Imposter syndrome, myself, and I

Lucy thinks about why she’s always felt fraudulent – and asks some high-flying friends whether they feel it too 

Feeling like an imposter in my own life is, unfortunately, not a new feeling for me. 

I’m a 27-year-old, confident, outgoing, powerful woman. I’ve performed plays and danced on stages in front of hundreds of people. Time and time again proven myself as successful, so why do I constantly feel like a fraud in my own life?

I first heard the term ‘Imposter Syndrome’ from my dad in an email “Dearest Lucy, please see Michelle Obama on Imposter Syndrome,” he wrote. To be in any sort of company with Michelle Obama, one of my most inspirational heroes, was itself an imposter moment. How could I possibly have anything in common with the former First Lady? 

The idea of Imposter Syndrome was first introduced in the 1970s by two female psychologists. The phenomenon can make you think you’re inadequate, and can present feelings of failure and incompetence, despite evidence that you’re highly skilled and successful. Feelings of fraudulence and not belonging are often common symptoms. It’s been estimated 70% of people will experience it in one capacity or another, mostly high-achieving women and especially women of colour. 

As a woman of colour myself, I’ve felt undeserving of opportunities on many occasions, both professionally and personally.I remember telling my friends and family about my suspicion that I was only let into university because of a racial quota. I’d make jokes at my own expense and laugh along. I was filled with fear that others would eventually find out the truth: that I didn’t belong. My successes couldn’t possibly be my good grades or my experience, it couldn’t be my loud yet endearing personality, it must be the quota. Imposter Syndrome has stopped me from applying to jobs, attending events and made me doubt my own abilities, even when I’m at my most confident.

In Year 8, I began dating my first ever boyfriend. He was musical, good-looking and even better, he was popular. We were together for nine months – a lifetime at that age – but I would go to bed every night with the expectation that the next day at school would be our last together as a couple. Once again I was questioning my worth and value. I couldn’t understand why someone like him would be interested in me over all the other girls in my year, who as far as I was concerned were much more suited to him than I was. At just eleven years old I was questioning my self-worth despite the knowledge that I was smart, funny and very well suited to him.

The mainstream media and their portrayal of women of colour does not help to combat my feelings of fraudulence. Society tells me I’m an imposter, even in my own country, every day. People refuse to believe I could possibly even be English. The same white stories and stereotypes are still perpetuated through most mediums, so it’s no wonder that these feelings of unworthiness are so prominent. The dominant white, straight, male narrative of society reinforces the message that women are not of equal value and as Michelle Obama has discussed, society looks at people of colour and people from poorer communities as not belonging, either. Even now, after all of Obama’s successes, and being one of the world’s most influential, hard-working, respected people, she still feels she has something to prove because of the colour of her skin, and the shape of her body. 

I wanted to explore further why these feelings were so prevalent amongst women of colour, so I sat down with three established creatives looking for their take on Imposter Syndrome. The difficult truth was, even though these women are my peers and friends, I was nervous to have a discussion with them. I was feeling the familiar signs of inadequacies. Once again my inner imposter made itself known. 

These three women’s accolades speak for themselves. Jazz Thompson is an illustrator, artist, Bristol BME Powerlist nominee and is fresh from being handpicked by Banksy to create work alongside Banksy’s Well Hung Lover for Bristol Light Festival. Parys Gardener is an editorial illustrator, one of 2018’s Most Influential Bristolians Under 24, a Precious Lifestyle Visual Artist 2019 and also handpicked by Banksy and featured at Bristol Light Festival. Finally, Stacey Olika is a graphic designer, creative producer, voted Bristol’s most influential creative in 2017 and 2019 and BBC Production Assistant.

What does Imposter Syndrome mean to you?

Parys: [It’s] being in a space and not feeling like you’re supposed to be there. Not feeling like you deserve all the opportunities you’ve been given and not remembering you’re in certain spaces because you’re more than qualified to be there.

Stacey: It’s also a feeling of inadequacy in whatever space you’re in, I think Imposter Syndrome can happen at any time in your life. Imposter Syndrome has a lot to do with conditioning and also how we feel inside – for me it’s a continuous cycle you have to work on. It’s ok to have self-doubt when you walk into space, it’s normal.

Jazz: Feeling like you’ve been given access to a space but not accommodated or facilitated, none of your needs are considered, you end up feeling alienated or isolated or uncomfortable.

Parys: When it comes to valuing my work and my services, it’s really hard to price yourself. Everyone, but women particularly, are told it’s impolite to talk about money – be polite, be palatable.

Stacey told us about when she was new to Bristol, getting her bearings and meeting people from head offices. She felt like she was non-existent. She questioned why she was there constantly and those insecurities were being confirmed by her experiences. When people forgot her name, she reminded herself she was invited to be in that space as she had something special to offer. Fast-forward to less than a year later and she’s working as a peer on a panel to the people who previously couldn’t remember her name. To be able to sit, even asked to be on a panel with these people, prompted a shift in her mindset.

Do you think being a woman of colour adds to imposter syndrome?

Parys: Definitely – it’s that [racial bias] conditioning. You’re already made to feel like an ‘other’ in creative industries, in creative spaces, in business spaces, in most spaces… I can’t think of a space that does not apply. Professional spaces, business spaces, leisure spaces… in some countries it definitely all adds to the feeling of otherness. 

What advice would you give to other women of colour who experience these feelings?

Stacey recalled previous times she’s walked into a room where she was the only person of colour and instantly not been taken seriously. “I don’t even see it as a negative anymore. When you map out your journey as to how you got here and you see how hard you work, you need to have a shift in mindset.”

She realised that having a different perspective isn’t just important, but it allows you to be unique. “The fact we have different perspectives is important, it’s special. We didn’t all take the same journey to get to the space that we are in today and that’s the beauty of it. We all have different journeys, different struggles, different achievements and you have to embrace that and if you don’t feel like you’ve achieved something they have, ok, there’s something else different about you. Your time will come. And remember, that same white man who’s sitting next to you who’s been doing this for thirty years, this man is having imposter syndrome, too.” Parys agreed, saying. “it’s important to take time to reflect, once you’ve done one thing you’re moving onto the next, but it’s so important”.

Jazz shared something she did to help her reflect. She bought a glass bottle and every time she did something she was proud of, she documented it on a piece of paper and put it into the bottle. “I did it for a whole year, and honestly, the glass bottle was full,” she remembers. “It’s about having a physical reminder that you are doing stuff of value. Some of it’s really big, and some of it’s really small. It’s important to take time out to be reflective – even if you do that once a month.” This reinforces the fact you are doing something worth and that your experiences are valid. 

Sitting at that table (metaphorically and physically) and having frank and honest discussions about our experiences felt so genuine and uplifting. By sharing our stories of adversity and successes, we could understand each other and I could almost physically feel my self-doubt melting away. By the end of the discussion I didn’t feel my usual inner imposter, instead I felt empowered and inspired.

Surrounding yourself with people who build you up and only want to see you grow is so incredibly important in building and maintaining your self-belief. Believe that you are successful, that you belong in that space, that you are an equal. Remind yourself that Imposter Syndrome is something the majority of us will feel. There is no straightforward cure when it comes to Imposter Syndrome, however, believe you are worthy. Extremely worthy. 

Have you ever felt like an imposter in your own life? Tell us more on our socials.

All photography by Lucy Turner

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