D&IPeopleThe Masks We Wear

'Imposter Syndrome' can shape the lives we lead.
David W. BrownOctober 3, 2022

As summer quickly fades to fall, the month of October has already started to embrace its annual traditions of pumpkin spice, harvest festivals and Halloween. But the masks we wear in real life aren’t always relegated to costume parties and “Trick or Treat.”

Many of us Black and brown folks have had to navigate life with a degree of duality (and in many cases, a state of multiplicity) that requires us to switch from the street corner to the corner suite with ease and fluidity. It has become so much of our survival tool kit that it is more instinct than intention.

However, there is a condition that can hold us back from achieving our fullest potential – regardless of how adept we are at wearing the masks we need. It’s commonly known as “The Imposter Syndrome” which Psychology Today defines as a condition in which people “…believe that they are undeserving of their achievements and the high esteem in which they are, in fact, generally held.” The publication goes on to say that those with Imposter Syndrome, “…feel that they aren’t as competent or intelligent as others might think—and that soon enough, people will discover the truth about them.” These individuals are “often well accomplished” and “may hold high office or have numerous academic degrees.”

I remember the first time I encountered Imposters Syndrome, and it was at a time and place before I even knew that such a thing existed. It was my freshman English class when I was in college. I went to Duquesne University to study journalism after achieving a fair degree of success as one of the few African Americans to serve as an editor for a prestigious high school newspaper— at Central High School in Philly – from which other accomplished journalists had graduated and gone on to award-winning careers. On the first written assignment, the professor decided to make an example of me by physically holding up my paper before the entire class, clearly showing the liberal smattering of red ink and a big “D” on the front, then purposefully walking it to my seat and placing it firmly on my desk.

As one of the few African Americans at the university in the early ’80’s and the only Black student in the class at the time, I was mortified and embarrassed, but extremely motivated. I came to Duquesne very confident in my writing and was one of the first from my family to go to college. So, I leaned into my Imposter Syndrome by being determined to prove this professor wrong by eventually acing his class, being named to the Dean’s List and going on to have a successful career in the field.

Unfortunately, this response of “leaning in” is not always our reaction to this situation. Too often, we “lean out” because of the history of business practices designed to exclude people of color from these spaces. As a result, we’ve always had to fight for having our presence known and our expertise valued. In this instance, it seems easier to retreat, and the syndrome becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, rather than a rallying cry to put the haters behind us.

While the Imposter Syndrome is a very real condition, the antidote may be all in how we approach the cure. Dr. George James, the chief innovation officer and staff therapist for the Council for Relationships, says there are some techniques we can use when we find ourselves in the swirl of doubt that typifies the Imposter Syndrome, beginning first with convincing yourself that you belong wherever you are. “No matter how many credentials or degrees you may add on, your ability and confidence to perform is the best way to counter the effects of The Imposter Syndrome,” James said. “It’s important NOT to let those negative thoughts pull you down into that swirl of self-doubt and unworthiness.”

Other tools we can use to overcome this begin with surrounding yourself with people who support you. While we can always do better, we don’t need a constant chirping of negativity in our ears. Secondly, find an accountability partner with whom you can safely share your doubts and fears. An occasional dose of reality can help shape your plans and strategies in a healthy and meaningful way.

The bottom line is that none of us need to endure the journey we’re on alone. Shedding the masks we wear can be a powerful act of liberation that enables us to be our fullest selves in overcoming the challenges yet before us.

David W. Brown

David W. Brown has owned or managed five advertising/public relations firms throughout his 40+ career in Philadelphia. His most successful venture was BrownPartners, – which operated from 2002 – 2011 – and became one of the most decorated minority-owned ad agencies in the history of Philadelphia’s advertising industry. The company won almost every award in the field including three Pepperpots from the Philadelphia Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA); a Gold Addy from the Philadelphia Advertising Club; and a Mosaic Award from the American Advertising Federation. Brown has the distinction of being the only person to have served over his career as both the President of the Public Relations Society of America’s (PRSA) Philadelphia chapter and the Philadelphia Advertising Club. He is also the only living African American inducted into the Philadelphia Public Relations Association (PPRA) Hall of Fame. With the Ad Club’s Movers and Shakers Pinnacle Award, Brown is the only African American to be selected for Hall of Fame honors by both Philadelphia’s largest advertising and public relations organizations. In 2016, he was recipient of PRSA’s National David Ferguson Award for Outstanding Contributions Education and is the first African American to be so honored. He is also the recipient of the 2016 Ofield Dukes Educator Award conferred by the National Black Public Relations Society (NBPRS) recognizing the best African Americans in the public relations industry that are making positive contributions in the community. It was named after the legendary African American practitioner who worked with music icon Stevie Wonder to make Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a national holiday. Professor Brown is the first Philadelphia practitioner to be selected. He serves as Founder/Managing Director of CommonSoul Communications – a non-profit that provides strategic marketing services to other mission-focused organizations. He was named a “Champion of Change” by the Obama Administration for his communications work around empowering non-profits to make a difference in the communities they serve. In 2018, Brown was recognized for his service to the community in being selected for the Harris Wofford Active Citizenship Award – given to one Philadelphian or organization a year by the Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service Committee which operates the largest single day of service in the country. Brown is the Diversity Advisor to the Office of the Dean at Temple University’s Klein College of Media and Communication where he has pursued level work in the PhD Media and Communication program. An ordained Reverend in the United Methodist Church, Brown is also a frequent contributor to the PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER and WHYY in which he has been featured extensively on a range of urban issues.

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