Reclaiming space with confidence as a woman of colour

It’s my first day on the job. Nervous cuticles and newly buffed oxfords are my dead-giveaways on top of being a foreign face in the office, in both senses of the word. 

It only takes a single round of hasty introductions to realize I’m one of the few women of colour in the office and among the youngest too. 

And then it sets in, the gradual hyper-awareness of everything I’m not: the skills I don’t have, the seniority I haven’t earned, the job I don’t deserve, and ultimately, the space I can’t take up. 

Soon I’m confronted with a doubt that questions my legitimacy and deservedness in this new professional space — a doubt stemming from none other than the onset effects of imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome

Clinically put, the phenomenon of imposter syndrome is defined as the “internal experience of intellectual phoniness,” but is more commonly experienced as feeling inadequate despite being perfectly adequate. It’s the internalized paranoia of being exposed as a fraud, the fear that every accomplishment is a fluke. 

The Imposter Cycle in professional or academic settings begins when an achievement-based task sets off a self-perpetuating loop of anxiety or self-doubt which leads to procrastination, then overworking or perceived overcompensating, then discounting any success as just pure luck — and rinse and repeat. 

stressed woman with her head in her hands
Photo Credit: energepic.com

It took me a while to realize what I was experiencing. I often misdiagnosed and minimized these anxieties by convincing myself they were markers of humility: “Of course, I need to feel debilitating self-doubt keep me grounded.” 

But a peek under my psyche revealed a host of complexes shaped by my upbringing that was especially amplified by my cultural context. 

As a woman of colour

I was raised on the reinforced idea of not being enough. Not white enough among my Canadian peers, not good enough for my immigrant family’s expectations, not feminine enough for misogyny’s standards of a woman, and not smart enough for the institutional honour of child prodigy. 

I was not enough to take up space without hesitation, so I thought. 

It’s no surprise that the effects of imposter syndrome are especially pervasive among minorities and women of colour in particular.  Its heightened prevalence among this population derives from a lack of representation in the spaces they occupy, resulting in an experience of being both hyper-visible and invisible. 

As I navigated a largely white and male space, I found my internalized ‘otherness’ reinforced by the untailored suits and egos taking up a space I felt unworthy to occupy. And as a woman of colour, I was also convinced that my perspective was an afterthought, a token box to check for an inclusive diversity agenda. 

So I made sure to not overstep my boundaries. I told myself: don’t become that abrasive minority, make your words easier to swallow for the white majority…

I convinced myself that the volume of my voice was capped. 

asian woman discussing with someone in office
Photo Credit: Mimi Phian

But my job wouldn’t let me indulge those thoughts. My job requires me to be a specialist with expertise worth putting a consultant price-tag on and literally quantifies my competence to the dollar. 

The mix of my upbringing and the reality of working as a woman of colour clashed with the nature of my job, but I refused to recognize my struggle. 

Something needed to change.

A shift in perception

I started to practice, like how you’d train a muscle, normalizing the sound of my own voice by speaking up and speaking often.

I began to own my successes, big or small, as an exercise in reclaiming all the ‘wins’ I’ve discredited to chance or false humility. And in doing so, I’m shifting my perception of myself to something better, kinder — something closer to the reality of who I am.

There are ways for women of colour to begin unmasking imposter syndrome. The act of speaking up in settings where people wouldn’t normally hear minority perspectives makes room for those voices to be continuously acknowledged.

By creating and claiming space for myself, I’m setting precedents for others like me to be heard, with the hope of making it easier for someone else down the road.

It’s almost my half year mark at my new job. Standing in the same boardroom with the same untailored suits from six months ago, I hear myself give a briefing about a project we’re wrapping up. I’m talking about the successes and opportunities for my work to be continued, and this time, I believe in what I’m saying. 

But I’ll still have lapses of doubt. When I forget about the validity of my worth I like to revisit this anecdote from Neil Gaiman as a reminder that even the most recognized and accomplished of us can feel like an imposter.

It’s comforting to think that maybe we’re all just trying our absolute hardest, that self-doubt is a universally shared experience, and that maybe we could all benefit from being a little kinder to ourselves. 

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