Impostor syndrome is nothing new; it touches almost everyone. Research shows that 70% of people report experiencing impostor syndrome at some point.
But for children of immigrants like me, who grow up between two worlds, don’t fit into either one, and feel like strangers to each side of their community, impostor syndrome isn’t just a onetime thing or a side effect of a new experience. It’s a phenomenon that follows us throughout every setting we go to.
The impostor syndrome we deal with is this: Our self-image and the image reflected back to us from those around us are incongruous. It’s no accident then that so many of us feel like fakes when how we see ourselves is not how the world sees us.
So for all of us first-gen leaders trying to make a way forward and up in work, are we frauds and fakes, or do others just not know what they’re looking at when they see us?
The most popular and widely touted cure for impostor syndrome is to lean into your strengths. The advice columns tell us to “just be who you are, but do it really hard!” Well, what if who we are is precisely the point that doesn’t compute?
When I work with the Afghan diaspora, women, and other children of immigrants, so many of us—and maybe you, too—feel we need to hide our heritage from the onslaught of assumptions and misconceptions.
It’s a toss-up between people feeling sorry for us or being afraid of us. People tend to be surprised that we are educated or skilled outside of engineering or medical fields, and often don’t realize that we may have different dietary restrictions at the office potluck.
Perhaps the reason we keep experiencing impostor syndrome is that we’re all trying to get a seat at the wrong table. And in an effort to fit in at the table, we find ourselves conflicted—forced, to some degree, to choose between the table’s definition of success and our own personal definition, which is often influenced heavily by family, community, and culture.
But if we let go of the desire to belong at certain tables, perhaps we can live free—or at the very least, freer of imposter syndrome. Here’s how we start.
Let them be confused
I’m not talking about work-related soft skills and neglecting job duties. I’m talking about your culture, your heritage, the nuances of who you are. When it comes to those precious parts of yourself, it’s not on you to explain, justify, or soften them.
For example, if it’s common in your culture to live at home with your parents as an adult, speak about it as if it’s common. If they’re confused or surprised, that’s on them.
Treat those who intimidate you as if they are your biggest fans
This is something I do regularly to boost my confidence. In a potentially nerve-racking situation, instead of worrying how I’m coming across to others, I will shift my mindset and act as if they are my biggest fans. I tell myself that they are actually intimidated by me. You know what happens? I become really friendly, gracious, confident, and flexible.
Do the same with your culture. Instead of shying away from it, act as if it’s the coolest, most admirable, and unique thing about you. Because it really is. This gives others cues for how to treat it as well.
Gravitate toward where your nervous system feels good
You might literally be the only one of you at your workplace. But there are people who understand some aspect of your perspective. Find allies among your peers—not necessarily allies in hating the same things about your job, but allies in celebrating the good things about yourself.
Even connecting with a coworker who is also a parent or who enjoys the same type of lunch as you can be powerful. This may sound silly, but these are low-stakes starting points for creating a cohort. Existing in isolation is what makes us feel threatened. So finding people you connect with will help you become more confident in your role.
Be honest about your metrics for success
Again, this doesn’t mean you should flout your job duties. But if recognition, a flexible schedule to care for a loved one, or being able to give back to a community that’s close to your heart is important to you, focus on finding ways to incorporate that into your job or your company. You don’t have to do it alone, but a well-placed initiative might bring you more satisfaction than being the lead on some project that means less to you.
Leverage what your culture does well
When you think about your people, what do you do best? What words come to mind? Maybe it’s collective care and working in small groups, or perhaps you work best over tea outside the office. Either way, you can incorporate rituals that originate from your culture to make work a better fit for you.
Your solutions might also create a more positive and nourishing environment for others or give those around you permission to incorporate their own rituals. Remember, other people can and should learn from you.
If you are a child of immigrants or an immigrant yourself, there are outside reasons for the confusion and sense of not fitting in that you feel. The best way to curb the effects of impostor syndrome, and begin to internalize your success without it being undercut by those around you, is to remember that you make up the fabric of your company culture just as much as everyone else does.
Lean even more into the essence of who you are rather than hide. When you’re being yourself, you can’t be an impostor.
Sara Stanizai (she/her), is a licensed therapist who founded Prospect Therapy to create a queer- and trans-affirming practice that focuses specifically on serving first-generation American and immigrant communities. As a queer first-gen herself, Stanizai’s clinical and professional work focuses on serving the Afghan diaspora, specifically fellow Afghan American women, through retreats and group experiences that help participants find community and reconciliation with self, culture, and ancestry.