Feel Like an Impostor? Maybe You’re Just an Outlier …
Feel Like an Impostor? Maybe You’re Just an Outlier …

Impostor syndrome is like a poison for the mindImpostor Syndrome is a feeling of being undeserving of one’s achievements, accompanied by an overwhelming sense of incompetence, even when praised. It’s a widely recognized problem that affects 60 to 70 percent of us at some point. It is even experienced by individuals who have made significant successes in their life. It can be like a mental poison.

One thing that gets less attention, is the fact that overcoming Impostor Syndrome can be harder for some, and more general advice on coping may be inadequate or not apply. The fact is that most people who write about work, career, or psychological topics are part of the mainstream; they are not Black, Indigenous, or people of colour (BIPOC). This often means that they are writing from their perspective and may not notice the hidden obstacles faced by others who have vastly different lived experiences.


When You’re ‘The Only’

Impostor syndrome is harder when you're an outlierWhen a woman works in a role where she’s in a minority (e.g., in STEM) or when a BIPOC person works in most corporate environments, they are often ‘the only person’ who looks like they do.

In January 2019, Sneader and Yee wrote: “One is the Loneliest Number” for the McKinsey Quarterly. Sneader and Yee reported several consequences of being ‘the only.’

  • When you’re ‘the only’ you may experience extra “anxiety, pressure, and a sense of being on the spot: if we said or did the wrong thing, stereotypes would get reinforced or prejudices confirmed. Other people, we recognize, experience far worse.”
  • Twenty percent of the women in McKinsey’s 2019 Women in the Workplace report said they were commonly the only person of their gender in the room or one of very few. The ratio is much higher in tech and engineering.
  • For women of colour, 45 percent reported being “the only.” For men, it was just 7 percent.
  • Being the sole person of colour or the only woman in a workplace means being more likely to have their judgment questioned (49 percent) than women working in a more balanced environment (32 percent).
  • Being the sole person of colour means being more likely to be mistaken for someone more junior. Thirty-five percent of respondents to Sneader and Yee’s survey reported experiencing this, while only 15 percent of Caucasian people surveyed had experienced this.
  • Being subjected to unprofessional and demeaning remarks (24 percent vs 14 percent).

Sneader and Yee noted that “If ‘the onlys’ are treated like this, no wonder they get overlooked for promotion …”

racial trauma complicates impostor syndromeI would add that if ‘the onlys’ are treated like this, what happens when you compound ‘only’ status with anti-Black racism or anti-Indigenous racism or other types of discrimination?  The City of Toronto and the City of Ottawa have both declared anti-Black racism a public health crisis. Even without those declarations, common sense would predict that any form of discrimination creates a steeper hill to climb.

As a career coach, I have encountered professionals who have expressed a strong sense of self-doubt and inadequacy when it comes to work. A surprising number of high achievers report feeling like intellectual frauds, unworthy of their success. This is equally true for those who have difficulty accepting recognition. This can also happen to those who come into unexpected fame or wealth. They come to feel the only place to go is down, and that they are facing an inevitable fall from grace.

I have written about Impostor Syndrome before, including symptoms and some basic ways of coping with it. Here I’m offering some more nuanced strategies for people who are more likely to be in a minority or even ‘the only’ person like them in their organization or role.


Nuanced Tips for Dealing with Impostor Syndrome


  1. Recognize that you may be underemployed given your skills, experience, and education. As I discussed in this previous article about underemployment when others see you in a role that’s below your abilities they may eventually assume that your role is consistent with your abilities. What’s potentially worse is that you may start to see that your ‘lower than it should be role’ is your ‘real’ level. You may lower your own internal standards and expectations. This probably means you should be planning to level up!


  1. Systemic racism has insidious and pervasive implications. Ibram X. Kendi’s book “How to Be an Antiracist” makes the point that “racist ideas make Black [or BIPOC] people think less of themselves which makes them more vulnerable to racist ideas. Racist ideas make white people think more of themselves…” One subtle way that this plays out is that when an organization has very homogeneous leadership at the director and executive levels, the unwritten and unspoken subtext is that BIPOC people aren’t capable of leadership. The homogeneous leadership team may have unintentionally been created by unconscious biases, but the impact is significant. Recognizing this may help BIPOC people shake off lingering doubts that they may have in their abilities and their place in the hierarchy.


  1. In my experience, many BIPOC people are equally if not more qualified than their peers, despite differentials in employment outcomes. Another way of saying this is that within BIPOC communities “we’ve got to work twice as hard to get half as far as our white counterparts,” as Michelle Obama so aptly said in 2015. This means that most BIPOC people don’t even get a foot in the door unless they’re obviously qualified, despite the dismissive and offensive claims of tokenism and quotas. Sometimes, overcoming impostor syndrome is as easy as reminding yourself that you’ve earned your accomplishments and opportunities.


  1. Try not to ruminate or let ‘head trash’ take up too much space. I know, easier said than done. Some concrete strategies include spending time with people who are at the level you aspire to reach and learning from them. Ideally, these will be mentors or sponsors. Again, I know that often for BIPOC people, this is easier said than done. When you don’t have access to these people, make use of virtual mentors – watch TedTalks, listen to podcasts, and read/listen to books that will help you gain additional perspective. One major advantage of filling your mind and spirit this way is that if you find yourself getting negative or ruminating in ways that are not constructive, you can replace this harmful self-talk with content that will help you focus on information that should put you further ahead.


  1. Try to avoid the trap of believing you need to work double or triple to show your worth. This point is linked to point #3 above. You may have worked twice as hard to get to where you are but now you’ve probably already proven yourself. Instead of working twice as hard, consider working smarter. If/when possible, try to benefit from the experiences of your peers and those who are further up the hierarchy. In addition to avoiding ‘learning the hard way’ all the time, you’ll save time and probably start to develop more and deeper professional relationships with people.


Do you need help navigating the world of work? Contact Dr. Helen today for a free and confidential initial consultation by phoneemail, or via direct message on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn.


More than career coaching, it’s career psychology®.


I/O Advisory Services – Building Resilient Careers and Organizations.™ 

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