Fake it Till You Make it…? Unpacking Imposter Syndrome

A while back, I got a compliment from one of my best friends on some OUSA work I’d done. Instinctively, I laughed it off and said “fake it till you make it!” because I didn’t feel deserving of the praise and so, I tried to downplay my efforts. Moments later as I hyper-analyzed the interaction (because yes, I can be that kind of person), I thought to myself “Why did I say that? I succeeded in that work because I was genuinely confident in my ability to be an advocate. So…why did I act like it was nothing?” 


This got me thinking about the “fake it till you make it” mentality that we default to when we feel incompetent. It alludes to externally presenting confidence even if you don’t feel it internally and I’m worried about how this weakens efforts towards self-empowerment, especially for marginalized people. It begs the question: what prompts us to avoid owning our triumphs when our lived, professional, and academic experiences have given us the tools to be knowledgeable about the issues that matter to us?


Whether you’re a student trying to succeed academically or a leader advancing student advocacy, I feel like this notion of “fake it till you make it” is more rampant because of the spaces we find ourselves in that perpetuate feelings of inadequacy due to age, race, gender, and generally, systems that have historically shaped power structures which are intentionally designed to exclude certain perspectives. Post-secondary is a time when everyone is just trying to figure things out. It’s an incredibly enriching transitionary time, but that also comes with feelings of insecurity about one’s “calling” and how to thrive post-graduation.


Essentially, what I’m getting at is that imposter syndrome is real. It’s especially real when you’re a student and even more real when that’s compounded with a marginalized identity. As a woman of colour, especially as the first one to be the Executive Director of OUSA, I often think about imposter syndrome as I navigate more intimidating spaces and interactions. There are few people who look like me in this work, a lifelong pattern that I’m now experiencing the implications of, and it makes me question if I deserve to be here. It makes me hesitant to accept compliments because I don’t “look” like what success typically is in these positions. And intrinsically, it makes me wonder if people who look like me aren’t prominent in this field because they’re not meant to be successful in this field. 


Feelings of anxiety around what success means or what it looks like to thrive in a given field are very much informed by the broader structures of said field. Consequently, marginalized folks in leadership positions feel like we have little room to make mistakes for fear of looking incompetent, affirming the perceptions of others, and disappointing those who want to follow in our footsteps. We are products of larger systems that have ingrained preconceived notions of ourselves that can ultimately lead to the self-fulfilling prophecy. Pair that with academic and employment competition and it’s a recipe for feeling inferior. For feeling like an imposter. For feeling like we have to fake it till we make it.


While feelings of imposter syndrome are very valid because of historical systems, I’ve realized that it is simultaneously acting as a hindrance to breaking these very systems. Feigning confidence is a self-imposed barrier that limits us from channeling our strengths and actually becoming self-assured. It prevents us from trusting ourselves and from using that trust to excel in our work. It stops us from exploring different opportunities and looking outside our comfort zones to find similar or completely new passions. Building that internal confidence is critical to sustaining and reminding ourselves of why we chose the programs, fields, and careers we did. Of course, this internal work does not exempt upper-level staff and systems from their role in building up marginalized leaders. Oftentimes, a lack of meaningful support means these individuals leave their roles because they are not provided with equitable resources or tools to stay and thrive in leadership.


My main takeaway from all of this is to not let imposter syndrome stop you from engaging in what you’re passionate about. And believe me, I recognize that this is easier said than done. But working through this discomfort is what can lead to transformative change and break cycles of homogenous representation in various fields. Trusting your knowledge, skills, and life experiences is imperative to establishing an empowering relationship with yourself, which will reflect in the work that other people see you do. Don’t feel like you have to fake it till you make it - you’ve already made it. Now it’s just about how you choose to show that to other people.


I’ll end off with a quote from Robin Wall Kimmerer that captures these sentiments. Her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, is an anthology of Indigenous stories that use the teachings of plants to inform what our approach to the world and life should be. Kimmerer writes, “Whether we jump or are pushed, or the edge of the known world just crumbles at our feet, we fall, spinning into someplace new and unexpected. Despite our fears of falling, the gifts of the world stand by to catch us.”