5 Ways to Be Intersectional in the Fight Against Imposter Syndrome

A group of people hold hands and raise them in celebration.

A group of people hold hands and raise them in celebration.

I’ve always had imposter syndrome, but I haven’t always had a name for it.

As a young teen, I just assumed everyone felt this way – that we all hesitated before raising our hands in class, even when we had the right answer, because we believed ourselves incapable. It wasn’t until I was in high school and college and I was learning about feminism and the ways women and femmes are socialized that I was able to label the issue.

Still, something seemed off.

The feminism I was encountering didn’t seem to really include my experiences. I’d be sitting in a workshop about combating imposter syndrome in the workplace, and everyone would start talking about how all we needed to do was “act the same way that a man would.”

We were taught to ask ourselves questions like, “Would a male coworker overthink this much before proposing an idea? Would a male coworker apologize before asking a question?”

While these were all good starting points, they felt hollow to me as a queer, disabled, and non-binary woman. For starters, the conversations always seemed gendered – trans and non-binary folks were never included in the language. It was assumed that all men held social privilege and were socialized into masculine roles, but anti-trans hatred and the oppression faced by trans and non-binary people was never brought up.

I felt left out of the conversation in quite a few ways.

Mainstream feminism talked about how women, broadly, were socialized differently – but I never saw my specific struggles as a queer, disabled woman reflected in these conversations. The workshop discussions and Feminism 101 guidebooks talked about how women were taught to be smaller and quieter in a room, but never acknowledged the way that marginalized people might be uniquely affected by this.

Even in a room full of women and femmes, for example, I tend to try to take up less space and be less noticed – because of the systemic oppression related to my queerness and disability.

While I was thrilled that my friends and peers were finally talking about imposter syndrome and how to combat it, I also realized that their activism wasn’t intersectional. The conversations lacked nuance about things like race, gender identity, sexual orientation, class, religion, ethnicity, and disability.

If you’re tackling imposter syndrome, whether it’s for an article you’re writing, a workshop you’re hosting, or just a conversation with some friends, it’s important to be intersectional in your approach.

Because excluding intersectionality means that marginalized people – who are uniquely affected by the ways that systemic oppression ties into imposter syndrome – will be left out. So here are five places to start.

1. Remember That Imposter Syndrome Affects Everyone Differently

Instead of using broad assumptions like “All women face imposter syndrome” or “Men don’t face imposter syndrome,” use inclusive language. Overly gendered language, especially if it’s simplifying the situation, leaves many people out of the conversation.

As a queer, non-binary person, when I hear someone say “All women have been socialized into imposter syndrome,” it makes me question whether or not I belong in the conversation, since I don’t entirely identify as a woman.

It also leaves me thinking about whether the people steering the conversation are including transgender folks in their activism. Would they acknowledge the ways that trans men are also socialized into imposter syndrome, or the way imposter syndrome affects trans women?

By oversimplifying things, we also tend to leave intersectionality out of the conversation.

More than once, I’ve been at female empowerment seminars where we’ve discussed how women can be more confident in their body language and speech. I always find myself thinking, What about people with disabilities?

As a disabled person, I’m often taught by society that the ways I naturally express myself – how I walk, how I speak, how I hold my body – are wrong. How does this part of who I am fit into a conversation about communicating with confidence to overcome imposter syndrome?   

Marginalized people, especially if we’re multiply marginalized, are going to have been socialized into different forms of systemic oppression, and may have learned imposter syndrome from different places.

This also means we’ll unpack our imposter syndrome differently, because we have to work with the complicated layers to our oppression, which we may not even know exist.

2. Include Marginalized Voices in Your Activism

Instead of offering a “one-size-fits-all” approach, include marginalized people directly in your activism. Whether you’re seeking sources for an article on imposter syndrome or hosting a seminar in the workplace, make sure that you include marginalized voices.

I was recently having a conversation with a group of feminists about how the pay gap relates to imposter syndrome – how, because women don’t believe in their worth, they aren’t as likely to fight for equal pay.

I was surprised to find that class was never brought up.

As someone who was raised low-income, I couldn’t help but think about how both class and race heavily factor into the pay gap. Many of my friends who were raised low-income have expressed fear of bringing up negotiations at work, because they feel lucky to even have been selected for the job. They think they should be grateful they’re being paid at all, especially in typically low-paying industries, like writing and the arts.

It would have been nice if the organizers of the event had included marginalized voices, so the issue of intersectionality could’ve been more easily raised.

3. Offer Validation to Marginalized People

If a marginalized person tells you about their experiences with imposter syndrome, validate their experiences by listening and learning as an ally, especially if you’re not also marginalized in the same way they are.

Often, when I’m talking about imposter syndrome with other feminists, I’ll raise the issue of how queerness and disability factor into my personal experiences with it.

I was talking to a colleague recently about how, partly because of imposter syndrome, I’m often afraid to raise issues of accessibility in the workplace. I believe that I’m lucky to even have a job and an income, and that I don’t deserve basic accessibility, so I won’t ask. The colleague validated me by saying they’d never even thought of that, and reassured me that I deserve my workplaces to be accessible to my needs.

Also, if you see marginalized people doing good work, validate our efforts by offering positive feedback, uplifting our voices, and publicly showing your support.

It can be terrifying, as a marginalized person, to put yourself out there, especially if you experience imposter syndrome on top of everything. A little bit of encouragement goes a long way.

Marginalized people experience imposter syndrome in complicated ways, and sometimes it can really help to know that what we’re doing is making a positive impact.

4. Recognize and Reinforce That People’s Worth Isn’t Tied to Their Productivity

The fact is, we live in a capitalist society, and our worth is often tied to what we do to make money and how much money we make doing it. It’s hard not to tie your self-worth to your ability to success in a capitalist environment when the message is so widespread and systemic.

Up until about six months ago, I really struggled with this, and it reinforced my imposter syndrome. Growing up, I always feared that I’d struggle to make a livable income, because I’m a queer, disabled woman who was raised low-income.

I saw firsthand, through my disabled parents, how difficult it can be to get – and keep – a job that will be accessible to your needs when you’re disabled. I feared discrimination because of my queer identity and my disability, and I feared staying in a cycle of poverty almost as much.

For many marginalized people, this just reinforces imposter syndrome, because we’re struggling to make money and be productive because of systemic oppression that stops us from doing so.

Marginalized people are more likely to be unemployed or underemployed, and to not make what we’re worth – especially if we’re multiply marginalized. And for many people with disabilities and mental health issues, working full-time (or at all) may not even be feasible.

If you’re an activist working against imposter syndrome, don’t forget to include in your thinking that a person’s ability to work and take part in capitalism successfully doesn’t define their worth.

This was a hard lesson for me to unlearn, especially because I spent so much of my energy in my high school and college years on resume-building, in the hopes that a stellar track record would overshadow any doubts a potential employer could have about my disabilities or my queerness.

Tell the marginalized people in your life that our worth is in no way tied to our capitalist success, or our ability to be productive or work in a traditional sense.

Reinforce this idea by asking us about things we love, learn, and do that aren’t related to work, and don’t make all your conversations about what someone does in order to earn money.

While I was in the process of unpacking the idea that my worth isn’t tied to my success, it made all the difference that my friends and family didn’t ask me about work and the job search process, but asked me instead about my favorite hobbies – like reading, taking walks, and the arts.

5. Work on a Daily Basis to Challenge Systemic Oppression and Own Your Privilege

Imposter syndrome exists largely because of systemic oppression, and because these systems of oppression make people feel as though they’re worth less than others, and unable to own their successes.

One of the best ways to challenge it is to commit to intersectional feminism daily, which includes acknowledging your own privilege and fighting daily systemic oppression as it appears in your life.

Take an intersectional approach to feminism, and don’t be afraid to raise issues if the activism you’re a part of isn’t inclusive or intersectional – it’s a great chance to educate your peers about these issues.

Include marginalized people in your feminism and activism on a daily basis, including supporting and uplifting our original work and crediting us for our labor. Acknowledge the forms of privilege you do have, and use your privilege as a powerful force to support and uplift marginalized people.

If you’re seeing marginalized people left out of the conversation, whether it’s because a panel on body image has no fat folks on it or because race isn’t being covered in a talk about the pay gap, raise that issue and let whoever organized it know how they can work to do better next time.

It can be scary if you’re marginalized in some way and you don’t know how to raise an issue of intersectionality in your daily feminist activism.

When you can, be an ally to those who are dealing with this, by helping us raise the issue and amplifying our voice with your privilege.

Stand behind us as a strong, supportive advocate, and show why it’s important for everyone to be intersectional in their activism.

Whenever I’m raising issues of intersectionality or systemic forms of oppression that have been erased or ignored, it helps a lot if someone else who’s privileged backs me up – not speaking over me, but using their privilege to amplify what I’m saying and show their dedicated support.

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Imposter syndrome affects everyone differently, and it uniquely affects marginalized people because we experience different forms of systemic oppression. It’s critical that when we look to dismantle problems like imposter system, we’re intersectional in our approach, so that marginalized people aren’t excluded from the conversation or the work.

There’s nothing more validating to me than when someone stops and asks, “Hey, how does this issue show up for you as a queer woman?” or “What can I do better to include ableism in my approach to tackling this?”

It reassures me that the person sees how these systems of oppression play into my imposter syndrome (and overall life), and that they need to be dismantle, and it tells me that they’re my ally in dismantling them.

Alaina Leary is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She is a Bostonian currently studying for her MA in publishing at Emerson College. She’s a disabled, queer activist and is on the social media team at We Need Diverse Books. She can often be found re-reading her favorite books and covering everything in glitter. You can find her at her website or on Instagram and Twitter @alainaskeys.