The Center for Community Capital on occasion publishes blog posts written by CCC Graduate Fellows. This post, written by Janel Burns (MSW 2020), is a reflection on how impostor syndrome can be a major barrier to academic and professional success for many, but especially for women and people of color.
I don’t know about your inner voice, but mine tells a lot of lies.
“Not good enough.” “Poser.” “You’re deceiving them, and when they find out who you really are, they’ll think you lied to them, and will hate you, and you will deserve it.”
Does this sound a little over the top? Maybe. But my inner voice sounds exactly like me, and so I feel like it must be telling the truth. Why would I lie to me?
Yes, a healthy dose of perspective and pep talks can stave off the negativity for a while. And over time, as my confidence builds and I acquire more ‘wins’ under my belt, the inner voice expressing my ineptitude quiets down to a dull murmur. But it’s still down there, waiting to speak up again during performance evaluations or exam week.
Over the past two years, since beginning my graduate studies at UNC, I’ve learned that this kind of lie, about not being good enough for whatever I find myself doing or whomever I find myself with, has both a name and a boatload of statistics that demystify it and remind me that many — maybe even most — of us experience this inner fear.
Imposter Syndrome, a form of “intellectual self-doubt,” was first defined in the 1970s by psychologists who initially believed it only affected women. It does seem to disproportionately affect those of us who have been taught, implicitly or explicitly, that our achievements aren’t good enough, or that we don’t measure up: women and people of color in a white- and male-dominated society. It can also affect those of us who are beginning something new, and are therefore more tempted to fixate on how much everyone else seems to know and how little we know.
A couple of years ago, I started over. That’s nothing impressive in itself — we millennials start over frequently. But this time was different. This time, I was a mother, and had been out of the working world for several years.
I had decided to go back to graduate school to ‘become a counselor’ before I found out I was pregnant with my first child. A few years later and 800 miles away, I finally found myself in a large auditorium at the UNC School of Social Work, with two young daughters at home, little to no experience in social work, and a hefty dose of “Why did they let me in here?” in my mind to keep me company. All I knew was how little I knew. All I felt was a lack of confidence, which could isolate me and hinder me if I let it.
What I learned in that auditorium is that I was in good company. The speakers welcoming us to the School actually addressed imposter syndrome by name, and ripples of recognition and relief spread through the audience. My cohort talked about it tentatively — how we each thought UNC had made a mistake in admitting us; how we thought they would change their minds and regret their decision; how we feared we wouldn’t make it through the program because we didn’t have what it would take.
But I have a long history to look back on and remind myself of my tenacity, success, and resilience. I remembered experiences in high school, undergrad, my first few jobs, and in becoming a mother: I knew I could learn what I did not know. I reminded myself it is okay to be the one asking questions. I can also encourage others to reject the feelings of inadequacy and instead embrace the opportunity to grow, even by publicly asking for help when I need it.
I’ve learned that it is better to struggle with questions of doubt from a place of humility than live with undeserved and unearned confidence in nonexistent skills, oblivious to the areas where I can grow and develop. I’d rather know what I don’t know. At least this way, I’m looking for blind spots and open to change. (The opposite of imposter syndrome, the Dunning–Kruger effect, a cognitive bias that involves the illusion of superiority, is certainly not a better alternative.)
I’ve also learned that feeling inadequate does not have to mean acting inadequately. I can project confidence and friendliness even when I am feeling anxious or unsure. I can convince myself of my capability while convincing others of my competence. Competence does come, with time and with help, and the miracle to be experienced is feeling stronger because of acting confidently.
Next year it will be time to start again, with a degree in Social Work from UNC, a growing family, and plenty of questions about the future. I do know two things for certain. First, in looking for and taking the plunge into the next step, my inner voice will tell me that I don’t belong and that I am not good enough. Second, this time I will be wise enough not to listen.
Janel Burns is a candidate for a Master’s in Social Work from the University of North Carolina. She was a 2018-2019 Graduate Fellow at the Center for Community Capital, where she worked on research about abusive debt collection practices with the Center for Responsible Lending in Durham. She will serve as the CCC Senior Graduate Fellow for the 2019-2020 academic year, and complete her specialization practicum with the Center for Responsible Lending’s state policy team.