Dear Imposter Syndrome: What If You’re Wrong?
by MacKenzie (Kenzie) Isaac
Personal tradition dictates that I spend today, Thanksgiving Day, enveloped in my comforter in silent meditation. I tell myself that today is a day of abundance, of satisfaction, of abiding in my “enoughness” without thought of the things I may still want or need. The “things” I don’t have — and the person who I’m still striving to become — don’t matter right now.
As I reflect on the many reasons I should be thankful — from my ever-expanding network of friends and family, to the food that nourishes my body and mind, to the recognition and vocal appreciation of the work I do — I cannot help but wonder whether I actually deserve any of it. I cannot help but wonder what it means to be deserving of anything.
Deserving of support. Deserving of joy. Deserving of undivided attention when I speak. Deserving of beautiful things — without those beautiful things being considered “luxuries” or “excesses”. Deserving to take up space — and to not cede it the moment someone questions why I’m there.
Your instinctive response to this might be, “Everyone is deserving of everything you just mentioned!”. I agree, but if you’re anything like me, you often fall short of extending yourself the same compassion that you naturally give to others. As Omena’s Director of Volunteer Engagement, I am extremely vocal about my belief that everyone has distinct qualities that, when drawn out and nurtured, perfectly position them to lead. I am a firm believer that lived experiences are the only kind of subject matter expertise needed to become an effective peer educator. I stand in these convictions even as I question my competence to stand in front of others and say anything at all.
Who, exactly, holds the measuring stick that determines whether I am qualified to receive the resources and opportunities afforded to me? And are they wielding that measuring stick responsibly? If they were, then they surely will have seen through the glossy veneer of peace, confidence, and stability and taken notice of the concealed chaos that is my day-to-day life by now. I almost always feel like a trainwreck, and amidst all the compliments and requests to take on important leadership roles, it genuinely concerns me that no one seems interested in stopping this trainwreck in her tracks.
These intrusive, self-sabotaging musings are not my attempt at fishing for compliments. They have a name, a name that I must speak before I can explore the harm it causes and begin to heal from it.
That name is imposter syndrome.
Harvard Business Review defines imposter syndrome as “a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success”. Those who experience it bear a heavy burden of self-doubt, unable to internalize and embrace their “enoughness” (and, often, their “more-than-enoughness”), and always anticipating that someone or something will expose them as frauds. This psychological phenomenon is so pervasive, so unshakeable because of its very nature: No one wants to truly talk about it, because if we did, we risk exposing our own fraudulence, and all of our fears about our lack of deservingness could be confirmed.
As a woman, and as a woman of color, my imposter syndrome has been reinforced by the narratives I consume from both media and my immediate environment. Society suggests — that is, if it doesn’t outright tell me — that to show confidence is to intimidate others. That my expressions of passion are actually sub-intellectual expressions of anger. That I will always have to work twice as hard to receive half as much recognition as my White, male counterparts. That — as a direct contradiction to the point just made — any recognition that I do receive is not due to my hard work, but due to affirmative action, upholding the stereotype that Black women are always on the receiving end of a handout. This stereotype is objectively harmful and false, and the sheer enormity of its falseness requires a separate conversation on a day that is not today.
These narratives were introduced to me at an absurdly young age, and it takes intentional, relentless work for me to prevent these narratives from completely overtaking my thoughts. The narratives outlined above, among several others, are intended to alter our conscious and subconscious ideas about who deserves to move about in this world with liberation and comfort. Have you ever met someone who moves about the world with the quiet certainty that they are doing exactly what they’re supposed to be doing, in the exact place they’re supposed to be doing it? Someone who, as they climb the ladder of success, never seems to question that the next rung of the ladder is meant to hold them? That the people and opportunities on the next rung of the ladder will welcome them with open arms?
That, right there, is privilege. It signals the ways that imposter syndrome can be racialized, gendered, and classed. And the misplaced guilt, shame, demeanment, and gaslighting that accompanies societal narratives of deservingness stand as evidence that structural emotional abuse exists — with very personal implications. Imposter syndrome is one of numerous ways we engage in unkind self-talk, but we had to learn this unkindness from somewhere.
The good news is that we can unlearn all that has been learned. To begin, we must hone our agency to reject dominant narratives about deservingness and replace them with positive, unapologetic affirmations: Yes, I am making the choice to take up space; yes, I am going to fill this space with my truth; and yes, my truth is uniquely valuable, and that is precisely why I was invited into this space. By embarking on this journey of self-compassion, we dare to look our imposter syndrome in the face and ask:
What if you’re wrong? What if I am deserving?
The other good news is that it is, and you are. Your strivings, achievements, and calls to lead may not solely be your own doing (it does take a village, after all), but for all that you may owe others, you also owe yourself the peaceful understanding that no one can fully replicate the voice, the perspective, and the energy that you bring to the spaces you’re invited to enter. Your contributions to this world are your social fingerprint, uniquely your own. Thus, even as you stand on the shoulders of others, know that you deserve to stand tall.
Find ways to continually remind yourself of this. Write love letters to yourself. Resist the need for constant external validation by attaching your sense of self-worth to your character rather than your accolades. In the moments when you feel like you’re flailing, reach out to people for conversation and fellowship. You may just find that most of us aren’t really swimming; we’re simply treading the water, doing what we can to stay afloat. And in those shared moments of treading water, the best course of action is to show kindness to ourselves and to others.
The reality is that we have been born into systems and institutions that are meant to exalt some and debase others. Inward declarations that we are too young, too uneducated, too emotional to be important or impactful are sociocultural scripts that are fed to us by the bottleful from our infancy. Our society is inequitable by design, and imposter syndrome is not only a byproduct of that inequity, but one of its engines — a trick of the mind bent on keeping us from grasping onto the joy, the leadership positions, and the well-earned recognition that could move us ever closer towards the equity that we so desperately need.
Take refuge in the fact that your imposter syndrome is a liar, and rest. You deserve it.