By Caryn Coley
I'm sick guys, sicker than I thought but getting stronger every day. Like all addicts, the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. So here's my problem: I suffer from Black Imposter Syndrome. What a mouthful huh? It's been debilitating and affecting me in more ways than one but for the sake of this article, I will concentrate on work.
About a year ago, I started to come to the realisation that something was really wrong with me. On the outside I had just embarked on an amazing advertising career; it was something I'd studied for and dreamed about. I had also taken unpaid internships (like many others) in the hope of differentiating myself from that vast competition surrounding me and finally, my efforts were paying off. Working on campaigns for the likes of Disney, Marie Claire and Porsche were everything I had wanted. And yet I found myself feeling hands-down the most anxious, nervous and fearful I have ever been in my life.
This led to me second-guessing every decision I made, reverting into myself for fear of being singled out or ridiculed for saying something stupid, and procrastinating in a state of analysis paralysis which isn't great when you have sold yourself on your efficiency, ability to share ideas and being a team player.
These issues weren't just limited to my work but also my ability to make friends or at least friendly acquaintances in this new, much longed-for work environment. I don't care what anyone says, if you are working for eight hours a day you need to like or at least feel comfortable with your team. I did make some amazing friends but even then I found myself wondering when the penny would drop for them - don't hang around with her, whatever she has could be contagious, we need to hang around with the people we want to be like and emulate. And I had convinced myself that most definitely wasn't me. I plodded through my initial 6-month contract and even the excitement of it being extended didn't cure my feelings of just not being good enough and sooner or later people would work that out.
Fast-forward to the present day. I finally have a name for this ailment. Imposter Syndrome. My self-diagnosis was made possible by the internet with accomplished celebrities like Viola Davis and Emma Watson speaking on the subject and raising awareness around an issue that touches many people to varying degrees. One article I read broke it down into three familiar areas:
"The first reaction is one of persistence. People who suffer from imposter syndrome often work especially hard to avoid being found out. The second reaction is avoidance. Imposters will not talk about their own thoughts or feelings in an attempt to avoid conflict. The third reaction is related to garnering approval. Imposters will go to extremes to earn approval from others." (link)
This got me thinking, the Imposter Syndrome definition is very similar to that of the black experience at work. Or at least what many people of colour have historically been told. Reaction one, persistence; from as long as I can remember, my strong and brave West Indian grandmother, aunties and uncles have shared the old adage that "black people must work twice as hard. Harder than our white counterparts" for fear of being singled out and becoming 'the excuse' to be relieved of our duties.
'It’s worth discussing Black Imposter Syndrome because, like modern feminism, I think we – people of colour – are being left out of the conversation'
Second reaction, avoidance; again, my Nan would never have advised me to disagree with my boss even if it was for the greater good. "Just stay steady, why rock the boat?" This is understandable as it came from someone who was 'invited' to this country like many others in the 50s and 60s and took on menial jobs they were often greatly overqualified for, but would be made to feel grateful for as this was their ticket to a better life. A better life in the blistering cold and the not so occasional racist encounters, but I digress.
Thirdly, garnering approval and going to extreme lengths to get it. This harks back to the days of slavery, if you could be seen as good and did everything in your power to appease your master, you may be treated slightly better or deemed as worthy and this is a mentality that has trickled down to today. Where before, we never had a look at the table, let alone a seat at it (thank you Solange), now we have made some strides, we need to carry on this momentum and seek reassurance and validation from those in a position of power. And how best to do that than by constantly gaining validation for being better than the next person, no matter the personal cost?
It’s worth discussing Black Imposter Syndrome because, like modern feminism, I think we – people of colour – are being left out of the conversation, a conversation that we can bring our own unique standpoint to. Where so much is put on the importance of feminism and the issues it seeks to eradicate or illuminate, like Imposter syndrome, these issues are often seen through the lens of the white female experience, which is presumed universal but in reality proves to be more polarising and divisive. Take a second to imagine feeling like a fraud and looking around you and seeing no one else that remotely favours you, you almost have a responsibility to suck it up and get on with it as you may be paving the way for others... what pressure. Then if we take the issues away from the workplace and look at the wider world, think about what it means to be an ambitious black British female in a political atmosphere that shows you the space you occupy is tenuous at best.
I won't say I have all or even any of the answers but what I will say is there is hope. Like many illnesses, it's about the prevention and not the cure, as I don't believe there is one. However, I would like to share some of the things that have helped me overcome BIS or at least better manage my feelings.
Appreciating the big and small wins. I practice self-gratification, every time I achieve something or generally get sh*t done, I own that moment and tick it off my list.
Representation. I look at great examples around me, be it family and friends or public figures and celebrities. People that are unapologetically themselves even if it only looks like that from the outside. I look at them not from a place of wanting to be them but of examples of it can be done. Talent comes in all shapes, colours and sizes and the route to these successes may not be well worn or traditional but they are there.
Follow the Growth mentality. Looking at each scenario, problem or win and working out what I can take from it. What could I do differently next time or how can I build on my successes? This is a great way to evaluate a situation without unnecessary dwelling and a way to move on.
So in closing, I find myself with one question - is Black Imposter Syndrome an oxymoron? I'd argue it doesn't have to be.
Caryn Coley is an advertising and communication specialist and lover of all things awkward.
Header image courtesy of: @A_Collage