The Imposter Syndrome Experience: Perception vs Reality

This piece was triggered by a simple Tweet: “We need to discuss Imposter Syndrome in corporate settings as a black individual”. This sparked attention on Twitter as users voiced how they could relate. So let’s discuss it now…

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What is Imposter Syndrome?

Definition: The persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills(Oxford languages)

In other words, imposter syndrome really means the experience of feeling like a fraud and the perception of not belonging where you are.

‘Imposter syndrome’ was first coined in 1978 by psychologists Suzanna Imes and Pauline Rose Clance. The idea of imposter syndrome was initially linked with highly talented women in the workplace. However, imposter syndrome can be experienced by people from all status’s, backgrounds and levels of skill and expertise.

A close friend back in school days once said the following statement that hit me:

“I don’t want to feel like a victim but in the grand scheme of things, as a black man I am”.

The concept of being a victim never really sat well with me and has personally never held me back, mainly due to having a level of pride, ambition and optimism.

As a Nigerian black man born in South East London, it has always been common knowledge that my privileges are not the same as others. Decades of institutional discrimination play a part in the pursuit of any career. This can be supported with the under representation and lack of opportunities given to the black community in corporate roles, higher education and political leadership.

The corporate world is a good representation of real life. It differs from education, where you are spoon fed to some degree. In the corporate world you have a job to fulfil and are paid to do so. Working in the professional services industry, I wasn’t shocked to find that my background, as a black individual was once again underrepresented. When systemic racism meets imposter syndrome, it is often difficult to identify in the first place. This is because there is not one single person that can be held accountable for why ethnic minorities are not given as much opportunity, and for those that are employed, they are often not represented in senior positions.

A Survey from The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) that was published in 2018–19 found that there were 535 staff employed as “managers, directors or senior officials” across British universities, of which 475 identified as white, 25 as Asian, mixed or other ethnicities, and none as black.

A common phrase told amongst the black community working in any profession is that “You need to work twice as hard”. Initially, I was not completely aware of the damages and trauma caused by this saying. Imagine being put under immediate pressure to work harder than you already have just for simply existing. It’s simply not fair. The reality in the corporate world or most industries are that as a black individual you are under more scrutiny to perform and maintain a certain perception.

Examples of pressures and micro-aggressions faced in the workplace include:

  • You can’t be too loud or extroverted — as you may be viewed as arrogant
  • You can’t speak too casually or style your hair freely — due to fear of being viewed as ghetto/unprofessional
  • Speaking up for yourself or facing confrontation is quickly labelled as being aggressive
  • Being introverted and quiet on the other hand is often seen as being anti-social or unfriendly

Further symptoms of imposter syndrome could be the inability to express true personality, this could be faced whilst working in a steep learning curve or when changing job roles. The feeling of being a minority in most working spaces comes hand-in-hand with the mental feeling of not deserving to be where you are.

The reality in this circumstance is that you are in fact deserving of your place regardless of your background. The skills and abilities possessed have been viewed and approved by recruiters and interviewers before you even started, so you should indeed feel validated — You are not a fraud! This may take a longer time for some individuals to realise than for others.

Some key tips recommended to help reassure yourself and help prevent the disillusion of Imposter syndrome are:

  1. Reflect on Previous Success — History doesn’t lie, your past experiences and achievements are evidence of your capability
  2. Network, network, network — Conversations with others who may relate can help realise that you are not alone
  3. Ask for help — There are no stupid questions. It is always better to ask when in doubt, doing this early can help to save time and unnecessary pressure
  4. Positive Affirmations — Speaking positivity towards yourself can be the much-needed driving motivator. e.g. “I am more than capable”, “I am intelligent and talented”, “I deserve to be here”
  5. Pass on knowledge — Keep the door open for others by being transparent and sharing important information and advice. They may require the tips you once did not have

Hopefully these tips are beneficial and can help you along the way in your career and life overall to break the mindset of feeling like an imposter. Last but not least, always believe in your sauce… because if you don’t, who will?

This article was written by Afo


Foreign Affairs

The people have elected a “monster”: A report from Brazil

“Elections won’t change anything in this country. It will only change on the day that we break out in civil war here” – Jair Bolsonaro, 1999.

Iany smiled as she walked out of the hostel, before turning to me and saying, “It’s my last night living in a democracy”. Iany lives in São Paulo, in the world’s fourth largest democracy, yet after Brazil elected Jair Bolsonaro on Sunday night, Brazilians are fearing a repeat of the country’s twenty-year military dictatorship that fell thirty-three years ago. Cleiton, also of São Paulo, voices similar concerns – “my only fear is not having the right to democracy…this could bring a civil war”.

I’m staying in Itacaré, Bahia as the final stop on an eight-month trip through Latin America. This is the first time I’ve experienced such a seismic political event during my travels and the Brazilians, typically very open and exuberant people, aren’t afraid to make clear their political sway. Whilst Bahia state is majority anti-Bolsonaro, I see two Brazilians proudly bearing Bolsonaro t-shirts in the style of ‘The Godfather’. Another woman shouts out of her window a slogan used throughout Bolsonaro’s campaign – “Brasil acima de tudo, Deus acima de todos”, “God above all, Brazil above all”. I feel fortunate that I’m staying in a sleepy coastal village where Paulistas and Cariocas escape inner-city tension. Isabel, who lives in Rio, informs me of a shootout between pro and anti Bolsonaro protestors just two blocks from her flat in Laranjeiras district.

The election has been one of the most divisive in the country’s history, with Bolsonaro eventually seeing off Fernando Haddad of the left-wing democratic socialist Workers’ Party. Unlike similar moves to the right in the Trump election and Brexit referendum, it’s difficult to draw voting lines between gender, age, class or ethnicity. Bolsonaro is a misogynist, racist and homophobe, yet with a 54% share of the vote clearly this hasn’t prevented women, black citizens or homosexuals from voting for him.

What is clear is that Bolsonaro succeeded in capturing the popular vote for his hardline security approach. A record 63,880 Brazilians were killed in violent crime last year and between March and September of this year police have killed at least 922 people in the state of Rio de Janeiro alone. Bolsonaro’s litany of hardline soundbites therefore appeal to many Brazilians frightened to leave their homes. On his campaign he stated that “a good criminal is a dead criminal” and in August he proclaimed that police officers who gun down armed criminals with “10 or 30 shots need to be decorated, not prosecuted”. Insecurities about violence are widespread across the country and with voting mandatory, perhaps this is the best way of comprehending why Brazil has elected a “monster”.

Back in Itacaré, the liquor is pouring as my newfound Brazilian friends are trying their best to forget about the result. The overwhelming feeling is one of resignation. Brazilian politics is steeped in scandal and corruption, the last elected President Dilma Rouseff was impeached for corruption and her successor Michel Temer narrowly avoided the same fate, and this has evidently led to a feeling of disenchantment. Whilst Bahia had the potential to vote down Bolsonaro, I learn a day later that 20% of Bahians failed to vote. Brazil doesn’t have a postal vote and operates an electronic system which only stokes the fire of corruption fears. While the threat of Bolsonaro is becoming globally known with his brazen far-right policies, the danger that isn’t published is this knock-on effect of political disillusionment.

I spend the last day of my trip in Salvador, Bahia’s capital city. A couple of hours before my flight I meet Lionel, a black American who left his country in the mid-nineties to escape a place he no longer felt racially comfortable in. Lionel resides on the island of Boipebe, a tranquil oasis where you could be anywhere in the world, and his feeling of retreating from a political system he simply can’t live in is returning. “It’s up to the white people to sort this out. We [black people] have our own problems”. I find Lionel’s matter of fact manner refreshing, yet this only adds to my fears of political disillusionment. Whilst there have been protests in Brazil’s main cities since the election, Lionel shares my sentiments in that it is too little too late and favours a more hardline approach: “When people turn to stupidity, there are only two things you can do: beat it or kill it”. He sounds not dissimilar from Bolsonaro in 1999. It’s concerning for the whole world if perhaps this is the only way Brazilians are going to awake from their political slumber.

Passion must replace disillusionment. Fuelled by the knowledge of what Brazil can be.