As an academic nurse researcher from an underrepresented minority background, for years, I was plagued by a certain phenomenon: specifically, the imposter phenomenon. In 1978, psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes coined this term to describe the internal experience of “intellectual phoniness” that is prevalent in high-achieving women who, despite their academic and professional triumph, feel that they aren’t smart enough, that they have somehow deceived others to view them as successful, and that they will soon be exposed as frauds.
Of course, this phenomenon isn’t limited to women: a 2011 review article published by Jaruwan Sakulku and James Alexander suggests that 70% of all individuals experience imposter phenomenon at some points in their lives. However, in my article, I focus on how I myself experienced the imposter phenomenon as a woman with African roots within Western academia. More importantly, I share my experience to express how detrimental the imposter phenomenon is to educators in academia. Today, I feel obligated to share my story with my students through my teaching and mentoring.
What are the attributes of the imposter phenomenon? From the definition of the term, I identified at least three destructive factors that contributed to my personal experience of it: namely, self-doubt, negative self-statements, and socialization as an African female.
An individual who sports self-doubt lacks confidence in her own capabilities and thus relies upon others to assess her accomplishments, failures, and reality. Naturally, self-doubt fuels negative self-statements that this individual utters about herself and eventually comes to believe about herself. And her negative self-statements will ultimately reinforce what her society and culture demands of women. If this individual is African like me, she will be haunted by her society’s belief that women are a weaker sex, that they should not be heard but only seen, that they are given things and will never truly earn them, and that they are meant to be taken care of by men and other authority figures in their lives.
So, how did this series of negative reasoning come to plague me? It was several weeks after starting my new position as a Sickle Cell Scholar through a grant funded by the National Institutes of Health. A staff colleague was trying to get my attention as I walked through a hallway to my office and she whispered, “Dr. Ezenwa.” I cringed and quickly turned my head around to figure out who she was addressing. Of course, it was me. We were the only two people in that space. I thought, “Wow. Dr. Ezenwa, my foot!”
As soon as this astonishment faded, I went into my office and was arrested by a severe panic at the thought of my “lies” being discovered. My body felt hot, my heart clapped with a chaotic chorus of groans, and my stomach fluttered like a butterfly rain forest. Pearls of cold sweat dripped from my palms. I felt like a deceiver, a trickster. An imposter.
Slowly, my self-doubt magnified and my anxiety about achieving success intensified. I began to question myself: Did I learn enough in my PhD program to be an independent researcher? Do I know enough to teach at the undergraduate, graduate, and PhD levels? What was I going to tell my students? What if I ruin their lives and academic careers because I teach them the wrong things and extinguish their drive for continuous learning and growth? Will they even understand a word I say to them through my African accent?
These self-doubts naturally morphed into destructive self-statements: I am not good enough. I am not smart enough. I am not worthy. Then, perhaps most devastatingly, these destructive self-statements made me feel boxed in and limited by multiple historical and social orientations forced upon women, even though I had escaped them long ago.
As an African immigrant in Western academia, I worked hard to break through multiple levels of convention. I broke through many societies’ beliefs that the proper place for a woman is at home and her role is to bear children, cook meals, and clean up messes. I broke through the pressure of growing up poor and earning the opportunity to reach greater heights without any real road map or directions. I broke through to success as a black woman who American society believes is lesser than her white counterparts thus deserves less in life. I, as an immigrant, broke through the culture shock of living and working in America and always sought peaceful resolutions to clashes in culture.
But under the spell of self-doubt and negative self-talk, I began to think that even the actuality that I’d broken out of these social constructions was all a big lie. These feelings only magnified and manifested as psychological and cognitive obstacles that cornered me into mental blocks. I soon lacked the confidence I needed to effectively teach and conduct research, as well as to see myself as successful and accomplished.
Now, I first learned about the concept of the imposter phenomenon many years ago during my graduate program. Back then, I brushed the idea aside as silly. How could individuals who paid with blood and sweat to accomplish their goals diminish their accomplishments? But after spiraling into such depths upon simply being called by my appropriate doctorate title, I realized that I was not above this sort of destructive thinking. I had to take control of this phenomenon if I was going to effectively and full-heartedly serve my students, my institutions, and, most importantly, myself.
So, how did I cope with the imposter phenomenon? There are three major strategies that I endorse and have taught my students: self-accountability, accountability with a trusted partner, and continuous self-love.
First, self-accountability: I began by recognizing that I am accountable to myself to be the best I can be in all my life’s endeavors. I am accountable for the outcomes of my actions and inactions, as well as my failures and successes. Once I accepted this fact, I engaged in bone-deep self-reflection about the imposter phenomenon that I had allowed to take up residence in me. I asked myself, “Why do you think you’re not bright enough? Why do you think you’ve fooled anyone who believes otherwise? Why do you think you’re not good enough, that you’re unworthy?”
I wrote down my thoughts on a piece of paper and waited a few days to return to it. When I saw all the questions and my initial answers written out, other realizations came to mind. I, for instance, suddenly understood that the imposter phenomenon had been creeping up on me my entire life. Growing up, everyone had told me that I was “so smart” and openly assumed that I would become a medical doctor. I had always been afraid that I might not live up to this idea of intellectual perfection that my family and friends held about me, and, even after I became an academic doctor, I felt that I was not the genius everyone believed that I was.
When I had excavated my mind of these recognitions and purged any negative ideas that imprisoned my capabilities, I reached out to my accountability partner for a meeting. I shared with her the result of my self-reflection honestly and openly and, in turn, she worked with me on enhancing my confidence. My accountability partner assisted me in three important areas: changing my mindset, developing a strategic plan of action to combat the imposter phenomenon, and constantly checking in to see if the plan was on track.
To shift my mindset, my accountability partner coached me to see the opposite side of my negative thoughts. For example, if I doubted that I was not smart enough to have accomplished the current goals in my life, she empowered me to believe that my current achievements were not handed to me for free like Halloween candy. Instead, I had to earn them through a combination of my intelligence, efforts, and wise leveraging of available resources. She assured me that I already had a long record of accomplishments, and there was no reason for that trend to stop so long as I was willing to challenge myself and do the work required.
Once this mindset shift was underway, my accountability partner helped me develop specific, time-bound goals and strategies to succeed in my current endeavors. Finally, we set a timeline with consistent, scheduled follow-up meetings to assess my progress. During these follow-ups, we reevaluated my goals and strategies, as well as adjusted my timeline as necessary.
The third and final strategy I used to combat the imposter phenomenon was practicing continuous self-love. As a woman, both in African and American society, I was socialized to care for everyone else before thinking of myself. Consequently, I was petrified to upend the status quo and focus on myself for once in my entire life; after all, I had equated self-love with selfishness.
So, to successfully exercise self-love, I had to be intentional. I worked tirelessly to reprimand myself every time I felt guilty for focusing on my needs over other obligations. I reminded myself that, when I am overflowing with love for myself, I will have enough energy to achieve my goals and dreams and also healthily give to my family, career, academics, and finances. I made sure I celebrated my successes, both big and small. Every night in front of the mirror, I stood and told myself how deserving I was of all the accomplishments I worked so hard to earn.
So, with all three strategies combined, did I beat the imposter phenomenon? That I am still a professor and a researcher in one of America’s top ten public universities is a testament to how I conquered self-doubt and negative self-statements and how I refused to allow my ancestral background and cultural identity to confine me from living in my highest potential. That I was recently inducted as a Fellow in the American Academy of Nursing is evidence that my research on health disparities in pain management in patients with sickle cell disease or cancer made a difference in peoples’ lives locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally. That I am now an entrepreneur is a manifestation of my mindset that now asserts, “You are good enough. You are smart enough. You are worthy.” So, yes, these strategies worked!
The imposter phenomenon is a monster, and the struggle to overcome it is real. Successful women have systematically been robbed of important opportunities because of our own self-doubts, negative self-statements, and our giving into social orientations that seek to confine us. But there is hope and there is help. The strategies I mentioned here, as well as with professional help from psychotherapists, can move us toward controlling the phenomenon and casting it out of our lives.
The question is, are we willing to confront the imposter monster in ourselves? Are we willing to tear down limiting beliefs about academic success, professional success, business success, financial success, and whatever else we desire? Are we willing to free ourselves from the bondage of history, cultural codes, and oppressive gender roles? Are we willing to look in the mirror and say “I am good enough, I am smart enough, I am worthy?” Are we willing to do the hard work to love and respect ourselves?
And, finally, are we willing to do the work now? Not next year, next month, next week, or tomorrow. Now.
Are you willing to take the challenge?
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
—Maya Angelo, “And Still I Rise”