Necole Kane has spent more than 12 years creating successful brands. With her gossip blog NecoleBitchie.com and her women’s lifestyle site, xoNecole, and most recently with her PMS-supplement company, My Happy Flo, she’s had the Midas touch. Despite those achievements, she admits that she has struggled to shake the feeling that in all the areas she has entered, and excelled in, she doesn’t belong. “I just felt like an impostor for my entire life,” Kane says. “I always feel as if I have these big ideas, but I don’t think I’m qualified.”
What Kane has experienced is called impostor syndrome, a phenomenon that’s been researched since the 1970s. Studies estimate that 70 percent of people will deal with the condition in some way during their lifetime. “Impostor syndrome is the feeling that you are a fraud,” says Kathleen Isaac, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in New York City, “and that you are not good enough to be in whatever space you’re in. It often comes up in the workplace—but also in school settings. The idea behind it is that someone is going to discover that you are faking it, or that you’re not really as good as people might think you are.”
Isaac notes that even though impostor syndrome can impact one’s mental health, it’s not classified as a psychological disorder. Instead, mental health professionals see it as an outgrowth of how we’re socialized to think of our performance capabilities and overall worth. For Kane, who growing up was told by family not to allow success to “overinflate” her sense of herself, the result has been that she’s left feeling fraudulent at times. Although she is now her own boss, consulting with a team as its leader can cause her to second-guess her abilities when everyone is looking to her for answers.
In addition to her upbringing, Kane reflects that her impostor syndrome may be compounded by the fact that she never graduated college. “I think we bring that history into our professional career,” she says. But there is a difference between occasionally questioning your capacities or your “luck” and having impostor syndrome. “We all second-guess ourselves,” says JeiMonroe, New York City–based Slay Coach and creator of the Slay League, which helps women build confidence by overcoming impostor syndrome. Adds Monroe, when doubt keeps you stuck in fear, causes you to procrastinate or become a perfectionist and leaves you plunged in a negative self-image, it may be time to seek help.
Monroe started the Slay League in 2020 during the pandemic, when impostor syndrome was trending heavily. As more than 20 million workers lost their jobs, people who were still employed found themselves overworking out of fear that they, too, would lose their livelihood. Many of them feared that they were ill-equipped to find another job during a time of economic crisis. “After noticing so many amazing and talented women doubting themselves, and seeing them self-sabotage their way out of joy and opportunities, I set out to help 100 women overcome impostor syndrome,” says Monroe. “In six days, I surpassed that goal, with 170 women signing up. And in two weeks, that number almost doubled. There were some 300 women who were like, ‘Yes, I experience this. I suffer from this. I need your help.’ ”
Isaac cautions that it’s important to recognize that feeling as if you don’t belong, professionally or academically, can come from the way others treat you. “A lot of people of color experience impostor syndrome,” she says, “but we can’t ignore the fact that they are also dealing with actual experiences of being made to feel as if they’re not good enough.” She points to the racial microaggressions people of color are forced to confront, such as hearing subtle and not-so-subtle negative comments directed your way, or being the only person in a space who looks like you. “People will say, ‘Oh, I have impostor syndrome,’ when actually it’s like, no, you’re being made to feel that way. What you’re feeling is just a natural response to how you’re being treated, or how systems of oppression have made us feel as if we don’t belong.”
But impostor syndrome is still very real, and Monroe argues that must be dealt with if we are simply to live in peace. “If the feeling is not addressed, it can be extremely detrimental, not only to your confidence and your self-worth, but also to your mental, emotional and even your physical health,” she says. “Impostor syndrome can affect your thoughts, your motivation, your emotions, your behaviors, your actions and your overall well-being.”
Addressing self-doubt requires making an effort to change the way you think of yourself. It helps to find a mentor or a group of people who will support and validate you. Affirmation can lead to empowerment, which can help motivate you to approach personal and leadership situations with greater confidence in your abilities. If the anxiety of impostor syndrome becomes too much despite such supports, however, a therapist can help you explore other ways to cope.
Kane offers another strategy: These days, she keeps a “praise folder” on her computer, full of the compliments and approval she’s received over the years. It helps her to combat negative thoughts and inspires her to keep taking up space in the rooms and industries where she desires to be.
“On your worst days, a ‘praise folder’ can remind you of why you do what you do, and that you belong exactly where you are,” she says. “Keep reminding yourself of your accomplishments. Sometimes I look back at my life and I’m like, girl, you had a less than one percent chance of being successful, and you’ve done it, and you’ve done it again. And you’re about to do it again.”
This article originally appears in the July/August 2021 issue of ESSENCE