Is anyone surprised Viola Davis experiences impostor feelings?

For starters, Davis is 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.

Next, let’s put 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.

This is important because a sense of belonging fosters confidence.

The more people who look like you — in a classroom, a meeting, at a job or in a field, on the executive level of an organization, or in Davis’ case, on the set — the more confident you’re likely to feel.

Conversely, the fewer people who look like you it can and for many does impact how confident they feel.

Beyond Race and Gender

And it’s not just being in a racial minority or the only woman.

Maybe you’ve been the youngest person on the team and felt judged by older co-workers or clients. 

Or maybe you’re on the other end of the continuum and it’s the younger employees seem to wonder what an oldster like you could possibly know. (When I asked employees at Facebook if they’d ever felt this way the 30-somethings raised their hands!)

Or perhaps you have a distinctive regional, working class, or another accent that society has deemed as not “sounding smart.”

Or you have an obvious disability.

Again, anytime you belong to a group for whom there are stereotypes about competence, the more susceptible you are to impostor syndrome.

All the more reason I was happy to hear Ms. Davis has come to see that “self-deprivation is not the answer to humility.”

I’m 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 assured her that she was 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.

About Valerie Young

Impostor Syndrome Institute co-founder Valerie Young, Ed.D. is widely recognized as the leading expert on impostor syndrome, Starting in 1985 Valerie has delivered her highly solution-oriented and surprisingly upbeat message to over half a million people around the world at such diverse organizations as Google, Pfizer, IBM, Boeing, YUM!, Carrier, Microsoft, Intel, Chrysler, PWC (UK), Facebook, BP, TRowe Price, McDonald's (Europe), Liberty Mutual, Dell, NASA, and the National Cancer Institute as well as at over 100 universites in the US, Canada, Japan, Europe, and the UK including Stanford, Harvard, MIT, and Oxford. Her career-related advice has been featured in Time, Newsweek, Science, The Wall Street Journal, BBC radio, and other business and popular media around the world. Her 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) is available in six languages.

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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