Why feel like an imposter, when you can be a revolutionary?

The feeling comes strongest right before public presentations. This is it, something in me whispers to myself, I'm going to stumble - refer to combatants as operating in non-international armed conflicts, blank on the third prohibited act of the crime of genocide - and then everyone will know that I shouldn't be up here. Years of luck and significant amounts of memorising information will be dashed, as people all over will shake their heads in wonder: who invited her to speak? what manner of people offered her those jobs? and what were those universities thinking when they handed out those degrees?

This is imposter syndrome (or so I hope anyway!). First identified in 1978 by by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, imposter syndrome leads to the (sometimes deeply-held) belief that you've only succeeded due to luck, and not because of your talent or qualifications. Sufferers try to combat it, or self-soothe, by overworking and people-pleasing. Sometimes when faced with a task, they procrastinate out of fear that they won't be able to produce work of a sufficiently high standard. At other times, they may over-prepare, spending far more time on a project than is necessary. Increased success doesn't help, unfortunately, as it tends to intensify the feeling of being an imposter, the sense of taking the "fraud" to the next level.  With sufferers more likely to experience anxiety, severe stress, depression, and burnout, this profound intellectual self-doubt has significantly negative impacts on a person's professional and personal life. 

While anyone can experience imposter syndrome, it is far more likely to be suffered by people from marginalised groups - including women and people from ethnic and racial minorities, among others. For those with intersecting, marginalised identities - women of colour, for example - the impact is even stronger. This is hardly surprising. People who suffer institutionalised biases often report lower self-confidence - a consequence of living a world where your existence and your voice are consistently undervalued and/or where you are made to feel unwelcome, and sometimes unsafe. Furthermore, feelings of belonging foster confidence. Having fewer people around who look and sound like you may also adversely impact your belief in yourself and your feeling of being deserving to be present, let alone to thrive, in a particular professional space. For women in particular, lower self-confidence often means that we are less likely to be assertive about ensuring we receive appropriate recognition and equal payment for the work we do. Needless to say, imposter syndrome is a boon for those who don't experience it: their workplaces come equipped with people who give a lot and don't ask for much back.

One can't simply "solve" imposter syndrome, but finding ways to minimise its place in one's life is key. Sage advice on how to combat intellectual self-doubt includes: acknowledging that what you are experiencing is imposter syndrome; observing your feelings instead of engaging with them; sharing what you are feeling with people you trust; and consciously seeking to engage with people and in activities that reinforce your self-confidence. Recognising that my own self-doubt has rational roots in a world that systematically undervalues who I am has been helpful, if for no other reason than generating a commitment to myself that I will not participate in my own undervaluing. Having recognised the political and social contexts in which these feelings of being an imposter flourish, I seek to undermine the context, instead of undermining myself. 

Confidently asserting oneself is not only a matter of personal empowerment and growth. It is an act of political and social defiance. By knowing and projecting your value, you push back against decades (if not centuries) of institutional bias that repeatedly hammered into you that you might not be good enough, and that you are guilty of a terrible deception against those believe you to be good enough. For women, in particular, to be ambitious and to own your successes is to thwart a tidal wave of social expectation. It is also one of the clearest ways to signal you're no longer in the business of people-pleasing. Do it for yourself - and also for others. For those in the audience who also feel like imposters, to see someone who looks like them being successful and being comfortable in their own success is an act of solidarity, and a call to rebellion.

Why feel like an imposter, when you can be a revolutionary? Your very voice is act of defiance. Let it be heard.

Sareta Ashraph @SaretaAshraph

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Sareta Ashraph