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Feeling like an “Imposter” in A Familiar Place

February 1, 2019 Michelle Pickett

In Renique's Words

 Brittany Cooper, in her recent book, “Eloquent Rage”, shared that “Black women are simultaneously hyper visible and invisible”.  This sense of being under a spotlight, yet simultaneously absent can result in a continuous internal battle.  Michelle Obama highlights this in, “Becoming”, where she provides thought provoking insights into her own internal questioning.  She recounts flowing in and out of a state of worrying whether she was good enough noting that “failure is a feeling long before it’s an actual result”.  Researchers Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes first identified this feeling as the “imposter phenomenon”.  They assert that the effects of this hyper self-evaluative state can lead to a persistent and pervasive state of internal questioning that is most often seen in high-achieving women.  The feeling of being an imposter can result in downplaying success attributing it to chance rather than competence, discounting our abilities and fearing failure. It is generally a symptom of some other circumstance like  family history, an environmental experience or a persistent external or internalized message. For many Black women, this feeling can be a common one particularly when managing the pervasive messages associated with experiences of intersectionality.  The following sections highlight three women’s experiences with “imposter syndrome” felt even in familiar places. It suggests the need for us to continue to encourage one another and acknowledge the coexistence of hypervisibility and invisibility in our daily lives.

 In Michelle’s Words

 Developing within a familiar organization can be both positive and negative.  At times, familiarity can breed stagnation. How do you continue to challenge yourself to ensure you do not feel like you are playing “dress-up” in a familiar, professional environment?  How do you speak your own voice in a place where it was developed? As a young, Black, professional woman, I found myself asking these questions. Through self-reflection and mentorship, I began to understand that I needed to continue to challenge myself by constantly setting goals that foster my professional growth and development.  Doing this helped me to not become complacent and feel invisible.

My spirituality is a place of refuge, strength and encouragement.  Throughout my career, I am often reminded of the parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14-29), which implores me to use my God-given talents fearlessly, not keeping them hidden.  This parable moves me to strengthen my self-perspective, minimizing negative self-talk. Furthermore, I have discovered different talents, that I was not aware I possessed. The more I practiced this, the more I am reminded of my own strength and ingenuity.

There will always be particular experiences, environments or perceptions that may cause you to have an inaccurate self-perception; hence feeling like an “imposter”.  Nevertheless, reminding yourself of who you really are by respecting your own uniqueness while recognizing your talents, skills and abilities allows you to appreciate and honor yourself.

 In Gena’s Words

 What do you do when others make a concerted effort to convince you that you are an imposter? As Michelle Obama left the role she held for eight years she said, “Do not ever let anyone make you feel like you don’t matter…you have a right to be exactly who you are”. But when your colleagues equate your identity with your role, and question your fit, it causes you to doubt whether you belong.

Student affairs offers opportunities for us, as practitioners, to impact students’ lives through roles that can be deeply personal. Many student affairs professionals are hired with minimal input from students and it is upon first interactions that our legitimacy is either solidified or questioned. Culturally-based positions raise the stakes of this process as for some, our identities can count as much as our education, experience and training.

“Is this your first year as a Director? You look awfully young to have this role,” said a parent after a tour. “How does it feel to be Latino and Director of a Black Studies center,” asked a student. “What do you know about Black culture,” asked a pair of students simultaneously wanting independence and guidance around social activism and protest activity. These questions were posed despite my fourteen years in Director roles, multiple degrees centered around culture, politics, and higher education policy, and my Black racial identity. Although institutional leaders lauded my efforts and I was asked to both present and publish on culture and leadership, these statements disregarded my personal accomplishments and made me question my own abilities.

The question however is not what made me feel like I wasn’t able, the question is how I began to feel like I was. First, I realized that each of the people who questioned me lacked understanding of exactly who I was. I am the expert on my experience. Those that selected me had the opportunity to learn my accomplishments and question my background prior to hiring me. My cultural identity resulted from my own development process and I did not owe anyone an explanation of my cultural knowledge and professionalism. In fact, my ability to perform my job well while being questioned only further supports my legitimacy. Once I could recognize that I was the real thing, I no longer felt like an imposter.  

 In Vernese’s Words

 I am a Black woman with a doctorate and bachelor’s in Sociology and a Masters in College Counseling. I am a product of public schools and a seasoned senior leader. I have held leadership positions from director to Provost at both two- and four-year colleges.  I develop and set policies, lead teams, and set visionary goals and objectives that influence institutional progress, change and culture. I have learned, however, that despite the love and passion I have for my work, and the opportunity to advance, I struggle with being labeled an “imposter”. At times, I worry that people will question my legitimacy even though I have the education, wisdom and skill to do the job.

I believe this imposter syndrome started when I was in elementary school. I can remember my mother advocating for me to be in higher level courses.  When I entered these courses, I felt like I was there more because of her advocacy than because of my aptitude. It was not until I was 39, pursing my doctorate in Sociology at Howard University, that I began to realize how positive affirmations were paramount to my success, sense of confidence and belonging within a scholarly community. For the first time in my life, a professor told me that I was smart. The simultaneous shock and jolt of confidence was amazing. Other than my parents, no one had ever said this to me before.  I finally felt confident and comfortable as a scholar.

Prior to attending Howard, I tried not to let imposter syndrome deflate my determination to be an engaged student or my desire to seek out leadership roles as a student or professional. On the outside, I was confident and I assured myself that I earned my rightful place in the classroom or at the senior leadership table. After more than 30 years of professional experience, I still have moments when I feel like an imposter. When these feelings arise, and they will, this is what I do and I recommend you do the same:

-Remember, you are not the only one who thinks they are an imposter.

-Remind yourself of your successes.

-Remember the positive messages you have received.

-Surround yourself by a positive and honest network of colleagues.

-Don’t get stuck on the failures and challenges you experience, they make you stronger and don’t define you.

About the authors:

 Renique Kersh, Ph.D., has been a scholar and practitioner in the field of higher education for 19 years. Dr. Kersh has had a diverse career with experience as a practitioner in the areas of college student retention, leadership education and college student success and engagement.  Dr. Kersh currently serves as Associate Vice Provost for Student Engagement and Success at Northern Illinois University.  Her research interests include student engagement and success and women in leadership in higher education.

 Michelle Pickett is the Director of the Academic Advising Center at Northern Illinois University.  During her tenure in higher education, she has served in the areas of recruitment, advising, retention, student success and assessment.  Her research areas include advising, first-generation college students, women in higher education and student success.

 Dr. Vernese Edghill-Walden joined Northern Illinois University in 2015 as the chief diversity officer and senior associate vice president for academic diversity. Dr. Edghill-Walden holds a bachelor’s degree from Bucknell University in sociology, a master’s degree from the University of Delaware in higher education administration, and a Ph.D. in sociology with a specialization in race, class and gender, social inequalities and urban sociology from Howard University. Dr. Edghill-Walden’s area of research is race and gender equity and black women’s career mobility, specifically in higher education.

 Gena Brooks Flynn, EdD, is Associate Dean for Student Affairs in the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her alma maters include DePaul University (BA), University of Michigan (MA), and the Peabody College at Vanderbilt University (EdD). Having been a Black, first-generation college student, her professional interests include retention, culturally-relevant programming, and institutional policy.