Is anyone surprised Viola Davis experiences impostor feelings?

1) She’s in a creative field which means like other actors, writers, artists her work is constantly being judged by objective standards by people whose job title is “professional critic.” Where you’re only as good as your last performance, your last book, your last painting and in so many ways you really are starting over each time.

2) Putting impostor syndrome in an even larger social context, as a black woman Ms. Davis belongs to not one but two groups for whom there are stereotypes about competence.

A sense of belonging fosters confidence. Conversely, the fewer people who look like you… on the set, in the boardroom, at a meeting… the less confident you may feel.

And it’s not just race or gender. Deep down we know that when we are the youngest person on a team or the oldest…if we have a regional or other accent that doesn’t “sound intelligent”… or are in any situation where we have to represent our entire group — all of these things make us more susceptible to impostor feelings.

In the interview they stated that one reason more women may feel like frauds is because we’re more likely to attribute our success to luck than skill. True. But the fact is, studies find that others — both men AND other women — are more likely to see female accomplishments as luck and male accomplishments as skill.

I love that Ms. Davis said she’s come to see that “self-deprivation is not the answer to humility.” It’s why I no longer believe that there’s a plus side to impostor syndrome.

Happy too to see more psychologists using the language of reframing — something I’ve been advocating for decades.

I’m not convinced, however, that “Yes I can” inner pep talks is the answer. After all — what if you really can’t?

Like the director of a large medical center – a physician – who told me she feels like an impostor because “everyone on the executive team is brilliantly articulate, and I’m not.”

There was a time I would have replied — “Oh I’m sure you’re brilliantly articulate.”

Now I know that wouldn’t have served her.

So instead I said — “Well maybe you’re not? And that’s OKAY!”

Bottom Line– People who don’t feel like impostors are no more intelligent and capable than the rest of us. The only difference between them and us, is they think different thoughts.

If you want to stop feeling like an impostor, you have to stop thinking like an impostor.

To include — turns out I actually can’t — so what am I going to do about it, learn from it, go from here?

About Valerie Young

Valerie Young, Ed.D. is an internationally-recognized expert on impostor syndrome and author of the award-winning book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It (Crown Business/Random House) now available in five languages.Valerie has delivered her solution-oriented message to over 80,000 men and women at such diverse organizations as IBM, Merck, Boeing, Intel, Chrysler, Facebook, BP, Ernst & Young, McDonalds, Stanford, Harvard, MIT, and many more and her career-related advice has been featured in major business and popular media on five continents.

4 Responses to “Oscar Winner Viola Davis on Impostor Syndrome”

  1. Patricia A. patton

    Taking your and Viola’s comments together I understand the above to say; Everyone feels the imposter syndrome at some point or on some days. The difference is we can choose to recognize the thought, give ourselves a little credit, choose to think a different thought, and move on

    • Valerie Young

      Not everyone feels like an impostor. Some have the opposite problem — irrational self-confidence syndrome!

      For those of us who DO feel like impostors, you are absolutely right. It starts with consciously recognizing the impostor thought running through our head… thoughts that typically start with “If I were really bright, capable, talented I should… I’d always… I’d never… I would have/not…” and then REFRAMING it the way a non-impostor would!

  2. Janet

    There is an aspect here, concerning the trauma of how one is raised; the feeling of being intrinsically flawed. Trying to remedy it raises the bar for expectations of oneself beyond what is reasonable= and falling short validates the imposter syndrome. An ugly circle.

    • Valerie Young

      Some studies have shown a connection between self-esteem and impostor feelings and others have not. Put another way – it’s possible to have low self-esteem that can come from, as you say Janet, “the trauma of how one is raised; the feeling of being intrinsically flawed” and not feel like an impostor. Conversely you can have very healthy self-esteem and still have impostor feelings around your work.

      You raise a good point that if you are trying to overcome the false sense of being intrinsically flawed, then you may be especially apt to do what everyone who has impostor feelings does. Namely, set the internal bar so unrealistically high that no mere mortal could possibly hit it and then feel badly for falling short.

      The key regardless of upbringing is to realize that people who don’t feel like impostors are no more intelligent or capable than you or I. That the ONLY difference between them and us is in the exact situation where we feel fraudulent — they think different thoughts. That’s it.

      This is very good news. Because it means all we have to do is learn how to think like a non-impostor.

      That includes recognizing as they do, that we all have the right to make a mistake… to be wrong… to be off our game… to not know all the answers… to be in the middle of a learning curve…


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