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This is How Imposter Syndrome Affects Women of Colour Differently

Black woman wearing a white shirt lays on couch with her hands on her head

“Do I belong?” These words circle around some people’s heads continuously. Along with this thought, there often comes a hopeless sensation in your gut telling you that you will never be good enough. This is known as imposter syndrome — having a psychological pattern of self-doubt about one’s life achievements.

Imposter syndrome causes individuals to question if they belong, despite their success or accomplishments. It can feel like you are a fraud who’s in constant fear of being caught. Whether you are a Harvard graduate or the CEO of a well-off brand, imposter syndrome leads you to believe that you are not worthy and that you are less intelligent than people see.

While imposter syndrome can impact anyone, it is predominately common among females — and even more so in women of colour. “When you combine being racialized and being a woman, the likelihood of experiencing imposter syndrome increases,” says Dr. Linda Iwenofu, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto.

Related: How Black women can advocate for themselves in a healthcare system that ignores them.

Where does imposter syndrome come from?

Racialized women go out into the world with the awareness that people have already created an opinion about them. In society, minority groups are often associated with negative stereotypes, such as not being perceived as leaders. These biases can act as a trigger for women struggling with imposter feelings.

Almost two out of three women have been blasted with microaggressions at work.

Take Chika Stacy Oriuwa: she was the first Black woman selected as valedictorian at University of Toronto’s medical school, and the only Black graduate in her class of 259 students. In 2018, during one of her clinical rotations, Oriuwa wore scrubs and a stethoscope. Even though her attire clearly signalled she was a doctor, a patient assumed she was a custodian and asked her to clean up some vomit. Subtle comments or assumptions about race, gender or sexuality – in other words, microaggressions — are all too common. Almost two out of three women have been blasted with microaggressions at work.

See also: 12 things often said to women in the workplace (but are never OK).


young Black woman wearing white shirt sitting in meeting at work

Imposter syndrome can be amplified by a lack of representation

Women of colour can also feel out of place because of a lack of representation. Research shows that if a woman takes on a role that is typically held by white men, their feelings of being an imposter tend to increase.

“If you don’t see yourself reflected, how can you really believe that you truly belong there,” says Dr. Iwenofu. While more and more workplaces are striving to create job opportunities for BIPOC people, the question of tokenism arises. Adding another layer of triggers to the syndrome can cause people to spiral into self-doubt questions like, “do I deserve this? Am I just here to fill a quota?”

Related: 10 times representation happened for Black women and why it matters.

What can society do to address imposter syndrome

To truly address imposter syndrome, we have to start by mending existing societal institutions like schools and the workplace. We want to see a setting that steers away from being strictly “Eurocentric, masculine and heteronormative,” as Tina Opie, an associate professor at Babson College, says. This can be done by hiring more women of colour, implementing leadership training programs and offering concrete mental health support that recognizes the biases of society.

It all comes back to self-care

We will always be faced with systemic injustices in one form or another, so it is crucial that we exercise self-care practices. “A part of taking care of yourself means coping with feelings of being an imposter or feeling inadequate,” says Dr. Iwenofu.

Even the most successful women have been stricken with doubt.

First off, remember that you are not alone. Even the most successful women have been stricken with doubt. Michelle Obama, Maya Angelou and Padma Lakshmi have all felt like frauds. Encourage yourself through positive self-talk. Speaking out loud forces your thoughts to slow down and process differently, causing less build-up of bombarding feelings.

Lastly, think about speaking to a specialist if you are being faced with anxiety or depression. Dr. Iwenofu notes that individuals can seek out free counselling services through their workplace Employee Assistance Programs or by asking their family doctor for a community referral.


Related: Self-care vs. self-soothing: Knowing the difference could save your mental health.


If you identify as a racialized woman and are struggling with your mental health, here are some community mental health resources to look into:

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