How Your Identity Impacts Impostor Syndrome

A flower growing out of rock to represent impostor syndrome.

Have you ever felt like you must wear an uncomfortable, ill-fitting disguise to fit into certain environments because no one would accept you as you really are? This is how I would describe the sensation of impostor syndrome. And, although everyone has felt this way at one point or another, for those whose gender, ethnic, or racial identity differs from the majority it’s an everyday occurrence. 

Impostor syndrome is a phenomenon where individuals fear that they’re not as capable as people believe they are, regardless of evidence to the contrary. Your identity can magnify impostor syndrome, especially if you’re from an underrepresented and marginalized community. You feel forced to assimilate or risk exclusion from a group of people, usually the dominant culture. As a result, you feel like a fraud because you’ve assumed a persona to minimize the characteristics that make you feel like an outsider. Some refer to this phenomenon as identity, gender-based, or racial impostor syndrome. 

This crippling sensation that you must disguise yourself to fit in can be a tremendous roadblock in your quest to achieve your goals. So in this post, we’ll explore how our intersectional lens (the way we view the world, which is shaped by intersecting social, familial, and cultural factors) exacerbates impostor syndrome, gets in our way, and what we can do about it. 

How Impostor Syndrome Affects Our Sense of Belonging and Worth

As a mixed-race child growing up in Okinawa, one of my favorite times of the year was summer, when festivals took place across the island. Every year, I would badger my parents into buying me one of the popular and overpriced plastic masks featuring the animated character of the season. And every year, I’d wear that mask for 10 minutes before tearing it off in frustration. The holes never lined up properly and the plastic muffled my voice. I wanted the mask because I thought it would help me fit in. Instead, it made me feel like I was suffocating because it constrained who I was as an individual.

I see a similar type of suffocation happening with my multicultural clients as they navigate their professional careers. These beautiful, brilliant people often seek my assistance in the hopes that I will help them create a leadership mask. They feel incredibly fortunate to be a part of their organization and wish to mold themselves into what the organization wants because that’s what they think is necessary to fit in and be successful.

Masks to represent how it feels to have impostor syndrome.

What they don’t realize, however, is that the price of that mask is extraordinarily high – to them and their organization because it leads to code-switching and the suppression of innovative ideas.

In today’s world, an organization’s survival depends on its ability to find new ways of approaching challenges, or new uses for its products and services. Organizations need leaders who can see a challenge through a broader lens and who can help their teams navigate uncertain and complex situations. In other words, your unique perspective and ability to be authentic as a multicultural leader is exactly what organizations want. 

Your unique perspective is your superpower. If you can lead with authenticity, you not only change perceptions in the moment and drive success, but you make it easier for aspiring leaders to feel safe being inclusive and authentic themselves. So, organizations need leaders who are willing to risk being their amazing, authentic selves to fuel growth.

Removing the Mask: How to Reject Impostor Syndrome and Reclaim Your Power

Returning to our original question, do you feel like you need an emotional mask to survive in your environment? If the answer is yes, take a few minutes to reflect on the following questions:

  • Where is this message coming from?
    Is it primarily coming from within? Are these signals you’re getting from the organization? Or both?  
    • If it’s coming from within, try to remember any other situations where these messages have emerged to influence your behavior and decision-making. 
    • If it is coming from the organization, determine if someone said something or if the messages were unspoken. Then, consider how those messages have been impacting your behavior.
  • What are some truths about these messages?
    Sometimes, the messages we receive spark strong emotions because there’s an element of truth about them. They trigger something deep in our subconscious mind, which gives them power. So we must examine and challenge the assumptions behind these messages or they will continue to influence us.

  • What does authenticity look like for you?
    What values and behaviors are important to you, what provides you with a sense of passion and purpose, and how do you want people to perceive you?

  • After examining these assumptions, ask if there is another narrative that you can create for yourself? 
    • Define your narrative – What is a new way of viewing yourself that better aligns with who you really are? Be clear about how that aligns with the authenticity that you’re creating for yourself.
    • What is the truth in this new narrative? Just as impostor syndrome can grip us emotionally because there’s an element of truth to it, aligning with our authentic selves can help us see a new set of truths. These newfound truths are the seeds of the confidence we’re building. Pay attention to and nurture them. Soon enough, your confidence will grow.

I realize this can be a lot to take on alone. For more perspective, consider the following example of how this played out with one of my clients.

Identity and Impostor Syndrome in Action

Person with arms in the air to illustrate changing the narrative behind impostor syndrome.

Maya was the first in her family to complete university. As a child of immigrant parents, she received the message that getting ahead in America was all about working hard and making the “right” choices. In her case, finish school, do good work for a well-known organization, and you will be successful (i.e. capable of making a decent living).

Maya came to me in search of coaching because her manager had identified her as an emerging leader and had promoted her into a leadership role. For many people, this would have been thrilling, but Maya was uncomfortable because she attributed her achievements to a series of flukes, which left her feeling unsettled. She wanted to learn the “right way to be a leader.” 

As we began our work together, Maya said she thought her promotion was the result of her ability to execute another person’s ideas. In her new role, however, she was responsible for setting the strategic direction for the team. As she described it, the problem was that she had no right to be in this role. She felt that her achievements were entirely due to being able to interpret and carry out her manager’s orders. She feared that once she began to share her “crazy ideas,” the organization would catch on that she was a fraud. 

I asked Maya to share some of her ideas with me and they were brilliant! They weren’t crazy at all. In fact, she was off-the-charts brilliant, but because she had always seen herself as an outsider, she couldn’t own that perspective. 

So, we changed the narrative together. Instead of putting on a mask and becoming someone else’s version of a leader, we defined the values and traits Maya wanted to demonstrate and develop throughout her career as a leader. Then we determined the steps she would need to take to socialize her brilliant ideas. In the course of our sessions together, we both witnessed an emerging sense of clarity and confidence. Over time, Maya became a new, more relaxed person and felt excited to take on a leadership role. 

The Bottom Line

Changing the narrative on impostor syndrome isn’t for the faint of heart, but it’s well worth the effort because it will help you find a greater sense of worth, belonging, and purpose. Find someone you trust who believes in you and your capabilities and ask them to help you challenge your thinking by going through the questions I presented. You may find my free download on “Identifying Your Cultural Contributors” helpful as well. And as always, you’re welcome to contact me directly with any questions.

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About the Author

Picture of Victoria Shiroma Wilson, Ed.D., P.C.C.

Victoria Shiroma Wilson, Ed.D., P.C.C.

Victoria Shiroma Wilson, Ed.D., P.C.C., is the founder of Exceptional Futures, a provider of frameworks that help people tap into the power of their cultural identities to answer some of life’s biggest questions. Victoria is on the teaching faculty at Duke University and earned her doctoral degree in Global Leadership from the University of Southern California, a master’s degree in Psychology from Santa Clara University, and a master’s degree in Asian Studies from the University of Pennsylvania.

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