Have you ever been appointed to a role that others felt you were qualified for, but you doubted your own abilities? That’s a classic example of imposter syndrome. Some people experience it just temporarily, while others live with it for many years, always harboring the fear that their colleagues will find out they’re not really the capable people they claim to be.
Imposter syndrome affects people from all walks of life, from those overcoming traumatic histories and other extreme disadvantages to those with a fairly mainstream background. People with imposter syndrome have difficulty internalizing their successes. They view their achievements as something that happens to them by luck or by putting forth a tremendous effort that goes above and beyond what is needed. Thus, they live with a great deal of anxiety.
As a result, imposter syndrome causes people to hold back from pursuing new opportunities. People with imposter syndrome fear that others will discover that they’re not really as capable as they pretend to be, and they live with an undercurrent of this fear.
In some countries like India, people have difficulty escaping poverty and exploitation due to an illegal but socially acceptable caste system and intergenerational poverty. In others, even though the rules aren’t so formalized, imposter syndrome can be a significant barrier to success even after a person overcomes numerous other hurdles, says Program Analyst Princy Prasad of Nomi Network, an organization that works to help women and girls move forward after a history of exploitation. In countries like the U.S., imposter syndrome can prevent people from having the confidence to pursue a more fulfilling career and future, regardless of their talents and intelligence.
Let’s take a closer look at how imposter syndrome develops and the steps you can take to overcome it—like removing tattoos that are making it difficult to envision yourself in the career of your dreams.
How imposter syndrome develops
Imposter syndrome can affect anyone, whether they’re struggling to overcome an abusive past or simply with a lack of self-confidence. Often, people have deep feelings of imposter syndrome that others don’t even know about because they hide them so well. Let’s take a look at a few key triggers of imposter syndrome and the insidious ways in which they undermine a person’s belief in their own abilities.
Stepping into a new role
Entering a new role can trigger imposter syndrome. It’s normal for anyone to have fears of inadequacy at times, but if those fears are a chronic theme, you may have imposter syndrome. People with these fears often chronically over-prepare and overthink things. For instance, they might think, “I need to stay up all night to prepare for that presentation.” Over-preparing then becomes a chronic habit, and they believe they can’t get by without it. Some people experience imposter syndrome for a very long time, even after they’ve proven their competence in the role.
Reminding yourself of past experiences that prepared you for the role can help. Talking about your fears with people you trust is better than hiding them, too. When you shine a light on your fears, you’ll find that others have experienced similar things—even highly capable people you greatly admire—which puts things in perspective.
Overcoming a difficult past
For people working to overcome a difficult past, like victims of human trafficking and others who have suffered abuse, this fear can be especially pervasive. They might be afraid that people will find out about their personal history as they try to move forward with their life or advance in their careers. Without the right support, that could leave them struggling to get by rather than pursuing the life of their dreams.
As survivors look for a job and begin working, they commonly experience “fear of being a fraud, fear of being found out,” says Prasad. Their history of abuse has heavily conditioned them to view themselves as far less worthy and capable than they actually are.
Although imposter syndrome can affect people of any gender and background, women, particularly women of color, are especially prone to experiencing it. They often deal with intersectional challenges to their confidence and the pursuit of new opportunities. Systemic oppression and other oppressive situations can also trigger imposter syndrome by creating a mental narrative that a person isn’t deserving or able to achieve success.
In fact, that’s exactly what human traffickers try to accomplish by branding their victims with tattoos. They choose degrading images that dehumanize their victims with the intent of lowering their self-worth to the point where they see themselves as someone else’s property. As these survivors work to move on with their life, they often experience a severe form of imposter syndrome—but this phenomenon is by no means restricted to survivors. Rather, a broad spectrum of people in our society can find themselves experiencing it, especially if they’ve had to overcome major challenges to get to where they are today. For instance, pursuing a career after incarceration or being the first in the family to graduate from college could trigger imposter syndrome as a person starts a new job.
Many people in these situations navigate the job market while simultaneously opening their first bank account, having a stable home for the first time, or getting their GED, notes Prasad. They might be afraid that potential bosses or coworkers will realize how new so many aspects of a supposedly normal life are to them and see them as a phony—no matter how smart or capable they truly are.
Lack of role models
Not having role models from a similar background and of the same race and gender can also trigger imposter syndrome. This can make it difficult for people to envision themselves in the role or to believe other people can envision them in it. This is often intertwined with an intergenerational history of abuse, incarceration, or a low level of formal education.
“We’re more likely to experience imposter syndrome if we don’t see many examples of people who look like us or share our background who are clearly succeeding in our field,” said clinical psychologist Emily Hu in a BBC article. A human trafficking victim may not know anyone else who has overcome this type of exploitation. Thus, having a support system that includes other survivors who have successfully moved forward with their life can play a big role in overcoming imposter syndrome.
Building a community of support
Having a solid support network plays a major role in overcoming imposter syndrome. Regardless of the reasons why imposter syndrome has developed, a person suffering from it will benefit from having mentors who support his growth and role models who share similar characteristics. For example, a very introverted man might have a mentor who is a very successful introvert.
Victims of abuse are no exception. “Survivors don’t just need a job; they need a community of support,” says Prasad. Thus, Nomi Network works to surround women who have escaped exploitation with a community of supporters, many of whom have gone through a similar ordeal, along with advocates and lawyers. Survivors need trusted confidants to talk through the issues they encounter with them every step of the way, she asserts.
For example, one survivor who received a job offer immediately accepted the first salary presented to her, Prasad notes. Although she had a polished resume and nice clothes, she didn’t understand her own worth or know how to advocate for herself. Healing from trauma is a lifelong journey, and trusted advocates and mentors can help survivors protect themselves from being victimized in other ways in the future, Prasad emphasizes.
Nomi Network offers a 24-month Workforce Development program to make sure women have all the training they need. Even after graduating, the women can stay closely connected with the staff on the ground, giving them an ongoing support base to encourage their continued growth.
After accepting a job, survivors may face triggering power dynamics. A boss may tell them to do something they don’t feel comfortable doing, for instance, and they may not yet know how to advocate for themselves to address the concern. That’s why mentors can play a pivotal role in a survivor’s success, helping her process her feelings and address them appropriately every step of the way—not just when first accepting a job but over the long-term.
Having a tattoo that contributes to imposter syndrome can exacerbate the anxiety people feel in these moments, so tattoo removal is another important step toward success.
In the long-run, Nomi Network also aims to sensitize businesses to how they can support employees who have undergone extreme trauma to enhance their chances of success.
How tattoo removal can help
Tattoos can play a major role in exacerbating imposter syndrome. When a person has tattoos from an abusive past or simply a period of their life that they aren’t proud of, their history is literally branded on their body. “There’s this constant fear that ‘if someone sees that, they’ll believe something about me,’” says Prasad. “‘Or they’ll find out about that part of my story that I’m not ready to share.’”
Tattoo removal allows them to walk through life without carrying those physical scars, she asserts. “For the first time in their life, they’ll be able to say that their body is their own.”
Whether they are erasing a dehumanizing tattoo etched on their body by a human trafficker or simply a prominent tattoo that would be looked down upon in their chosen career field, tattoo removal gives them a chance to start fresh.
For some people, a visible tattoo may have been okay earlier on in their career, but as they move up in the ranks or change career paths, it’s no longer acceptable. In such cases, having a tattoo could potentially heighten a person’s imposter syndrome as they aim toward higher goals, even if they’re great at their current job.
The role of career path planning
Thoughtful career path planning can help mitigate imposter syndrome by giving a person more confidence in their ability to succeed. By laying out a plan with clear steps, people can more fully envision themselves achieving their goals while also determining which resources can help them along the way. Without a plan, people are likely to feel like they’re floundering.
In India, Nomi Network partners with employers who work in local trades to prepare women for workforce readiness in jobs like sewing, farming, and paramedical work, says Prasad. They can also become entrepreneurs who make products such as jewelry. With over 10 years of experience in economic empowerment program development, Nomi Network plans to roll out a domestic program that would provide their trauma-informed workforce development services to survivors and youth at risk of human trafficking in Dallas and New York City. This program aims to help survivors not only succeed in entry-level positions–but “become those people that get to make the decisions,” since the career tracks that Nomi Network provides usually offer room for advancement, says Prasad.
Taking the next steps
If you’re working to overcome imposter syndrome, leaning into your fear is crucial. You can do this by taking baby steps to overcome the feeling of being an imposter. Through small, consistent actions, you can come to accept how capable you truly are. This means pushing yourself to spend a little less time on a project when you know you always over-prepare or being a little more spontaneous in conversations when you know you censor yourself far too much.
Working with a professional therapist can give you the support you need to make real progress. Limiting your social media time can also help since social media is known to increase feelings of inadequacy and the belief that everyone else is living their best life while you are alone in your struggles.
For many people, tattoo removal acts as another great way to build confidence and overcome imposter syndrome. If you feel like everyone at your job interviews is staring at your prominent tattoo, removing it will help ensure they’re focusing on your abilities instead.
Helping others can also play a role because it reminds you of how capable you are. That’s what the women in Nomi Network’s programs learn to do. In one rural area in India, a survivor who had initially been extremely timid and unable to read or write has become a master trainer in their program. She now trains and advocates for other women while also gaining income as a tailor. Through her advocacy, she has brought another woman into the program who eventually became a confident trainer.
“When one woman gets empowered, she shares that empowerment,” says Prasad. “They are powerhouses. They are seen as pillars of hope.”
The BBC, “Why Imposter Syndrome Hits Women and Women of Colour Harder”
Psychology Today, “The Reality of Imposter Syndrome”
SHRM, “Developing Employee Career Paths and Ladders”
Time, “Yes, Imposter Syndrome Is Real: Here’s How to Deal with It”