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Imposter Syndrome, Code-Switching And Women Succeeding In Business

Written by: Natalia Nicholson, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


‘Imposter Syndrome’ was labelled as such by the field of psychology in 1978. The syndrome was deemed to be a new discovery, made by two female psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. I propose this was not such a new discovery and is in fact a behaviour well known by the Windrush Generation, that came from Caribbean countries to seek a new life in Britain between 1948 and 1971.

‘Imposter Syndrome’ refers to the way a person feels ‘out of place’ in a certain social context. This is not recognised as a mental disorder as such unlike Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD), ‘Imposter Syndrome’ happens at selective moments, normally when a person is in a situation, where they feel that their skills or knowledge is being ‘assessed’, by individuals who are of importance at that time.

I propose that ‘Imposter Syndrome’ should not be labelled as such, it is not a mental disorder recognised in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder used by both Psychiatrists and Psychologists.

In fact ‘Imposter Syndrome’ is simply a way of labelling specific feelings that are part of succeeding rather than simply functioning in an alien culture. Something the Windrush Generation are very aware of. In 1951 a term code-switching was termed in a book, Language of the Sierra Miwok, by Lucy Shepard Freeland. Code-switching was the term used when sociologists studied when and why African Americans changed their dialect from African American English (AAE) to standard English, the dialect spoken by white Americans.

What is Code-Switching?

Let’s look at code-switching a little more. Everyone adapts their speech to some degree based on who they are talking to, usually because the way you have traditionally spoken is not deemed acceptable by the group you seek to assimilate with. The ingrained prejudice in Western Culture, towards any behaviour that is not considered the social norm, is slowly shifting. This shift has not come without code-switching and for many Black women adopting the process of code-switching has been the only way to gain the position they are in or to gain progression in their careers.

Women are also impacted by behaviour that falls into code-switching due to Western social norms regarding women and their capabilities. Women are typically told they should not express anger or show any form of aggression. Anger and aggression in a woman are seen as a sign of weakness, yet for a man, they are often considered signs of strength. This contradiction is obvious and impacts women in the same way, code-switching has resulted in Black women already being accustomed to adapting the way they speak. The need to both suppress feelings of aggression and change the way language is not just used but spoken, can result in feeling like you don’t belong. This is what I believe triggers the feeling of being an imposter.

The Windrush Generation in the UK exhibited code-switching by changing from Caribbean dialogue to the way mainstream White English people talk. Feelings of being an imposter are a natural progression from code-switching and happen when you abandon your authentic self in an attempt to fit in. Women are programmed to do this every time they ‘fall into line’, fall into language and behaviour which fits expectations that Western Culture has dictated. This often happens in business when women want to appear less intimidating, for some women this is what happens during marriage, many others feel this is the only way to maintain a relationship.

Repressing who we are is classic unhealthy behaviour, the rage that comes as a result of it is real, as is the desperate need for release. Yet the message is clear, women must deny any expression of anger and ignore their true self in order to assimilate in business environments. l suggest that labelling this feeling as ’Imposter Syndrome’, gives it far more power than it really deserves. Feelings associated with ‘Imposter Syndrome’ have been considered to occur more in women and women of colour, no surprise there!

“Women, women of colour, especially black women, as well as the LGBTQ community, are most at risk,” says Brian Daniel Norton, a psychotherapist and executive coach in New York.

This is why even the leading ‘Imposter Syndrome’ expert Valerie Young accepts that one way to combat it is to label it as a feeling or ‘an imposter moment’.

Women Succeeding in Business

Women are succeeding in business yet not at the same rate as men. This has been partially attributed to ‘Imposter Syndrome’, which is something all women can take control of.

Valerie Yong, Speaking with Time, has the following advice,

"The goal is not to never feel like an impostor."

I agree that rejecting feelings of being an imposter or concern over how you are being assessed in a business environment is not going to help. Instead accept that ‘Imposter Syndrome’ is a result of code-switching, a behaviour required to succeed in all areas of life at one time or another. As a woman, especially a woman from a minority, accept that to be successful, practicing code-switching is necessary. When you do this you take back the power you don’t have a syndrome or mental deficiency, your feelings are part of being a success and not due to so-called ‘Imposter Syndrome’.

The most successful women and men need to practice code-switching and as a consequence may feel like they don’t belong, or they are an imposter in a business environment. This is also more likely when under pressure to perform or in business environments where individuals are constantly evaluated. Taking a step back and realising why you feel like an imposter and understanding that every successful person is highly likely to have experienced the same feelings, can be all that's required. Women may also benefit from attending Emotional release workshops and therapy sessions to uncover rage that has been absorbed for years, especially women who want to succeed in the world of business and have suppressed any feelings or expressions of anger.

Tips for Women and Quicker Success in Business

  • Join a network to find allies and share experiences, you have a fierce group of amazing successful female businesswomen out there wanting to help you!

  • Mentor other women and share your experience and knowledge, by mentoring you will train your brain to accept that you are worth listening to.

  • Write down when you suppress anger or even just disapproval and why look for patterns and ask yourself if you are practicing code-switching behaviour?

  • Accept that code-switching behaviour will often cause feelings of ‘not belonging’ or ‘imposter moments' as Valerie Yong coins them so accurately.

Don’t be afraid of how you feel and accept it’s just part of becoming a success!

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Natalia Nicholson, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Natalia Nicholson is a Serial Entrepreneur, Business and Digital Marketing Coach, and Professional Public Speaker. Natalia has over 20 years of experience working as a digital serial entrepreneur and has had plenty of her own failures as well as success stories. This has perfectly placed her to be able to offer insight and advice to other women aspiring to become digital entrepreneurs, together with those who have already launched their own businesses. Through her mastermind group, Women in Digital Business, Natalia teaches them the best way to leverage the potential of digital marketing and helps them to learn the best ways of overcoming the challenges that they are facing when it comes to becoming successful online businesswomen. Her passion for online business coaching and digital marketing has inspired her to bring inspiration to women from largely overlooked underrepresented groups.





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