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‘I always made myself small as I did not want to stand out too much’: The reality of imposter syndrome

By January 2, 2021No Comments

Ola Majekodunmi on dealing with imposter syndrome, and how body language can help you increase your confidence in a professional setting…


Most of us have suffered from imposter syndrome at least once. Those feelings that tend to come when we’re given new opportunities but we doubt our capabilities. The Cambridge Dictionary defines imposter syndrome as “the feeling that your achievements are not real or that you do not deserve praise or success: Students from working-class backgrounds often suffer from imposter syndrome, a deep-seated sense that the world of high culture is not for them”.

Have you ever wondered if some people experience these impressions of themselves, as somehow less deserving, more than others do? Do women experience these feelings more than men? And do black people or people of colour experience them more than white people? Let’s explore the different sides of imposter syndrome.

I experienced immense imposter syndrome a few weeks ago after I received great news about being appointed to an important position. My early 20s mind started questioning whether I was good enough or not, and worse – what were others thinking? Did they think I deserved the appointment? This is a somewhat familiar path to mental anguish and low self-esteem for me, something I occasionally endure when given new opportunities.


Especially working in a male-dominated industry such as media, like myself, you may find yourself comparing your attributes to other women. Questioning yourself repeatedly on when your next breakthrough is coming. Then you strip yourself apart even more. Is it that I am not strong enough? Not capable enough? Not interesting enough?

American social psychologist Amy Cuddy gave a powerful TEDx Talk back in 2012 called Fake it till you make it, which is often used at career readiness and confidence workshops. Cuddy speaks a lot about body language, about how we often make ourselves small in order to not get in people’s way – something women do from time to time when feeling less than confident in a male-dominated environment.

Cuddy points out how “women [feel] less chronically powerful than men”. As we know, many world leaders are men, and in general tend to have “high testosterone, and low cortisol”. As women, we may frequently find ourselves in these situations as we live in a ‘man’s world’. Some of us may feel that if we change our body language and how we dress, men may listen to our voices more. We are conditioned to this line of thinking; appealing to men’s standards to get ahead. We must always prove ourselves even more in order to be listened to, forcing us to make changes to how we present ourselves.


Cuddy pursues this topic of body language further in her talk, speaking about “changing your posture” and how doing an “audit on your body” makes a big difference in showcasing your confidence. This is something I never paid too much attention to before. Growing up as a tall girl, I always made myself small as I did not want to stand out too much.

As Cuddy pointed out in her TEDx Talk, people make judgement calls on our body language: “This can lead to life outcomes in who we hire/promote, ask on a date,” she said. Cuddy also touches on “non-verbal” cues, something I had previously never heard of. These act as power dynamics leading to power and dominance.

She illustrates her point with an example from the animal kingdom. Animals expand their gestures in their natural habitat, making themselves take up space, opening up their physicality. In faking it till you make it, you can feel powerful in the moment, with a great sense of pride.

Amy Cuddy gives another example of how when we win in a sporting competition, our signalling stretches out in our body language: Think of the classic Mo Farah and Usain Bolt signature celebratory signs.


Can we really fake it till we make it? Do our non-verbals govern how we think and feel about ourselves? These are the questions Cuddy asks in her talk. When you pretend to feel powerful, you are more likely to feel powerful; our bodies change our minds. “Powerful people tend to be more confident and more assertive”, she asserts, leading to further optimism, to feelings that they are going to win.

“These people tend to think more abstractly. They take more risks,” Cuddy explains.

Personally, my first reaction to new opportunities and increasing responsibilities can be excitement laced with fear; doubting my worth before I even set foot on the new journey. Often, my doubts are also combined with feelings of an inferiority complex stemming from racism, especially as the ‘only black face’ in a generally white space.

In Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Mask, he talks of how “the Anti-Black world, the only world we know, hides this non-being to the extent that it ascribes a place and role to abject blackness. But the truth is the zone of non-being”. Fanon also touches on the pathological behaviour of black people in a white world, and ‘knowing your place’. also highlights this: “The black person can [have] perfect speech, learn to speak perfect French and sound like a sophisticated Parisian. That might promise a certain kind of liberation from the alienation in and through mastery of proper French. That is, if the black colonial learns to speak as well as the white Parisian, then perhaps there can be equal participation in language and its world. Yet, this is impossible because of what Fanon terms the epidermal character of race. To be black and speak with perfect diction is still to be black, and therefore marked as special, unique, and surprising”.

Often, black people have to work much harder than white people in a working environment to be valued and given the same or the credit they deserve. If you are a black woman, you’re dealing with two ‘burdens’ to fight in your plight for success and having to break down many glass-ceilings.

Maybe we do not have to fake it till we make it, but until we authentically achieve those very same feelings we’re pretending to have, “do it enough until you actually become it and internalise it” like Amy Cuddy says. Do what you can to bring results, and then your confidence will manifest.

Photo by Rupert Britton on Unsplash