imposter syndrome, people of color, mental health
(Photo credit: Alan Levine) https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

Imposter Syndrome Can Take a Heavy Toll on People of Color, Particularly African Americans

“Imposter syndrome” affects about 70% of Americans, according to psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes, who coined the term in 1978, but it can take a particularly heavy toll on people of color.

Clance and Imes described imposter syndrome as an “internal experience of intellectual phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.”

Imposter syndrome isn’t an official diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), but psychologists have acknowledged that it can contribute to mental health issues like anxiety and depression.

While African Americans are 10% more likely than others to experience “serious psychological distress,” according to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, they’re also least likely to receive proper care because of factors like lack of information and socioeconomic disparities, which could lead to worse mental health problems.

“For us, imposter syndrome isn’t just an imaginary voice in our heads,” Jolie A. Doggett, who is Black, wrote in a recent HuffPost article. “We can hear it loud and clear when we receive almost daily messages from society that we truly don’t belong.”

Doggett also said people of color can be particularly susceptible to experiencing imposter syndrome. In the article, she addressed the feelings of otherness that occur on a daily basis for her and other people of color, like being followed by security while shopping or not seeing representation in entertainment.

“In response to the microaggressions we experience in real life, we become our own aggressors, filling ourselves with negative internal dialogue that can result in poor physical and mental care,” Doggett wrote. “With imposter syndrome, it becomes too easy to believe the lies both society and your brain tell you.”

Doggett also described a recent incident at a networking event where she felt like a “fraud,” but went on to say that there are ways to fight those feelings.

“We can battle the phenomenon and discrimination simply by showing up,” she wrote. “Increasing our representation in the places that have historically excluded us will not only benefit the institutions we infiltrate, but create an environment where we no longer feel like outliers. Simply: The more of us in the room, the more we’ll feel like we belong there and the less alone we will feel in our minds.”

But it’s not solely the responsibility of people experiencing imposter syndrome to fight against it. Doggett said that while workplace leaders need to be aware of the impact it has on people of color, researchers also need to look at how race, gender, age, socioeconomic status, etc., affect imposter syndrome and its corresponding mental health problems.

According to a 2015 American Psychological Association study, 86% of psychologists in the U.S. workforce were white, compared with 4% Black/African American. Another 5% were Asian, 5% were Hispanic and 1% identified as multiracial or from other racial/ethnic groups. This is in stark contrast to the U.S. population, which at the time was 62% white and 38% racial/ethnic minority.

Similarly, a study in Environmental Health Perspectives shows how minorities are underrepresented in clinical studies, despite the 1993 National Institutes of Health (NIH) Revitalization Act mandating that racial and ethnic minorities be included in all federally funded clinical research.

“Medical professionals must close this research gap and examine the links between racism and discrimination and mental health issues, including imposter syndrome, in order for us to begin healing,” Doggett wrote.

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