You Belong in the Room — Exploring Imposter Syndrome from a Black Perspective

Thirty-five years, and still going strong, October marks Black History Month in the UK. It’s got us thinking about how the annual event raises awareness and celebrates the trailblazing contributions and achievements that generations of black people have made, and continue to make in British society.

This year’s campaign theme, ‘Time for Change: Action Not Words‘, invited communities, schools, and employees to implement real actions that lead to effective inclusion. In the blog, we explore Black History Month from a well-being perspective, exploring how mental health phenomena such as imposter syndrome affect black people in their daily lives. 

For many black Britons, the phenomenon of imposter syndrome often looms throughout the year, leaving colleagues feeling undeserving of their seat at the table. So, what is imposter syndrome, and how does it impact black colleagues at the Department for Transport?

Action Not Words: Tackling Imposter Syndrome

Sam Ajayi, Client Manager at DfT, is a notable diversity campaigner. Sam kicks us off this October, addressing the limiting beliefs which show up as imposter syndrome in his community. Keep reading as Sam discusses and tackles the effects of this phenomenon!

The dangers of Imposter Syndrome

Like Maya Angelou, some of us might have considered ourselves a ‘fraud’ or unworthy of an achievement or a job. Guess what, you’re not alone! I certainly have and there are many others who have experienced the same feeling at one point or another.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, imposter syndrome is the feeling that your achievements are not real or that you do not deserve praise or success. This phenomenon was first studied by Dr Pauline Rose Clance, a psychologist who found that many of her female undergraduate students didn’t believe they deserved their place at the university.

Having felt the same way in graduate school, Dr Clance knew these feelings were unjustified. Since then, it has been found that though imposter syndrome takes no prisoners, people from black and ethnic minority communities are particularly vulnerable to its hold.

Why imposter syndrome is more prevalent in black and minority individuals

Imposter syndrome favours no one, however, individuals from ethnic minorities are especially likely to fall victim to the phenomenon. In the workplace, this can be attributed to many reasons, from a lack of representation in senior leadership roles to discrimination or the struggle to be a ‘cultural fit’.

In my case, I first experienced imposter syndrome in 2007. During my first day of business school, we were asked to give a quick background about ourselves. Knowing that many classmates came from a white middle-class background, and had earned their undergraduate degrees from an Ivy League university, I immediately developed a sense of self-criticism.

I began to doubt my decision to get an MBA from a top university, despite the fact that I was a recipient of a prestigious fellowship who in fact had one of the best entrance test scores in my class.

A problem shared is a problem halved

Sometimes the solution to imposter syndrome can be as simple as sharing your struggles with another person. I remember how relieved I felt when I shared my experience with my mentor after I left class that day. That was the first time I heard the term imposter syndrome and discovered that it affects a lot of people.

Research shows that around 70% of people have experienced the phenomenon and it is estimated that around 30% of high achievers suffer from imposter syndrome at some point in their lifetime. Imagine, Albert Einstein thought of himself as an involuntary swindler!

Build confidence in your truth

Feelings of self-doubt can occur when people around you make you feel unworthy, or tell you that you are. Over time, this leads to imposter syndrome. Overcoming this phenomenon can be difficult, but it’s not impossible. You have to understand that those opinions are not true. You must reiterate to yourself that you’ve earned your seat at the table and be ready to build your confidence in your truth, knowing that what you bring to the table is just as relevant as anyone else.

Black History Month 2022

As our Black History Month celebrations focus on well-being, I encourage you to share any advice, experience and stories throughout the month and take opportunities to learn about your colleagues or others in your work community. It is a brilliant opportunity to learn more about some of the factors that might affect your own well-being and to reflect on what more needs to be done to support each other.

Sam Ajayi

Programme Client Manager at Department for Transport

“Be ready to build your confidence in your truth, knowing that what you bring to the table is just as relevant as anyone else”

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