When I’m invited to deliver a keynote speech, one of my first steps is reading Maya Angelou quotes. I’m not quite sure when that started but it is now very much a part of my current creative process. My reading choices have always been non-fiction and educational texts. Honestly, I was introduced to Maya Angelou’s work by force. Despite my initial lack of enthusiasm to read her work, her words resonated with me. And still, today, when I pick up one of her poetry books, her words click. And now, I think I know why.
I am involved in a long time battle with Imposter Syndrome. After struggling internally since my teenage years, I was finally able to put a name to how I view myself and my accomplishments. Maya Angelou has been quoted as saying, “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody and they’re going to find me out.” This quote pretty much sums up how I feel after every accomplishment in my life, big or small.
Impostor syndrome is a concept describing high-achieving individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.
“I have been at probably every powerful table that you can think of, I have worked at nonprofits, I have been at foundations, I have worked in corporations, served on corporate boards, I have been at G-summits, I have sat in at the U.N.: They are not that smart.”Michelle Obama
The term was coined in 1978 by clinical psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes. Despite external evidence of their competence, those exhibiting the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be. Some studies suggest that impostor syndrome is particularly common among high-achieving women. I will personally take it a step further by saying that it’s especially common among high-achieving black women who are often one of few in white dominated spaces.
Even the definition of imposter syndrome makes me uncomfortable. When reading phrases like “high-achieving women” and “intelligent & competent”, I’m thinking to myself, I’m neither competent nor high-achieving. I can’t even read an explanation of imposter syndrome without doubting myself. Basically, I’ve got it bad.
Writing my book was surprisingly easy. I had the ideas brewing in me for years just waiting to be inked for other to read. Then, it was time to turn over the book to the proofreader, then the content editor, then the copy editor. And each time I had this irrational fear that the editor would return my work and accuse me of plagiarism. My book has received it final edit and is ready for publishing. Now my irrational thought is telling me that people will simply hate the work and my feeling of being a fraud will be substantiated.
After discussing my struggles with awesome therapist, she helped me acknowledge that imposter syndrome doesn’t randomly occur in us. It’s often a result of the messages we received intentionally or unintentionally. These messages can be from those with direct access to us or by internalized societal narratives. For example, I remember my second semester of my first grad program. I had successfully completed my undergrad program and received numerous recognitions for my writing and research in the psychology department. My class was assigned a short writing assignment that was due on a day I was schedule to travel. I completed the assignment and asked a classmate to turn it in for me, which is did. When I returned, I found myself pulled in front of the ethics committee and accused of plagiarizing my classmates work. When she was given the opportunity to defend herself, she ranted about her parents having doctorate degrees and being respected professors. She talked about how she had graduated from and Ivy League undergrad institution and had no motivations to steal me work. After hearing both students, according to the ethics committee, clearly, I was one who plagiarized.
I remember crying to my current boyfriend and instead of joining in my anger he looked me in the eye and asked “Well…did you copy her?” I was already struggling for years but I think that was the nail in the coffin that sent me into my shell for years to follow. Every now and then I would pop my head out and do a panel discussion, join a research team, or jump on a podcast. But I was utterly convinced that my intelligence was nonexistent and that my wins were all flukes. This happened in 2008, and it took numerous starts and stops before I finally earned my master’s degree in 2020. Yes….my imposter syndrome ran deep for years. Now I am pursuing a doctorate degree, publishing my first book, and writing for some awesome blog sites.
“The logical, non-emotional side of my brain knows that through this whole journey we call life, no matter what happens, I will have succeeded.”
Finding out that Maya Angelou also suffered from imposter syndrome not only makes me sad, but also gives me hope. There has also been a recent acknowledgement and push back from black women who have shared similar experiences. Michelle Obama has shared a valuable secret: “I have been at probably every powerful table that you can think of, I have worked at nonprofits, I have been at foundations, I have worked in corporations, served on corporate boards, I have been at G-summits, I have sat in at the U.N.: They are not that smart.”
The logical, non-emotional side of my brain knows that through this whole journey we call life, no matter what happens, I will have succeeded. Whether I receive tons of purchases of my book or remain one of the thousands of hidden self-published authors on Amazon, I will have beaten my imposter syndrome. For the first time in my life, I’m stepping outside my comfort zone and doing what I never thought possible. I’ve had to accept that my 36 years on this planet has been me hiding from the world because I didn’t want to be seen as a charlatan. But, where did that get me? Nowhere.
Someday, when you all read my book. You may love it, like it, or hate it. And even though my inner imposter syndrome will continuously whisper that I’m a fraud, my inner intellectual will loudly declare that I’m brave and that I should do this again.
This literary work is the sole property, ideas, and opinions of the author and do not represent the expressed or written opinions of Lezcronymz, LLC.