“The wounded child inside many males is a boy who, when he first spoke his truths, was silenced by paternal sadism, by a patriarchal world that did not want him to claim his true feelings. The wounded child inside many females is a girl who was taught from early childhood that she must become something other than herself, deny her true feelings, in order to attract and please others.”
This quote comes from Bell Hooks’ All About Love, a masterpiece in which she waxes lyrical about relationships and the things that hold us back from loving and being loved to the fullest. I believe what she describes in the above passage is at the core of why most of us experience imposter syndrome in our relationships, often without realising what’s happening.
One way or another a lot of us (myself included) end up internalising the idea that it’s unacceptable to bring our whole selves to interactions. That there are expectations the world has of us and if we fail to conform to them, then we’re somehow undeserving of companionship. The problem is that it’s impossible to live up to these expectations without shrinking huge parts of who we are, especially as queer people of colour.
Growing up in a Sierra Leonean family, I encountered this really early on as a boisterous and emotional child who was constantly being reminded by elders that assertiveness and unashamed vulnerability made for an unattractive little girl. I saw it again in my adolescence when cliques and hierarchies began to form in school and I noticed that the popular people who everybody fancied were essentially cookie-cutter versions of the same three washed out personality types and that even they were desperately scared that somebody might see through the facade into who they really are.
It’s no wonder that we become adults who are haplessly playing this game of pretend in our relationships, romantic or otherwise; when we’re confronted with love that’s true, love that demands and deserves our perfections and flaws alike, it’s accompanied by an anxiety that makes us question ourselves and the validity of our connections, which can result in self-sabotaging behaviours. Imposter syndrome is usually framed in the context of careers and filtering ourselves to be seen as palatable by others it easily becomes second nature, we rarely see this anxiety for what it is.
Behavioural health consultant Chanté Alvarado wrote her masters thesis on the imposter phenomenon in relationships. She says ”It’s more difficult for individuals to recognize the imposter syndrome in their relationships because it’s not an area that is commonly brought up when considering the imposter syndrome. When researching the imposter phenomenon in intimate relationships, I did find that there was a high correlation between experiencing the imposter phenomenon and having an insecure relationship attachment style, specifically preoccupied or fearful attachments… it’s harder to recognize this in relationships because the thought of “I’m not good enough (for my partner)” most commonly comes from trauma…People develop their relationship attachment styles in order to survive and emotions can consume the ability to think logically and linearly, especially when it comes to interpersonal relationships, thus making it hard to recognize that it could be the imposter phenomenon baring its fangs.”
The issue of survival is all the more pressing in the minds of marginalised people. Chanté’s professional opinion is that “Individuals who identify with marginalized groups experience the imposter syndrome more because they have experienced systematic trauma for generations. Through this systematic trauma individuals have learned to mistrust the world around them, and often themselves. If someone has been told, or it has been implied, through their entire lives that they are “less than” they are going to have a really difficult time believing in themselves and giving themselves the credit they deserve.”
A friend of mine (who would prefer to remain anonymous) opened up to me about their struggle with imposter syndrome. He said “ I realized I was gay and that it was “wrong” to be gay very early. It definitely made me feel inadequate in most social situations. I’ve always enjoyed things that are seen as traditionally more masculine: I was always involved in sports, I prefer rock music, I like to build and break things… typical “boy” stuff. But I never felt 100% comfortable around other guys because they never saw me as one of them. I was never “gay enough” or “straight enough”. I sat awkwardly in the middle and never felt fully accepted by either.
As I got older and started exploring my sexuality with others, I realized that being the “athletic straight-acting gay man” whatever that means… could get me a lot of attention. That came with its own set of challenges and a lot of misplaced self-worth. You become people’s projections of what they believe they should want.”
He’s still working through it and says “Overcoming it is an ongoing process. I mostly avoid being in situations where I can be questioned in a way I know will trigger me. I take a long time to warm up to people and try to talk to people 1-on-1 as much as possible. And therapy helps a lot too.” Unfortunately, we don’t all have access to therapy but if you get to a point where you notice feelings of inadequacy impacting your ability to enjoy your relationships or to properly enforce boundaries in them, you don’t have to spend money to overcome those negative thoughts. Free resources to aid cognitive restructuring are available online and can be used to develop positive reflective habits and metacognition (thinking about your thinking).
Regardless of how you approach it, imposter syndrome isn’t something that will just disappear overnight. The most important thing is to let the people you care about know that it’s something you’re aware of which may affect the way you relate with them. Those who are worthy of your light will support your efforts to unlearn imposter syndrome even if it means introducing personal boundaries that weren’t there before.