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How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome in Fashion

BoF Careers speaks to academics and industry professionals to understand how fashion can better alleviate the pervasive psychological — and environmental — experience.
Illustration concept of a person suffering from imposter syndrome.
Illustration concept of a person suffering from imposter syndrome. (Shutterstock)

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The term “Imposter Syndrome,” formerly known as “Imposter Phenomenon,” denotes feeling like a fraud and undeserving of success at work. It is often attributed to women, underrepresented groups and junior employees.

“I call it facing bias and being part of a system that wasn’t designed for you,” says Ruchika Tulshyan, founder of inclusion strategy firm Candour and the author of Inclusion on Purpose: An Intersectional Approach to Creating a Culture of Belonging at Work.

In 2021, she co-authored the article “Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome” on Harvard Business Review, which has since received over a million pageviews. To Tulshyan, Imposter Syndrome is “what it is like to not belong. To face sexism and racism, and the realities of being one of the only, or one of the few [in the room at work]. Feeling like a token [...] It is anxiety, it is stress, it is mental health challenges, and it really compounds. Of course it makes sense that you feel this way.”

Indeed, the State of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion in Fashion Report in 2021 by PVH and the CFDA found two in three Black employees report frequently being the “only” in the room, with the three most common side effects resulting in: an increased pressure to perform; feeling that their actions would reflect positively or negatively on people like them; and that they were expected to represent or speak on behalf of everyone who shares their identity.

Fashion also has its own idiosyncratic triggers: “What is considered fashionable, style, art, is subjective. And for so long, the decision makers have been a very narrow subset of people, [...] almost entirely white, very largely male, and focused on presenting the male gaze on women. [...] It is sizeist, ageist — literally all the various forms of oppression. It is socio-economically elitist,” adds Tulshyan. “So, it absolutely makes sense that anyone who doesn’t fit that, or anyone who hasn’t seen that growing up, feels like they don’t belong.”

Now, BoF Careers breaks down insights and advice from academics and fashion professionals on how individuals, and the fashion industry as a whole, might begin to tackle its pervasive Imposter Syndrome problem.

Understand the Universality of Imposter Syndrome

An increasingly popular topic of research, studies return varying, but consistently high numbers of self-identifying individuals that believe they suffer from Imposter Syndrome: the American Psychological Association cites up to 82 percent of people face feelings of Impostor Phenomenon; the Financial Times quotes “roughly 70 percent” have suffered from Imposter Syndrome; market researcher InnovateMR claims 65 percent.

“I don’t like the term ‘syndrome,’ because it sounds like you have a disorder. That stigmatises having what I call just ‘impostor feelings,’ and all of us have impostor feelings at one time or another,” says W. Brad Johnson Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and faculty associate in the Graduate School of Education at Johns Hopkins University. “Certain groups have more of these feelings because they get more messages from the environment that they don’t belong.”

The InnovateMR survey, for one, claims that “young women are disproportionately affected.” However, Tulshyan is quick to argue that Imposter Syndrome is “not gender-based, [with] men reporting these feelings [...] as often as women,” and that it can also manifest at any point of your career — from an entry-level position through to c-suite and founder level.

This is not something that is exclusive to you. So many people experience this, especially as a creative who works in a very competitive industry.

“For me, it comes when I see others doing so much [work], and I begin to question the essence of my own work. I started my career in 2020, and I have to remind myself that I have just [started],” says freelance fashion and culture journalist Elvis Onyedikachi Kawedo, who covers the fashion industry in Nigeria and the wider African continent, with bylines for Essence, Vanity Teen, the BBC, The Mail and Guardian.

“Maybe my biggest challenge is comparing myself to bigger brands and feeling like there’s so much more I want to do that I haven’t done yet,” Alighieri founder, Rosh Mahtani, shared with BoF in 2019.

“This is not something that is exclusive to you,” adds Kawedo. “[So many people] experience this, especially as a creative who works in a very competitive industry.”

Build Up a Support Network and Interrogate the Source of Imposter Feelings

A key pillar of advice from the experts was to lean on your personal and professional network, to gain perspective and help you contextualise your concerns or feelings of inadequacy.

“It is important to check in with other people who have [your] back, and who could hold [you] accountable. Maybe they will give me advice that there is this thing that I could do to up-level, but more often than not, the advice in those situations is: ‘we don’t see [what you are doing wrong]’,” says Tulshyan.

Support networks can be friends within personal circles — which freelancer Kawedo says is his biggest support mechanism — but they can also manifest within the workplace too.

“Fashion is an emotional place to work, and if you feel down or like you’re not good enough, you need good friends to support you. Having those people to soundboard off, making the people you work with like your family, allows you to get some satisfaction out of your work in different ways,” Mahtani told BoF in 2019.

However, cultivating people to support you and champion you in the workplace can be harder at the start of your career. As a result, Dr. Johnson recommends checking in with other people “at your level, your peers, and just share [how you are] feeling. [...] I think it’s very hard for the individual person to get a psychological perspective if they don’t have other people they can check in with.”

Stay data-focused, check in with others, leverage mentors and ask questions, like: ‘Am I doing what I need to do?’

Individuals should also seek out evidence for how they are feeling, such as whether they have received negative feedback — or if they have internalised self-criticism. Dr. Johnson advises to “stay data-focused, check-in with others, leverage mentors and ask questions, like: ‘am I doing what I need to do? Is there something I should be focused on?’”

“People talk about how you overcome your impostor feelings as if this is an [individual issue], and [...] we’re not paying enough attention to the environment that creates that messaging in the first place,” adds Dr. Johnson.

Tulshyan adds the significance of asking yourself key questions — and its likely redirection to the environment in which you work. “Take the time to reflect: is this really imposter syndrome? Am I really unqualified or less qualified or lacking, or are there other factors at play?”

Ask Leaders to Address the Workplace Environment

A critical way to combat feelings associated with Imposter Syndrome is for organisations to champion a growth mindset, which can help cultivate psychological safety at work. It provides a space where employees can take risks knowing that making mistakes is a core part of being successful.

However, a “growth mindset” holds different challenges for different communities. “To take risks and fail is a necessity in any creative industry. But the realities, the penalties, if you are from an unrepresented and underestimated group, are so much higher. So, it makes sense that, the more senior you get, the more stressful it must be to take risks,” says Tulshyan.

“That risk feels so outsized [...] and if things don’t go according to plan, if the numbers don’t pan out, suddenly, everything is on the line. We have found this again and again. Yet, the conundrum is, the more risks you take, the more successful you are going to be.”

As a result, Tulshyan recommends leaders talk openly about failures and risks, and what they could do better — without blaming individuals or teams.

To take risks and fail is a necessity in any creative industry. But the realities, the penalties, if you are from an unrepresented and underestimated group, are so much higher.

Self-employed freelancers, operating a more solitary working lifestyle, are often far removed from the support networks of colleagues to alleviate unsolicited feelings of inadequacy, or the safety net to make mistakes. Kawedo references the “gatekeeping” of the fashion industry as a contributing issue to suffering from imposter syndrome, which he believes can be helped by improved communication between organisations and hired external talent.

“It’s okay to say ‘no’ to a pitch, of course. Just help us understand why you’re saying no, so [the freelancers] do not begin to doubt your interest in wanting to work with them, [...] and then I can take the piece onto someone else — help us move on.”

Leaders: Act Proactively, Not Reactively

According to the InnovateMR survey in 2021, less than 5 percent of employers directly address Imposter Syndrome with their staff, despite the vast majority of professionals seeming to suffer from it.

Dr Johnson recommends “copious doses of affirmation on talent” as a way to counteract impostor feelings. “Number one: normalise it. [...] Some well-timed self-disclosure can also be really useful. [...] To have a mentor or an accomplished supervisor be that authentic could be powerful.”

“I try and mitigate it proactively, instead of waiting for [a mentee] to share with me that she might have impostor feelings. So I might just bring it up at her mentoring conversation because, [...] even if she’s not feeling like an impostor now, if she does later, she’ll have already heard that messaging for me, and she can appropriately contextualise that in the weird, male-centric environment she’s working at, and maybe not take it as personally,” adds Dr. Johnson.

After all, the mental health challenges incurred from Imposter Syndrome can also have a direct impact on retention — especially among the younger generations. A Mental Health at Work 2019 Report by Mind Share Partners found 75 percent of Gen-Z left roles in the past for mental health reasons, both voluntarily and involuntarily, compared with 34 percent of respondents overall.

“We are all moving towards and demanding more empathetic and human work places than ever before, and I think this is a good way to do that,” says Tulshyan. “[Leaders should] build a much more inclusive, diverse workplace and really insist on it.”

And that starts at leadership level. “If you, as a manager or leader, hear someone that you work with talk about Imposter Syndrome, stop them. Take the time to say, ‘but why? I believe in you, you’re amazing, and the difference you bring will help us [...] reach new people and build our brand etc.’ We don’t hear that enough,” says Tulshyan.

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