Fi­nance – Stokvel trends

Self-con­fi­dence is the key to a successful ca­reer, yet many black women at the top of their game are crip­pled by the Im­poster Syn­drome. We un­pack this psy­cho­log­i­cal phe­nom­e­non and look at how to man­age it.

True Love - - Contents - By THANDO PATO

Zodwa walks into the board­room, sig­na­ture Ruby Woo lipstick il­lu­mi­nat­ing her lips and her sky­scraper heels on point. She sits around the ta­ble with her peers - most of them white – and the con­fi­dence she had when she looked into the mir­ror this morn­ing scream­ing, “Girl, you got this!”, is now a dis­tant me­mory. In­stead her in­ner critic, MaNy­ony­oba, tells her, “What are you do­ing here? You don’t de­serve to be here.” And just like that she’s right back to be­ing the lit­tle girl from Mead­ow­lands, Soweto, who just about man­aged to get a seat at this ta­ble. This lit­tle girl, “Ma-Zet”, doesn’t be­long in this board­room, she thinks anx­iously. In that mo­ment, she’s com­pletely for­get­ting about her de­gree and the ca­reer achieve­ments she’s raked up over the years.

Zodwa could be suf­fer­ing from the Im­poster Syn­drome, a term coined in 1978 by Amer­i­can psy­chol­o­gists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. It’s a con­di­tion in which successful peo­ple feel they’re not quite up to scratch de­spite be­ing highly tal­ented and with a list of achieve­ments be­hind them. “Im­posters have a dis­torted and un­re­al­is­tic def­i­ni­tion of com­pe­tence,” says Dr Va­lerie Young, au­thor of The Se­cret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Ca­pable Peo­ple Suf­fer from the Im­poster Syn­drome and How to Thrive in Spite of It.

When asked about their achieve­ments, Im­poster Syn­drome suf­fer­ers are likely to say, ‘It’s luck, I was in the right place at the right time’ or ‘I man­aged to bluff my way through it’. They’re con­stantly play­ing them­selves down and live in fear of be­ing la­belled frauds. Even high­pro­file celebri­ties such as tennis ace Ser­ena Wil­liams, Os­car-win­ner Lupita Ny­ong’o and award-win­ning writer Maya An­gelou have con­fessed to suf­fer­ing from it.

Maya was once quoted say­ing, “I’ve writ­ten 11 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’.” Yet she has won a Pulitzer Prize and two Gram­mys amongst other awards.

Black Pan­ther star Lupita also con­fessed to hav­ing im­poster syn­drome and feel­ing like a fraud ev­ery time she tack­les a new script. “I go through it with ev­ery role,” she said in an in­ter­view. “I think win­ning an Os­car may in fact have made it worse. Now I’ve achieved this, what am I go­ing to do next? What do I strive for.”

So what causes the Im­poster Syn­drome? Ac­cord­ing to Joburg-based clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist In­grid Na­gaya, one of the driv­ing forces is per­son­al­ity types. “Type A per­son­al­i­ties are more prone to the Im­poster Syn­drome. These peo­ple tend to be high achiev­ers who con­stantly worry about fail­ing. They’re driven and have high ex­pec­ta­tions of them­selves and don’t deal well with fail­ure or chal­lenge. They also tend to be more rigid and con­trol their en­vi­ron­ments more than other per­son­al­ity types.”

As with any psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­or­der there are vary­ing de­grees in the in­ten­sity of symp­toms and psy­cho­log­i­cal fac­tors. In her book Young lists these four types of Im­poster Syn­drome.


Ac­cord­ing to ca­reer coach and founder of Self In­sights, Nokubonga Manga, most of the clients she deals with are per­fec­tion­ists, or re­cov­er­ing per­fec­tion­ists. “Per­fec­tion­ism and the Im­poster Syn­drome go hand in hand. The per­fec­tion­ist is con­trol­ling and sets ridicu­lously high stan­dards for them­selves, which means they put a lot of pres­sure on them­selves to be per­fect all the time. There’ s al­ways minute de­tail they are con­cerned with, which in the big­ger pic­ture doesn’t make a dif­fer­ence.” Manga says the per­fec­tion­ist does not re­ceive crit­i­cism well – they in­ter­nalise it and take it per­son­ally.


A key trait of Superwoman/man is the need to overex­tend them­selves, says Manga, whether it’ s work­ing long hours or not del­e­gat­ing re­spon­si­bil­i­ties or ask­ing for help when over­whelmed. “There’s a fear that if they ask for help they’ll seem weak and peo­ple will dis­cover they’re an im­poster so they do ev­ery­thing them­selves.”


These are often highly in­tel­li­gent peo­ple, Young says, and they rely heav­ily on their in­tel­li­gence. The chal­lenge is they rely on their nat­u­ral abil­i­ties in­stead of their ef­forts be­cause they’re used to get­ting things right the first time around.


Peo­ple who fall in this cat­e­gory suf­fer from the assumption that, in or­der to be right for a role, they need to have the cor­rect ex­per­tise. This, Manga says, usu­ally trans­lates to the need to have mul­ti­ple de­grees, to call them­selves an ex­pert. While study­ing fur­ther is im­por­tant, work ex­pe­ri­ence, men­tor­ship and en­thu­si­asm can go a long way in build­ing a ca­reer.

While stud­ies show that the ma­jor­ity of peo­ple who suf­fer from the im­poster syn­drome are women, men are not im­mune to it ei­ther. How­ever women, Manga says, tend to be more vo­cal about their ex­pe­ri­ence. “In my ex­pe­ri­ence and what I’ve learnt work­ing with clients is the pri­mary dif­fer­ence be­tween men and women is how we so­cialised. Women are so­cialised to be per­fect not brave. So we spend a lot of time wor­ry­ing and doubt­ing our­selves, and seek­ing ex­ter­nal val­i­da­tion, whereas more often men tend to just put their best foot for­ward and go for it. In my work, I often ask clients who dis­play symp­toms of the Im­poster Syn­drome to iden­tify when the feel­ings started and it usu­ally goes back to some in­ad­e­quacy or trauma they’re try­ing to make up for or hide, that their in­ner critic has ex­ag­ger­ated.”

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