As a disabled woman of color, I have had to jump many a personal and professional hurdle to gain admission into my current program. Even without a disability, being a matriculated graduate student is an accomplishment. However, sometimes I wonder if I have truly earned my place among my peers. The insecurity is confusing, and if that weren’t enough, the battle to internalize my achievements is exhausting and demoralizing. I feel like an imposter unworthy of the position I had worked for. Were my entrance essays that good? Did I get special consideration because I am a woman? Or maybe I was admitted because I had a disability?
This feeling is common enough to have a name: Imposter phenomenon.
Imposter phenomenon, also known as imposter syndrome, was first identified by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in their 1978 paper, The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention”. Clance and Imes report that woman with imposter phenomenon underplay their own intelligence and seek outside approval in self-destructive ways because they don’t believe in their own abilities. Imposter phenomenon is prevalent especially among high-achieving women because women are more likely to attribute success to outside causes and failures to themselves while men do the opposite.
In 2010, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandburg updated the idea of imposter phenomenon with her TED talk “Why we have too few women leaders” and in her follow-up book Lean In. Sandburg outlines how imposter phenomenon still exists for women over 30 years later because women still don’t believe in their own successes and remove themselves from the running before they are ready. High-profile women still confess to feeling like frauds. Women are still less likely to advocate for themselves. There is still a lack of women in high-powered government and business positions.
Imposter phenomenon still exists for women today. Personally, I feel the pressure triply so as a disabled woman of color. All the insecurities about gender can be transferred to race or ability. More, my disability is a cognitive disability, invisible to the outside eyes and sometimes forgotten even by me. I do not believe in my own ability because my ability is diminished. There is a very real reason for me not to believe in myself.
But the truth is that I made it. So I must have done something right.
And if you got that job, published that paper, juggled work and relationships, you are doing it right, too.
No matter how you got to where you are, someone believed that you could do the work, and you rose to the challenge and did it. It can be tricky to believe that you’ve earned your accomplishments but believe that you did the work. You have to have done it. Even if you had help, you contributed what you did, and that is not nothing.
I agree with Clance, Imes, and Sandburg: We women have to work hard to believe in ourselves. However, I disagree that the solutions lie solely with us women. We don’t just need to build our self-confidence. We also need to challenge the status quo that undervalues our abilities and contributions. We aren’t the problem. Society believing that we are the problem is the problem. We don’t internalize our accomplishments because we are told that our accomplishments aren’t worthwhile.
So let’s start giving our work the recognition it’s due.
Let’s tell each other that we are smart, diligent, and deserving. Let’s tell others not to undervalue our work. Let’s insist that accommodations are needed because it’s an unjust world. Let’s demand respect for the work we do because we have put the work into it.
It’s still a struggle to believe that I deserve to be in my program. But I’m here for a reason and it’s because I worked for it.
Remember: You worked for it, too.