Imposter Syndrome and Intersectionality

DETC Exec Board

Coined by Pauline Clance, author of the book Imposter Phenomenon, and Suzanne Imes in 1978, imposter syndrome describes the feeling of not belonging in a setting, be it school or work, because of perceived intellectual inferiority to their peers. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), imposter syndrome is associated with, “impaired job performance, job satisfaction, and burnout,” and affects as many as 82% of individuals. Kevin Cokley, a professor at the University of Texas College of Education, then researched imposter syndrome in 240 ethnic minority college students. His findings showed that African-Americans exhibited higher minority-status stress than other groups and Asian-Americans reported higher imposter feelings. These imposter feelings were the strongest predictors of mental health in his study. Almost all research in the area suggests that as a result of discrimination in work and school, women, ethnic/racial minorities, and LGBTQ+ people are most likely to suffer from imposter syndrome.

Imposter syndrome is not without its share of real-world implications. Taking on far more work one can do in order to feel in control of one’s situation is not unusual. Because they think they’re a fraud, they overcompensate in their actions, trying to convince everyone else that they belong. If someone were to be rewarded for doing all of this extra work, the person with Imposter Syndrome would be likely to pretend as though it was easy and took little effort, downplaying their achievements because they feel they have not earned them.

Attending a high-profile institution such as John Burroughs is an experience like no other. The opportunities we have and the people we meet are figments of other people’s imagination. Naturally, one might feel as if they’ve earned their spot here, that they belong here, and that their intellect opened a door for them here. However, for many marginalized JBS students, this confidence is harder to maintain. Imagine this: sitting in a class where everyone seems to know exactly what to say, but you doubt what you’re thinking because somehow, you already know there’s no chance you could be right. Why? Because “Burroughs didn’t accept you for whatever intelligence you might have, they accepted you to meet a quota.” This mindset is very prevalent, even if it is more subconscious and not as apparent to every other student here. This is why self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy increase among marginalized groups attending competitive schools, and shockingly so much so that Mr. Abbott, year after year, has reminded admitted students of color that they are not here because of their race during the POC annual dinner.

We asked various students at Burroughs about their experiences battling imposter syndrome. They responded:

On being a POC at Burroughs: “I’ve felt as though I didn’t get the ‘full Burroughs experience’ because I couldn’t relate to many aspects, mainly just racially and economically… I felt pressured to try and fit in because I feared it was the only way I’d be accepted.” – 2021

On wealth at Burroughs: “There has been times at Burroughs where my family’s of wealth compared to others is obvious. I’ve heard peers mention how their parents can cover the cost of a Burroughs trip with ease, while I’ve had to make it a Christmas request and promise not to ask for anything major for the next few months.” – 2021

On being Black at Burroughs: “I feel like there is more pressure when you’re black because the standards are set higher than if you were white.”- 2026

On being queer at Burroughs: “Burroughs creates a community among faculty that is easily approachable, but trying to navigate through high school as it is on top of feeling alienated for being queer—something out of my control—has taken a toll on my social life and mental health.” – 2021

Now, you may ask, “what can I do?” Firstly, in this time of great stress, remember that you do belong in this space for your exceptional abilities without a shadow of a doubt. You belong here because you are you. Secondly, create the type of inclusive, uplifting Burroughs environment you wish to see among your teammates, classmates, and friends.

In an environment of high performers in performance halls, on the athletic fields, in the classroom, and beyond, the feeling of not belonging or measuring up is never far away for many students. Adding the challenges associated with a marginalized identity (or identities) into that pressure cooker makes it hard for many students to have the Burroughs experience we all envisioned when we opened up the Burroughs Rubik’s cube. Some food for thought as we near the holiday season.