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.
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.”