True Life: I’m Insecure About My Successes


By Alicia of

I’ve been teaching now for six years.  I’ve been married for five.  I’ve been a mommy for two.  And for all this, I’ve got plenty to show.  I’ve got: letters from pleased parents and thank-you cards from former students, awards for teaching excellence, a husband who brags about me, and a healthy, rambunctious, and beautiful daughter.

So why, oh why do I feel like such a fake?

Let me tell you: If I receive criticism from an administrator, my day is shot.  If my parents correct my child’s behavior, I immediately feel all of my mommy confidence melt away.  Then I begin to doubt everything I’ve ever accomplished.  Maybe all of those successes were a series of “mistakes” made on the part of my superiors.  Surely getting a lead role in a high school play was simply because the director liked me.  Of course I only got that Teacher of the Year award because of the small pool of candidates.  In fact, for a good while, I found that the more success I had, the more I began to doubt myself.  When I was rejected for a fellowship, I began to wonder if maybe I didn’t even deserve the Master’s degree I’d “earned”.  Perhaps someone pulled strings for me!  Perhaps I only got in because of affirmative action!  Perhaps I just caught a nice reviewer on a good day…  In fact, any “failure” I encountered immediately called into question every “success” I’d ever had.

Over time, my self-doubt waxed and my self-assurance waned.  And I probably would have continued on this way had it not been for my mother.  One night, she called to tell me that she’d read an interesting article in Emerging RN Leader on “Impostor Syndrome in Nursing Leadership”.  Though I’d never heard of it, impostor syndrome, also called the impostor phenomenon, was a term first coined by Drs. Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes back in 1978 when they, themselves, were feeling like fraudulent grad students.  In an article entitled “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention” they discuss how societal standards lead many women – successful, intelligent, women – to feel like phonies.

Self-declared impostors fear that eventually some significant person will discover that they are indeed intellectual impostors. One women [sic] stated, “I was convinced that I would be discovered as a phony when I took my comprehensive doctoral examination. I thought the final test had come. In one way, I was somewhat relieved at this prospect because the pretense would finally be over. I was shocked when my chairman told me that my answers were excellent and that my paper was one of the best he had seen in his entire career.” (Clance and Imes, 1978, p. 2)

Though those thriving women might have oozed coolness and poise, they constantly worried that one of the “higher ups” (a boss or a professor) would discover that the person they’d hired (or admitted as the case may be) was utterly incapable.  These women felt like they were impostors.  And while many people can “fake it” until they “make it”, a person suffering from impostor syndrome, despite how much experience or success she has had, never feels like she can quit faking it.

Impostor syndrome has been found to affect women more than men.  Women generally attribute their success to luck or ease of task, while many men attribute success to hard work.  Clance and Imes theorize that growing up in a society that repeatedly tells women that they are, or at least should be, academically or professionally less capable than men is partially to blame.

If this internalized message hits women hard, it is especially salient for Black women.  In a recent paper, “The Imposter Phenomenon Among African American Women in U.S. Institutions of Higher Education: Implications for Counseling”, Dr. Frances K. Trotman, a professor of Psychological Counseling at Monmouth University, discusses just how difficult  IP can be for Black women in the United States – who have to deal with being treated as inferiors not only because of their gender, but also because of their race.

One’s self-concept must be affected and self-esteem is likely to suffer as a result of such damaging appraisals by the society into which the black girl child is born. The effects of the imposter phenomenon are particularly virulent for those African American women who have chosen careers in higher education. (Trotman, 2009, p.78)

But this isn’t just a problem for women in higher education – as women in all fields, especially those traditionally dominated by men, can face this hurdle.

“Is this me?” I asked myself.  I had to know.  So, I took the test offered by Dr. Clance on her website.

In a word: Yup.

In a few words: I got it bad.  I exhibit all the classic signs of having impostor syndrome.  I’m not an impostor, yet here I find myself, day in and day out afraid that someone will discover that I really don’t know anything about what I am doing.  Someone will find out that I’m really an appalling mommy (I have very little patience with my toddler), a terrible teacher (there are so many things I forget to do), a crummy cook (I’m sure that my inability to balance meals properly is what has led to my weight gain), and the worst wife a husband could ever want (I mean, besides being so needy there’s the fact that I never remember to do laundry…).

So, what to do?  Must I wallow in self-pity for eternity?  Am I to languish in some dark corner of my bedroom, plagued by the constant fear that I am not good enough – and that I never will be?

No.  I refuse.  For a couple of reasons.  1. I’m pretty sure that my husband is getting tired of finding different ways of saying the same things “You’re pretty, you’re smart, I like you, you’re doing a great job…”  And… 2. (And more importantly) I’m sure that I want my child to see a mom who is confident in herself, and not just pretending to be.

Certainly, having a name for the way that I’m feeling, and knowing that I’m not entirely alone in has helped.  But there are a few things that fellow impostors can do to combat this phenomenon.

  • Be reasonable.  By this I mean that we, as women, especially those of us trying to live up to the stereotype of the “Strong, Black Women” have a tendency to feel like if we aren’t doing it all, then we aren’t doing enough.  That’s simply not the case.

  • Go for it!  Ben Franklin once said “Hide not your talents, they for use were made.  What’s a sundial in the shade?”  Sure, we need to set reasonable expectations for ourselves (it may take a few more years before I’m able to afford that mansion and private school) – but we also to take a few chances.  Sometimes, when a chick feels like a fraud, she declines to speak at conferences, or lead professional development because she’s not sure that she’s good enough for the position she’s in.  And according to The Economist, many women won’t even apply for a job if they’re not 100% sure they meet all the prerequisites, unlike our male counterparts.  Take those talents out of the shade, ladies.

  • Get a mentor.  And make sure that you get a mentor you can trust – someone who can tell you when you’re doing great, and someone who can tell you when you’re just not right.  And then, and this is perhaps the hardest part, you’ve got to trust that when your mentor tells you you’re doing well, you’re actually doing well.  Or heck, try being a mentor.  Many of us are much better at telling someone else what they’re doing right, than accepting that someone else thinks we are.  And perhaps, just perhaps, telling someone else that they’re doing a good job, even when they think they’re not, might rub off on you.

  • You Better Recognize.  Realize that other people out there feel like impostors, too.  In an article for Psychology Today (2009), Santoshi Kanazawa writes about the many successful women who feel like frauds.  Women like Dr. Margaret Chan who like, totally handled the Swine Flu Epidemic and is the chief of the World Health Organization.  Even she feels like her success with H1N1 is all due to a stroke of luck.  Though she travels the world giving speeches, she still doesn’t feel like she deserves to wear the title of “expert”.

  • Finally, and this is one I’ve had to meditate on the hardest: Failure is okay – it helps you grow.  Failing at a task does not define you as a failure.  And though focusing on the positive instead of the negative might sound easy, this is what I’m going to have to spend my time working on.  At the end of the day I replay all of the “bad” things I’ve done.  The things I’ve eaten that I shouldn’t have.  The kids I’ve yelled at.  The parenting I could have done better.  The papers I haven’t graded.  When I get an evaluation, I immediately look for the low scores or the criticisms, allowing my eyes to float over the positive words on the paper.

  • Now that I know that there are others out there like me, now that I know I’m not alone, perhaps I’ll be able to take my own advice.  Perhaps I’ll learn to quit internalizing societal dictates about my value, my worth, and my beauty, and I’ll be able to define myself.  And as far as focusing on fixing the bad has gotten me, who knows where I would be had I broken free of self-doubt?  Now that I know, perhaps I’ll kick the habit in enough time to become the woman I want my kid to see me being.