I had the privilege of visiting the historical grounds of Robben Island Prison off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa. All of the tours are led by men who were imprisoned there, and they share their firsthand accounts and experiences. They experienced psychological cruelty and physical suffering that is difficult to imagine at the hands of the guards who tried to break their spirits and sow dissension among the racial groups there. The men resisted by focusing on helping each other. Those with larger rations shared their meager food with others who had less. Their motto was, “Each one, teach one,” and every new prisoner was given a political education that empowered them to organize, remain in solidarity, and mentally resist oppression by building internal resilience and power.
One of the best ways to overcome Imposter Syndrome is to work to eliminate the conditions that cause it. All we need to do is hold a baby to know that we are not born feeling unworthy of love and belonging and inclusion. Our culture, systems, laws, policies, social norms, business practices — all human made — are what create the inner experience that we call Imposter Syndrome.
As we continue to observe, challenge, counter, and heal Imposter Syndrome in ourselves, we have more and more strength available to challenge the systems that create it in ourselves and others. The research is mixed on who experiences Imposter Syndrome. Some studies show that it cuts across demographics and identities, affecting people of all genders, races, ethnicities, social class, sexual orientation, and educational levels. Others show that it disproportionately affects women (especially BIWOC: Black, Indigenous Women of Color), BIPOC, and LGBTQ+ folx. However, we don’t need research to know that rising water lifts all boats.
By actively working to reach out to others and speak out against systems that perpetuate exclusion or bias, we can increase our sense of personal agency and power. I also want to be quite clear that the burden for this work should not rest on the shoulders of those who are most impacted. Just like white people need to work hardest to dismantle racism without depending on people of color to lead that work, those with the most power and privilege need to work hardest to create more inclusive environments where everyone is valued and feels a sense of belonging. And, all of us can be part of the solution.
The thing with Imposter Syndrome is that it is often invisible. We rarely talk about it, and it can feel unsafe to admit that we feel it. We run the risk of being viewed as weak or having a problem —basically, being blamed for feeling the impact of how we’re treated as if the problem is within us. So we often just stay quiet.
This makes it hard for us to know who is suffering from it, and we’re often shocked to find out that someone we respect feels just as insecure as we do at times. They may be afraid of being found out as less bright, talented, or skilled as the world perceives them to be. The main takeaway here is not to assume that someone you look up to or think of as more successful than yourself isn’t feeling exactly the same way you do. One way to counter this isolation is to begin to talk about it with trusted people, to begin the process of normalizing conversation about Imposter Syndrome and mitigating any stigma associated with experiencing it.
We can begin to look with new awareness at practices, language, policies, or behaviors at our places of work or worship, at our children’s schools or organizations where we volunteer, at our social groups or families. How might some people feel less welcome than others? Is there language being used that isn’t inclusive or is actually offensive? Are there unintended consequences of policies that exclude certain groups of people, like scheduling an all-staff lunch during Ramadan?
I recently wrote an email to an Executive Director who wrote that “Cisgender women are the only humans who can procreate.” With lots of respect, I gently called her in and reminded her that that is not true. Cisgender means that your sex identified at birth matches your gender identity. There are many people who are 100% capable of reproduction who are not cisgender women. As a queer woman who has experienced microaggressions, sexism, and exclusion myself, I felt empowered by using my voice and cisgender privilege to advocate for those without cisgender privilege.
I’ve also had many people, mostly women, reach back a hand to pull me up in my career. I tell a story in my book about a professor at UW-Milwaukee who asked me to teach a college class that was starting in four days after the assigned instructor unexpectedly quit. My initial response was all Imposter Syndrome: Wait, I never taught college before. There’s no way I’m qualified since I don’t have a PhD. I’m not a renowned expert. What do I have to teach that is meaningful?
That’s just the short list, and fortunately for her, all I said in reply was, “Oh, I don’t think I can do that.” Fortunately for me, she firmly said, “Jennifer, I wouldn’t have asked you if I didn’t know you could.” I decided to believe her and went on to have one of the more rewarding experiences I could have imagined. I’ve done my best to follow her example and embrace, “Each one, teach/reach one,” as my motto.
I think it’s really important to allow ourselves to rise above our individual lives and see the bigger picture. When we let Imposter Syndrome run rampant over us, unchecked and unhealed, we are less able to shine brightly and inspire those around us.
Marianne Williamson’s infamous words will close this article to remind us that the way we walk through this world has profound impact on others, in ways we can’t imagine and may never get to know. You matter, more than you might know. We all do. Let’s lift each other up and shine!
Our Deepest Fear by Marianne Williamson
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness
That most frightens us.
We ask ourselves
Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small
Does not serve the world.
There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking
So that other people won’t feel insecure around you.
We are all meant to shine,
As children do.
We were born to make manifest
The glory of God that is within us.
It’s not just in some of us;
It’s in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine,
We unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we’re liberated from our own fear,
Our presence automatically liberates others.
Putting Ideas Into Practice
Here are some ideas for small, actionable steps you can take to expand your awareness, lift others up, and shine brighter!
- Write a thank you note to someone who believed in you and offered a helping hand along the way
- Invite a younger or more junior person to coffee; invite them to share their aspirations and learn how you might be able to support them
- Share your own feelings of Imposter Syndrome (or what you’ve learned about Imposter Syndrome if you haven’t experienced it yourself) with someone else and invite a conversation about their thoughts or experiences