’. The biggest effect this has on me is that I find myself unable to really enjoy or celebrate my wins. I have a bottle of Moet that was given to me by a friend, to pop open when I’ve done something worth celebrating. I was given this bottle in June 2017 and I still haven’t opened it, despite having reasons to do so. But I don’t credit my success to hard work, I just think it’s luck, or in my case, God. 

“I’m working on combating these feelings. I started writing down a list of things I have achieved, because reading them on paper makes them seem much more impressive and allows me to really take them in. I also reassure myself that yes, God is answering my prayers and making things happen, but I am the one physically doing these things. I am the one making them happen.”

Nicole Crentsil, 27 curator, public speaker and director of Black Girl Festival

“After university, I realised that I wanted to explore new skills and talents, and with that exploration came imposter syndrome. I think that constant self-doubt makes me feel like I’m not worthy of being in certain spaces. I have always tied my work and value to my knowledge, and whenever I’m in a space where I may not have the most knowledge, I instantly feel like I’m an imposter – like I don’t deserve to be there.

“I try to surround myself with people who encourage me to learn and explore new spaces, while removing myself from those who make feel like an impostor. I always find that learning a new craft comes with a lot of reading and research, so I try and spend as much time as possible in that stage of the process before initiating any projects. I often ask myself, ‘How will you know what you’re capable of, if you don’t take the leap to try it?’”

Liv Little, 24, founder of gal-dem, writer and producer

“I think it was Charlie (gal-dem’s deputy editor) who introduced me to impostor syndrome as a concept. When I first heard the term I was somewhat defensive, thinking, ‘no, that’s not me, I’m fine’. But the more I looked into what the term meant, and the more that aligned with my anxieties and insecurities (particularly when operating in white workspaces), I realised that yes, this is definitely real and something we should be talking about.

“At times, I felt guilty for feeling like I was an impostor, because I’m supposed to be all about empowerment and standing in your power and truth – but the two aren’t mutually exclusive. We’re all human, and within that is layer upon layer of complexity. We live in a structurally racist society in which black women are forever told that they must remain at the bottom of the pile, so it’s no wonder that despite how brilliant you are, self-doubt can kick in.”

“I was recently made digital exec at a major broadcaster and I’ve had moments of thinking, ‘how did I get here? I’m not worthy, it’s all a fluke’. But you have to remember that nothing in life is down to chance. You are where you are because you’ve worked bloody hard to get there.

“I see it in my counterparts (all women), who undersell themselves or doubt their abilities in a way that men do not. I think men are less afraid to fail. It’s something that we all have to work through but I certainly haven’t gotten there just yet. It’s also really easy to internalise the way people treat you, and see it as a reflection on you and your abilities, which isn’t the case.

“I have an incredible support system, including my mum, my girlfriend, and friends around me to reassure me that I am capable. This really does make the world of difference when you descend down the slippery slope of insecurity because it’s been a tough week.”

Stephanie Yeboah, 29, plus-size style blogger and freelance writer 

“The term ‘impostor syndrome’ was frequently mentioned by my therapist when I described my feelings of inadequacy in the work I did. I see it as a feeling that links itself to insecurity and self-doubt around our own abilities, to the point where we feel that we do not deserve any of the nice things we have worked hard for.”

laptop
Impostor syndrome: "I’ve also created a folder containing compliments that I’ve received on my content so when I’m having a particularly bad day, I can read them back and know that others have enjoyed my work"

“I tend not to accept compliments or positive comments about my work. I feel like all my achievements and work will be criticised or picked apart by my peers for not being ‘genuine’ or original. I often feel like my writing is not worthy of being read. 

“However, when I’m overwhelmed by these feelings, I sometimes go through old blog posts and re-read them as if I were reading them for the first time. I’ve found that I actually enjoy reading them back. I’ve also created a folder containing compliments that I’ve received on my content so when I’m having a particularly bad day, I can read them back and know that others have enjoyed my work.”

Victoria Sanusi, 24, co-host of Black Gals Livin 

“About four years ago I read a post on impostor syndrome. I was intrigued because I had never heard the term before and, after reading the post, I realised that I identified with the syndrome a lot. When I got my first job in the media, I often felt like I wasn’t worthy of it. I knew so many other young people had applied for it, so I kept telling myself there was no way I was the best candidate. I kept putting it down to luck, or the need to hit a diversity or class quota. I didn’t want to believe that I was capable of getting such a great job.”

“I write down all my achievements on notes on my phone just to remind myself that I didn’t get to where I am by luck. I work hard. I am talented. As a black woman, I have to work twice as hard just to achieve my goals. It’s taken me a while to get here, but now I celebrate my wins because it’s so important to.”

This article was originally published in November 2018

Images: Unsplash, Getty

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