In an excerpt from ‘Free to Soar: Race and Wellbeing in Organisations’, a new book edited by TJ contributor Binna Kandola, psychologists Guilaine Kinouani and Ruri Proto look at the intersection of race, mental health, wellbeing and impostor syndrome.
Impostor syndrome, internalised racism and mental health
Consequences of internalised racism extend beyond the workplace, and they are particularly negative when internalised racism intersects with impostor syndrome. Discrimination and impostor syndrome are both predictors of poor mental health (i.e. anxiety and depression) (Austin et al. 2009, Peteet et al. 2015a, 2015b).
However, research shows that discrimination increases one’s susceptibility to impostor syndrome (Cokley et al. 2013, McClain et al. 2016).
Despite this, impostor syndrome appears to be a stronger predictor of poor mental health than minority status stress (i.e. discrimination, stereotype-related stress) (Cokley et al. 2013), even after accounting for the protective effect of a positive racial/ethnic identity (McClain et al. 2016). Therefore, minority status stress has a negative effect on mental health, but impostor syndrome has an even stronger effect.
This might be because the minority status stressors are external events subject to internal interpretation, whereas impostor syndrome is an already internalised belief that one is incompetent.
Although individuals’ mental health can be affected by stereotypes and discriminatory comments, once these have been accepted as true for oneself and a part of one’s identity, their effect on mental health is considerably stronger.
Impostor syndrome and marginalisation
Impostor syndrome disproportionately affects employees from marginalised groups. It is worth noting that individuals experience impostor syndrome in different ways, depending on the nature of the stereotypes associated with their particular ethnic group.
Achieving a level of success deemed incompatible with what stereotypes describe creates doubt as to whether one is worthy of achievement
For example, McGee (2018) found that Black students tend to fear they will confirm stereotypes of intellectual inferiority, so work hard to defy them. However, they have been found to reject positive feedback, believing others have low expectations of them because of those stereotypes (Stone et al. 2018).
Conversely, Asian individuals tend to fear they will fail to confirm positive stereotypes of intellectual superiority, and thus discount any good performance that is short of exceptional (McGee 2018). While both groups exhibit behaviours associated with impostor syndrome, their experiences of impostor syndrome can be qualitatively different.
Although different, these experiences are similar in that they relate one’s personal success in relation to stereotypical views of one’s ethnic group. Achieving a level of success deemed incompatible with what stereotypes describe creates doubt as to whether one is worthy of achievement, or the belief that one’s success may be accidental or precarious, to be taken away at any point.
This is common across racial groups, with research showing that different minority groups all experience impostor syndrome (Armenta et al. 2013, Chen et al. 2014, Cokley et al. 2017).
It is clear that we internalise social discourses, hierarchical social configurations and their associated prejudices, and racial constructions which can create or intersect with impostor feelings.
Practising ways to resist and combat the internalisation and impact of the same is likely to have numerous benefits for the workplace in terms of employees’ wellbeing, engagement and achievement. Experience of impostor syndrome in people of colour is once more socially located and fed by the reality of racism and race (and gendered) race inequalities.
While tools to combat racism and race inequalities are widely available, there is limited accessible information on how to support individuals who may be experiencing internalised racism and/or racialised impostor syndrome.
This part of the chapter proposes practical strategies and activities to help shift possible negative racial self-concept, increase a sense of belonging, and build confidence. An important reminder at this juncture is that people can struggle with impostor syndrome and internalised racism, whatever their achievements or their organisational context.
For these reasons, we focus here at an individual level.
Building ethnic identity strength
Individuals with positive ethnic or racial identities celebrate the uniqueness of their ethnicity while adopting a holistic view of what it means to be human. Racial identity refers to an individual’s recognition of the lived experience of belonging to a minority group (Sellers et al. 1998).
Ethnic identity also means a sense of belonging and commitment to an ethnic group, combined with a desire to explore the cultural aspects of that group (Phinney 1992). Those with a positive identity have been found to have higher self-esteem and cope better with the negative effects of discrimination (Hope et al. 2013, Umaña-Taylor & Updegraff 2007).
Positive racial and ethnic identities are therefore a source of resilience and can help us combat race-based impostor syndrome.
African American students who report positive feelings about African Americans and their membership of this ethnic group are less likely to experience impostor syndrome (Bernard et al. 2018, McClain et al. 2016, Peteet et al. 2015b) due to their close association of race with self-esteem (Lige et al. 2017).
These findings suggest that positive racial and ethnic identities protect minority ethnic individuals against impostor feelings, through their association with high self-esteem.
Building ethnic or identity strength includes making a conscious effort to connect with one’s ancestry and history, learning about the contributions one’s ancestors made to society, and actively seeking to re evaluate or assess them through a more critical and decolonial lens.
Being open about unhelpful or racialised cultural norms that may be reproduced in the workplace, and how these inferiorise those from other cultural backgrounds, may also be necessary.
Mindfulness is a state of consciousness in which one maintains complete awareness of their own feelings, thoughts and sensations, to reflect upon them in a nonjudgemental way (Shapiro et al. 2006).
The first step in addressing racialised impostor syndrome is to acknowledge its existence, both as a phenomenon and within ourselves, and to be more mindful of our experiential world. Mindfulness simply means observing or noticing non-judgementally our thoughts and feelings without engaging with them.
Intrusive or automatic negative thoughts are common and may take the form of a running commentary or critical comments about one’s performance or about the workplace e.g. ‘I will never be accepted here’, ‘I can’t let my guard down’, ‘I am going to be an embarrassment to my race/community’.
The point of acknowledging this experience is twofold. First, it helps us normalise racialised struggles rather than reverting to harsher narratives of not being enough or being inferior or being weird. Second, it involves gaining the ability to introduce some distance between what we experience and what we choose to do with it.
If we learn to observe the world from a distance, we can regain the ability to simply see, note and, perhaps, let go of the urge to engage and respond as we usually do. Learning to say, ‘What am I feeling in this moment?’ and adopting a more curious and reflective stance to possible racialised experiences will help us to contextualise and formulate them.
Increasing confidence and self-esteem
Impostor syndrome appears to indicate a more general pattern of poor self-belief, evidenced by its close empirical association with poor self-esteem. Self-esteem denotes ‘an individual’s subjective evaluation of his or her worth as a person’ (Orth & Robins 2014, p. 381).
Schubert and Bowker (2017) found that individuals with low self-esteem were most vulnerable to impostor syndrome, followed by individuals with high, yet unstable, self-esteem. Individuals with high, stable self-esteem were the least likely to experience impostor syndrome.
Therefore, groups that display any propensity to experience low self-esteem are susceptible to impostor syndrome. Since minority ethnic individuals are the target of minority status stressors (i.e. discrimination, stereotype-related stress), it is not surprising that they often report low self esteem (Chen & Graham 2018), which puts them at risk of developing impostor syndrome.
Increasing confidence must be firmly centred on fostering a sense of belonging or a sense of home. Central to this is fostering feelings of worth, which will strengthen the belief that one has value, skills and experience to add to any situation.
This can be achieved through, for example, carrying out several exercises, including listing accomplishments, regularly updating CVs, carrying a list of the skills and positive qualities one uses to contribute to the workplace.
Visualising belonging and regularly being exposed to one’s achievements, accomplishments and skills will help people to build confidence and develop a sense of self-assurance.
About the authors
Guilaine Kinouani is an Adjunct Professor of Critical Psychology at Syracuse University, New York and Ruri Proto has recently completed a BSc (Hons) business psychology degree at Loughborough University and plans to study psychological research methods with data science MSc at Sheffield University. Get your copy of their book here.