Before I knew what the impostor syndrome was, I had become all too familiar with being treated like an impostor. My background as a Black woman and former foster youth made me an easy target. When I was in the system, a mental health professional advised me against attending a prestigious university because she warned that my attributes would make it exceedingly difficult to be surrounded by wealth and privilege. The summer before attending the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, White women would frequently interrogate my credentials in an effort to appease the rejection that their own children had experienced. During college, one of my White male classmates confronted me with shock and confusion after I had earned a perfect score on an exam for an upper level finance course. Once I got into law school, every opportunity was scrutinized. From existing in the privileged space of an elite law school, to securing a summer associate position at a top law firm. The underlying assumption was clear. I did not deserve to be in these spaces.
While many did in fact celebrate my successes, there were enough bad apples to cause the fruits of my arduous labors to rot. It did not help that society would often reinforce the beliefs possessed by these bad apples. All of their efforts to make me feel like an impostor stripped away my confidence despite having earned the highest of credentials. My solution to these growing feelings of inadequacy was the embodiment of self-destruction. I decided to wear an invisible, yet immensely thick mask to shield who I really was. Adapting to my surroundings was essential to my survival, or so I thought. But the mask’s tight seal over my identity eventually grew so suffocating, that it caused me to overheat from exhaustion. And this is when I became familiar with the actual term impostor syndrome, where an individual attributes their accomplishments to luck as opposed to their own gifts and talents, making them feel as if they are frauds who are invading spaces where they do not actually belong.
When I finally hit a brick wall, I had to deconstruct the inner workings of the impostor syndrome in order to strategically move forward. Resisting the urge to identify it as yet another weakness that I had single-handedly inflicted upon myself was a vital component to this process. After all, I was not born with the impostor syndrome and it was not coded within my DNA. In fact, as a child I was fiercely competitive and confident. So where did it come from? The answer was quite simple. I had internalized the treatment of others who had categorized me as an impostor without even knowing me. And why would they do such a thing? Irrespective of whether their treatment was intentional, it primarily arose from their discomfort with my differences, NOT because I was actually an impostor. Upon coming to this realization, I had to gently release any notion of being an impostor into oblivion. I simply could not fit within any of their preexisting boxes. It was perhaps easier for them to treat me as a fraud instead of welcoming and integrating those differences within their internal frameworks.
With respect to my differences, I then had to learn how to honor them with respect, love, and gratitude even though they had elicited so much trepidation from others. How do you do such a thing? By fully realizing that our differences provide immeasurable value both to ourselves and to the world. Our unique lenses are essential in moving organizations and systems forward in a meaningful way. Some scholars have even found that diversity can help complex systems to function more effectively. Homogeneous groups can be disastrous in terms of yielding innovative solutions to emerging problems. Imagine a group of individuals, all coming from the same racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, trying to effectively problem solve in the face of an unforeseen crisis. The potential for missing integral blind spots would be enormous in such a setting, possibly leading to irreparable harm. We have unfortunately witnessed this phenomenon wreak havoc on others over and over again.
In my case, experiencing foster care provided me with a highly unique lens through which to see the world. The journey in itself gave me a higher degree of grit and resilience, resulting from constantly having to hammer through adversities. Navigating the complexities of the child welfare system provided me with a heightened emotional intelligence. As a teenager, I had already interacted with a range of lawyers, judges, caseworkers, police officers, mental health professionals, and social workers. I had also lived in a total of five placements by the time I had entered college, two of which were institutional settings. Interacting with such a wide array of networks, while learning to advocate for myself in these complex environments, greatly enhanced my abilities to understand the nuances of interpersonal relationships. These experiences provided me with superior traits that distinguished me from my peers in navigating the complexities of the law as I transitioned into my career. Being a Black woman similarly has provided me with an extraordinary history of resilience, a strong sense of empathy, an impermeable confidence, and several other gifts which have enhanced my abilities as an educator and a scholar. Because I now know the extreme value of my differences, I no longer internalize being treated like an impostor.
I still have bad days from time to time. It is only natural to be treated like an impostor by people within institutions that were not originally designed to accommodate historically excluded groups. And I am certainly not advocating that others should endure comparable hardships in order to yield skillsets associated with survival. Trauma is an insidious taker and it can obscure many innate gifts that need to be unleashed for the betterment of the universe. In fact, embarking on the journey of healing has unveiled even more vital talents, such as creativity and advocacy, that I am eager to continue cultivating. Gaining the understanding that I am not an impostor has better equipped me to optimize my future which is its own version of freedom. For those of you who are still fighting this journey, be gentle with yourself as you continue to nurture who you are. For those of us who are already functioning within this space of freedom, I urge you to do all that you can to help awaken others.
Our differences are needed now more than ever. The COVID-19 pandemic brought the globe to its knees and there is no clear end in sight. Racial injustices forced this country to have a painful look at themselves and the path forward will be fraught with its own multitude of complexities. Unknown calamities still await us. Now is the time to release any notion that you are an impostor. Gallantly honor your plentiful gifts with pride. Even more importantly, now is the time to stop treating us like impostors and to graciously invite us to every table in existence.
By: Cary Martin Shelby