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Session 302: The Truth About Imposter Syndrome & Perfectionism

The Therapy for Black Girls Podcast is a weekly conversation with Dr. Joy Harden Bradford, a licensed Psychologist in Atlanta, Georgia, about all things mental health, personal development, and all the small decisions we can make to become the best possible versions of ourselves.

Have you ever felt like a total fraud? Maybe you’ve questioned whether or not you belong? Or fear that you’re not deserving? I definitely have and so has our guest for today’s episode, Licensed Psychologist Dr. Lisa Orbé-Austin. During our conversation Dr. Lisa and I break down what exactly imposter syndrome is, why and how self sabotage might show up unannounced to the party that is your life, and why claiming to be a “perfectionist” is not the flex you think it is.

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Session 302_ The Truth About impostor Syndrome & Perfectionism

Dr. Joy: Hey, y'all, thanks so much for joining me for Session 302 of the Therapy for Black Girls podcast. We'll get right into our conversation after a word from our sponsors.

[SPONSORS' MESSAGES & Dr. Joy's Webby Award CTA]

Dr. Joy: Have you ever felt like a total fraud? Maybe you've questioned whether or not you belong or fear that you're not deserving? I definitely have. And so has our guest for today's episode. Dr. Lisa Orbé-Austin is a licensed psychologist with a degree in counseling psychology from Boston College, and a PhD in counseling psychology from Columbia University. In our conversation today, Dr. Lisa and I break down what exactly impostor syndrome is, why and how self-sabotage might show up unannounced to the party that is your life and why claiming to be a perfectionist is not quite the flex you think it is. Please note that this episode does include reference to sexual harassment. If something resonates with you while enjoying our conversation, please share it with us on social media using the hashtag #TBGinSession or join us in the Sister Circle to talk more in depth about the episode. You can join us at Here's our conversation.

Dr. Joy: Thank you so much for joining us today, Dr. Lisa.

Dr. Lisa: Thank you so much for having me. I'm happy to be here.

Dr. Joy: I know that all the incredible work that we see you doing today ultimately started with you leaving a pretty toxic work environment. Can you tell us a little bit about the path to where you are today?

Dr. Lisa: I have probably had impostor syndrome, probably my whole life. It trailed me throughout my educational career and virtually nothing would make it better. It didn't matter sort of the newest admission to a new program or school or opportunity, it always just seemed to be just getting worse. And it probably was at its height after I'd finished my PhD program in an Ivy League university. And I'd just started with my second job out of school and I had a really toxic boss, and I had a habit of having toxic bosses. I really was about proving myself, showing I was good enough. If somebody didn't believe I was good enough, it didn't make me want to leave, it made me want to stay more and prove to them that I was good enough and so I had a real habit of being with toxic bosses. This particular toxic boss was pretty terrible, I was being humiliated in public. And my job was pretty tough; I actually was teaching faculty members how to teach. And if you've worked in a university, administrators teaching faculty members how to teach is not their favorite thing in the world so you have to really be able to manage your authority and stuff. And he would humiliate me in public, he would embarrass me behind closed doors, he would undermine my thinking around certain things, he was also sexually harassing me. It was really a very painful time and everyone around me was telling me to quit my job and I just couldn't do it. I just didn't feel like I could get another job, just didn't feel like anybody else would want me, and I had all these impostor syndrome thoughts.

And then, after months and months and months of this, we were in a senior staff meeting of all women and there's music playing in the background and someone asked, what is that music that's playing in the background? And he said it's music to soothe the savage breast. And in that one moment, I decided I can't do this anymore, I cannot be in an environment where somebody would have the audacity to say straight out to me, yeah, I'm in control, you're all a bunch of savages. And I just left that office and I called my husband and I said I need to quit this job, and he's like I've been telling you for months. And I cleared out my office that weekend, and that Monday I quit, no notice, no nothing. And he threatened me, he threatened my career, he said I'd never work in education again, he tried to hold me from leaving. He said that money was encumbered, which means that it was already spent and that he couldn't use it for anything else. So it was a very painful and dramatic ending to that but it was a moment in which I decided I'm not living in impostor syndrome anymore, it's more than I can handle and I want something different.

Dr. Joy: Thank you for sharing that, that does sound like a very difficult experience. I wonder, Dr. Lisa, I think for a lot of us, we can look at education (like college and post grad) and kind of clearly see signs of impostor syndrome. But did you think it was present for you even before then? Do you remember even childhood or earlier experiences with it?

Dr. Lisa: Yeah, absolutely. I remember it probably as long as I can probably recall my educational experience. And oftentimes, the researchers and scholars in the area believe it does start in early childhood with that childhood dynamics and family dynamics. And so when I was a child, I grew up in a very white suburb in Pennsylvania and we were pretty much the only family of color. When I was in about the second grade, I was told there weren't enough seats in the advanced classroom and that I was going to need to go to the other classroom, which was the classroom where kids were having trouble. And at seven years old, I kind of thought it was odd that they couldn't just put another seat in the room, it didn't make sense to me.

But clearly, looking back at all these times, I was being tracked. I was being put into a classroom in which they thought, based on the color of my skin, based on what I was capable of, that I didn't deserve to be in any kind of advanced classroom. And so it was very hard. I tried many, many times to get out of that classroom because I knew that by the time I reached eighth grade, I wouldn't be allowed to prepare for the high school I wanted to go to, which I wanted to go to prep school. They wouldn't let me take the extracurricular training for that. And so I fought really hard, but I was never able to get out. And so very early on, I probably had been feeling like I wasn't good enough, I wasn't smart enough, I wasn't capable enough. That if I had a good moment, it was an accident, it was a moment of fraudulence. So it has probably been with me for a very, very long time.

Dr. Joy: You mentioned earlier that your husband and also business partner, Dr. Richard Orbé-Austin, has been an incredible support to you. But you also have talked about how even in those difficult times, it was really hard for you to hear his encouragement to get out of there. What makes it so difficult for people struggling with impostor syndrome to kind of really accept that encouragement and support?

Dr. Lisa: Because it doesn't feel real. It feels like somebody who loves you and is not telling you an accurate story about what you're really capable of. I mean, there's a famous saying that he would say to me over and over again, that I really had trouble internalizing. And he would say when you work as hard for yourself as you do for others, you're going to be unstoppable. While the words I understood them, I didn't know what he was talking about. I didn't know what he meant until all of a sudden, I knew what he meant. And so he was always telling me these things that were incredibly useful and helpful, but I didn't know how to use them. I just thought he has a belief in me that's probably based on how he feels about me, that has nothing to do with accuracy and the real capability that I had. Even though I had tons of evidence that I actually was right, I hadn't internalized any of those things. They all felt like I had gotten them through some false mechanism. And so it was very hard to trust him until I finally realized I had no choice. I had to trust him because the other route was really dangerous for me in a variety of ways.

Dr. Joy: Let us break it all down for people who are joining us for this conversation and talk about, what does it mean to have impostor syndrome? What is the definition of impostor syndrome?

Dr. Lisa: Impostor syndrome is when you are a skilled, qualified, expert even, have credentials, but you haven't internalized them. And as a result of not internalizing them, you then have performance anxiety about the things that you do. That performance anxiety often leads to either self sabotage, where you set yourself up for failure, or where you overwork or over function to cover this idea that you are actually fraudulent. Once you perceive performance feedback, typically you either negate or get rid of any positive feedback around your performance. And then if there's any critical feedback about your performance, you hyper focus on it with this idea that you'll never make that mistake ever again. And then you get caught in the cycle all over again. So it's a kind of cyclical thing that begins with a trigger, where you're feeling like a fraud and that you're not good enough.

Dr. Joy: What are some of the feelings and fears that are associated with it? You've already talked about not feeling good enough, feeling like you're an impostor. Are there other things that you would want to call out for people?

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. You often feel that making a mistake or even having a moment of failure feels like exposure, that it's actually showing the true you as opposed to just being human and normal and people make mistakes. You can often feel very kind of focused on other people's performance and over-estimating them and underestimating yourself. You can be very perfectionistic, very focused on the only way you can internalize something is if it's done perfectly. So there are a lot of features. You can also tend to lean toward mentors for just external validation. Not the whole full complement of things that a mentor can offer you, you're just focused on whether they think you're doing the right thing. We can be very intellectually inauthentic, so we often don't share what we know because we're fearful that we don't know it 100%. Or we're fearful that we'll make other people feel insecure. People often say it's self doubt – it's way more than self doubt. It's a constellation of things that occurs, that most people can identify with more than one thing.

Dr. Joy: Dr. Lisa, so even with the perfection… Let's say you do something perfectly, like you pull off this major event that you've been working really hard, everything goes really well. People with impostor syndrome, are they able to give themselves credit for the thing actually going flawlessly?

Dr. Lisa: No, because they are able to see the one thing that went wrong, the one thing that nobody else saw, the way it could have been better. They're constantly caught up with the things that didn't go well and that's the things they hyper focus on. So even if something does go well, in their heads, they're thinking about everything that got messed up. And that makes it very difficult for them to internalize, especially with the perfectionism.

Dr. Joy: Got it. So where does this come from? Are there some kind of early childhood experiences? You've already shared an early, sort of, for you that feels like it could be maybe some of the beginnings of this for you. But are there some other things that kind of lay the path for people who are struggling with impostor syndrome?

Dr. Lisa: What the scholarship and the research tends to point to is that there are ways that our early childhood sets us up for impostor syndrome. For example, being caught in one of the three most typical early childhood roles, so you're either the intelligent one in your family where you're considered the smart one, but yet you feel like if you struggle at anything, it's evidence that you're not necessarily as smart as everyone thinks. Or the hard working one. The hard working one is the experience where you feel like you've been told only if you work super hard, only if you grind, then you can get what you need. And you always have to grind and you never notice the things you are naturally good at that come easier to you. And then the last one, the survivor type which is someone who may not have had someone telling them they were either the intelligent one or the hard working one. They may have had abuse or neglect in the home and their accomplishments were ways of surviving, of getting out of a circumstance. So they often feel like everything is super fragile – they make one mistake, I could lose absolutely everything even if that's not necessarily true. And on top of the childhood dynamics or family dynamic, anger and conflict weren't handled very well in the family by older people in the family so you wanted to be people pleasing and getting along and doing everything right to make everyone okay. Situations in which there are strict family rules, codependent family dynamics, narcissistic parental figures. There are a variety of different dynamics that kind of create this experience in us and that's why it's so embedded and often difficult to change. It's because it's so long standing.

Dr. Joy: And with many things in the field of psychology, we know that throughout the years, new research develops and we get new spins on things. And so I believe the impostor syndrome was initially studied in the 80s with collegiate level white women historically, I think. I know there's been a ton of research since then that talks about how impostor syndrome might even look differently in black women, in women of color and people of color. And I've also been recently seeing conversations just kind of online about black women actually struggle with impostor syndrome, or is it actually a byproduct of systems of oppression? Like you talked about being in institutions where we are not welcomed, where our greatness is not affirmed. And so is it really impostor syndrome or is it really a broken system? Can you say a little bit about the differences in research and what impostor syndrome maybe looks different for black women?

Dr. Lisa: That's a jam packed question. The initial research started in like 1978. The first hallmark paper comes out in 1978. Clance and Imes were the psychologists who put out that paper. They are studying, and they're currently at Georgia State when it happens, when they sort of start to talk about this phenomenon. And initially, it's positive that it only really occurs with women. Then about 10 years or so and later in the research, they find out it also occurs in men. It doesn't occur more in women than it does in men, that has not been conclusively proven. Although you hear that a lot on social, it is not true. It does look different sometimes in women and men and we're also finding really cool information that's just started to be researched about different gender expressions. In terms of race, it's really what you're seeing in popular press about it's oppression, it's not impostor syndrome. It's not been actually proven by the research.

One of the leading researchers today on impostor syndrome is a black man, Kevin Cokley at the University of Michigan, and he actually is writing a book currently about impostor syndrome with the American Psychological Association. And he has found out some really powerful things that people are really not talking about. One of the things he has found out recently that he studied with black folk is that when you experience impostor syndrome, the depression that results from a racially motivated incident is actually higher. So you can actually experience more depression when you have impostor syndrome, when you have a discrimination related incident. Which is really a powerful finding. He's also found that for black people, Latinx and Asian Americans, that impostor syndrome is a more powerful indicator of psychological distress and mental health issues than it is minority status distress. That is a huge finding. So in essence, this idea of being a minority and being distressed by being a minority, and that causing mental health issues, is not the strongest indicator. Impostor syndrome feelings are the strongest indicator.

So this idea that it doesn't exist with us, not true. The research is not bearing that out. It actually is showing that it's very significant for us. We talk about always about misinformation. It's so important out there when you're consuming information to actually look at what's been studied, what's been researched. And not to necessarily buy something because there's a million clicks or a thousand clicks, but to look at the data. And so he's actually doing a ton of research on people of color and finding out it's a very significant impact on GPA, self esteem, survivor's guilt. For Asian Americans, it's an indicator of potential issues around shame. There's so many things that he's sort of finding and his colleagues are also finding, because there are so many new researchers of color that are actually researching impostor syndrome. I wouldn't necessarily buy all the clickbaity stuff, I know it's juicy to read and interesting and fun to look at, but the research is not bearing that out. And it's actually a serious concern for us. So if we minimize it in our own people, we will never get underneath it and change it and that's massive and a problem. Because I do believe that systems benefit from impostor syndrome and they do trigger it. So if you don't deal with it, the system is going to benefit from you thinking you don't have impostor syndrome when you may be really dealing with it and need to deal with it directly.

Dr. Joy: But it also kind of feels like a chicken and an egg kind of thing. Because I also feel like probably a lot of people of color, black women specifically, probably their earliest experiences with feeling like an impostor were triggered by some kind of microaggression or racist kind of experience. Is there research there that you can talk about?

Dr. Lisa It's not that systems have no play in it, it's just that the fact that those are actually your triggers. You have additional triggers because you are from a marginalized group. And so things like being isolated, racism, discrimination, microaggressions, gaslighting, all of those things are triggers for your impostor syndrome. So if you're away from those things, your impostor syndrome doesn't go away, it just isn't actively triggered at the moment. And so I think it's an important thing to recognize. A lot of people think, oh, I'll just get away from the bad environment and then they find that they still have the impostor syndrome, just in a different circumstance. Even in a healthy, functional work environment, even in an environment that doesn't feel racist, you can still have it. And so I think that's a really important thing in that it just expands the number of triggers, and perhaps the frequency in which you're being triggered because you just have more triggers. But it's not necessarily the reason, the sole reason why you have it.

We also know that people from privileged groups have impostor syndrome. So this whole new thing about like, "oh, that's so lovely of you to say you come from a privileged group and that you have impostor syndrome." People from privileged groups also have impostor syndrome and it's not okay for us to be gaslighting them around that either. So I think it's really important for us not to get into this kind of crabs in a barrel kind of situation and really allow us all to be dealing with this openly. Especially because there's been such a lovely resurgence, to be able to talk about the 40 plus years of research and things that have gone on in the literature that no one's been paying attention to all this time.

Dr. Joy: More from my conversation with Dr. Lisa after the break.

[BREAK and Dr. Joy's Webby Award CTA]

Dr. Joy: Are there other misconceptions or things that you've seen, just in pop culture, things that you think are important to address?

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. I talked about the woman thing, so you hear that all the time. It's a woman's issue. It's not a woman's issue. We haven't been able to find that there are significant differences from men and women consistently. And then I think also you hear that it's a good thing to have. Even I've seen several psychologists, big psychologists, talk about it helps you for motivation and success. There's nothing in the research that shows that you are motivated or more successful as a result of your impostor syndrome. There's actually a lot of detrimental outcomes that come from a greater anxiety, depression, greater organizational loyalty, less seeing your value in negotiating. So there's nothing worth keeping here that's going to actually really help you. I think also you hear like it's not going to go away. Like if you've had it forever, you might as well embrace it. That's ridiculous. Our work has been able to show that you can actually decrease your impostor syndrome in a short period of time with interventions that have been shown to work in the research.

Dr. Joy: Something else you talk about in your work is the impostor syndrome paradox. Can you say a little bit more about what that is?

Dr. Lisa: I think that the paradox is really about the experience of that it's good for you, that in some ways that it's helping you, that it's motivating, that you can't live without it. And meanwhile, it's actually holding you back, it's preventing you from things that you probably can't even dream or think about yet. Because it keeps your world super, super narrow. Even though it's telling you, "I'm the reason why you're successful. If you didn't work as hard, if you didn't push yourself as hard, if you didn't try to please this person, then you wouldn't necessarily get what you want." But that's not necessarily true. I think it's about challenging these notions. And figuring out what you really want for yourself. What are the things that you're striving for? How do you take care of yourself in a different way? Like really making your world much more expansive than the world that impostor syndrome lets you have.

Dr. Joy: Dr. Lisa, I think a lot of people struggle with this concept because it feels like… At least the people we see publicly talk about struggling with impostor syndrome are like, on the outside looking in, doing so incredible, right? So the thing I often also hear is that the people who actually might be impostors don't struggle with impostor syndrome. Is there anything that you can offer there that might be helpful?

Dr. Lisa: Yeah, so you often hear this too, which is not necessarily true. Everyone has impostor syndrome – no, the data does not show that out. About 70% of people experience impostor syndrome. So people often ask me what's on the other side of that, what's that 30%? So I think there are people who have never experienced impostor syndrome. I think that there are people who did not have the early childhood experiences and dynamics, including people of color. Because my husband has never experienced impostor syndrome, he doesn't know what it's about. He knows what it's about clinically, but he hasn't experienced it personally. He has always felt confident, he always felt like it was his skills. If he was discriminated against, he was like that's discrimination, that's racism, that's not me. So there are people who don't experience it at all. And the other group is usually the Dunning-Kruger effect people. That's people who believe they are expert when they are not.

Dr. Joy: Got it. It feels like we've gotten an explosion of scammers, like people who have gotten people from all of this money and just go through the world selling people on they have all these answers when they clearly do not.

Dr. Lisa: And social is great for that. Really allowing people to become expert because they have a large number of followers, not because they have actually any expertise.

Dr. Joy: You mentioned a little while ago that there definitely are strategies and interventions that people can try to work through impostor syndrome. Can you say a little bit about the things that were helpful for you in working through impostor syndrome? And also other things people might be interested in trying.

Dr. Lisa: Yeah, so our first book lays out those non interventions that have been significantly shown in the research to really change the game with impostor syndrome. One of them is learning how to identify automatic negative thoughts when you're triggered, and then how to counter them with basic CBT methodology that works really lovely with impostor syndrome. But the piece that we are working on identifying is what are those impostor syndrome thoughts that are happening? Oftentimes, we have come to believe them as true, and recognizing that they're not necessarily true and they're actually impeding (and reinforcing the impostor syndrome) is part of the work. It's being able to identify and distinguish them. I love this quote by Amit Ray that says, "You are not your thoughts; you are the observer of your thoughts." So teaching people to be more observers of their thoughts and learning to not trust them as truth just because they're coming at you from your head. So that's a piece.

One of the other pieces is that we know impostor syndrome causes a lot of overwork so it causes burnout. It's significantly correlated to burnout. So one of the things that we often are teaching people how to do is how to embrace and structure and prioritize self care in their lives and find ways to consider this as foundational. You don't get self care when, whatever times leftover, you're actually thinking about it being very embedded. We also talk about, in impostor syndrome, we often are lone wolves because we're embarrassed about the things that we feel like we're hiding. We often don't necessarily embrace and bring in other people to help us. And so bringing strategic community around you becomes incredibly important, and letting people into the story. So there's a variety of things that are not impossible, really easy to do, that can actually affect it pretty quickly and permanently.

Dr. Joy: Dr. Lisa, is there a connection between impostor syndrome and self esteem? Are they related? And how is it different if they aren't related?

Dr. Lisa: There is significant correlation in the research for impostor syndrome and self esteem. And you can imagine if you feel like you're just a fraud, that your self esteem is pretty poor. And so I think that is a part of working on… One of the things we also talk about is about starting to recognize your accomplishments and internalizing your accomplishments. Oftentimes, we're very bad at that and very good at dismissing compliments, dismissing opportunities to show off something that we've done. We really loathe that stuff. And so learning how to recognize that, internalizing and working on your self esteem pretty proactively can be a natural buffer to dealing with impostor syndrome. Because if you feel like you are competent and you are capable and you can do these things, when those thoughts come across, you're more readily able to challenge them. Because you know you are competent. And so I think recognizing that self esteem issues also have to be worked on as a part of the process is incredibly important.

Dr. Joy: In your work, you also talk about, and the community loves like a five step kind of thing. So you have five steps for giving up perfectionism and breaking the impostor syndrome cycle – can you talk us through these steps?

Dr. Lisa: In dealing with perfectionism, it's about recognizing that perfectionism is not necessarily responsible for your achievements and your growth. I think also with perfectionism, we often see all the pros that it brings us and all the things that we feel like it's benefiting us, but we have to also recognize there are real significant consequences for our perfectionism, and so being able to see the cons in perfectionism. For example, the way it makes us overwork, the way that it never allows us to internalize things that are not perfect. The fact that we'll never be perfect, so what are we striving for? So being able to recognize those things. We also often talk about, instead of striving for perfection, striving for, and a lot of people struggle with this, but the good enough. And if not the good enough, maybe the great enough, and then how do we allow ourselves for something to be able to take in that it's good enough or great enough, and that is not perfect. And really practice that intention. And so working to challenge the notions of perfectionism that have kept it entrenched, that have made it feel like it is actually a benefit to us when it actually is a detriment to us. So proactively doing that work.

The other pieces are being able to embrace the growth mindset. So when you are making a mistake, not having a fixed mindset, like this is all that I'm capable of. I made a mistake, this is evidence of who I am. And understanding that part of making mistakes is learning. And then also seeking support, so being able to seek support and find support when you need it, which can be really hard when you're a perfectionist because you have to show your flaws, you have to show your vulnerability. Perfectionism is not necessarily the reason for your success; to embrace the growth mindset; to strive for good enough or great enough and not perfect; to recognize the cons of perfectionism; and to seek support when you need the support.

Dr. Joy: You also talk about, in your work, two different cycles of impostors. Impostor Cycle One and Impostor Cycle Two – can you break that down for us?

Dr. Lisa: For Impostor Cycle One, you get triggered, you go into performance anxiety, as a result of that performance anxiety, you then overwork. As a result of overworking, you then put in way too much effort into the thing to make sure that it's absolutely perfect. You then get the performance review. You usually get positive feedback if you're overworking, so you get positive feedback and then you move on. Because you haven't internalized it, you don't take in the compliments, you don't take in the positive feedback and you get caught in the cycle all over again. Then for Impostor Cycle Two, you get the trigger, you have the performance anxiety. This time instead of overworking, you engage in self sabotage. And for people with impostor syndrome, what self sabotage tends to look like is long periods of procrastination followed by short, intense bursts of overwork. So we're actually going to do the thing; we're just going to do it in a very short, intense period of time, potentially flirting with disaster or emergencies that might arise that we can't manage. We then get the performance review. If it goes well, we handle the emergencies and all of that, then we get positive performance review, we ignore it, we move on. Or we get critical feedback if we were making mistakes or something happened that we weren't able to check. Then we hyper focus on that negative feedback so we make sure that we never make that mistake again, and then get caught in the cycle all over again.

Dr. Joy: What are some ways to break that cycle? Because it does feel like in the workplace, we would probably see a lot of this, especially when you're talking about these two cycles that you're describing.

Dr. Lisa: That's why we like to think of it as a cycle because there's a couple of different intervention points that you can think about. If you're being triggered, one of the intervention points is to recognize it as a trigger and then decide, okay, when I'm triggered like this… For example, I have to give a talk and I hate public speaking and that's when I feel like an impostor when I publicly speak. So you get the trigger, someone asks you to give the talk. And then instead of over-preparing for the talk in Cycle One, you then decide, okay, I'm going to spend this much time on this talk preparing it, I'm going to rehearse it, I'm going to go through those steps, but I'm not going to over function – not going to over prepare to give this talk. And you kind of set aside this amount of time that you're going to give to it and then you do that.

Another part of breaking the cycle is working on the feedback part. So really working on taking in compliments. Somebody says you did a great job at that talk, and then you say thank you so much, I really appreciate that. And you write down what they said so later on, you can recall it and work on internalizing it. Typically, when someone says to us, you did a great job in the talk, the first thing we said was did you notice the thing that I screwed up here? Or that number was wrong, or the slide deck was…? That's what we typically engage in. Or we say, oh, they don't know enough about our field to really give me positive feedback that's useful. And so we find ways to find excuses of what not to internalize so it can break up the habit there, the cycle there. Also the negative talk stuff and managing the negative talk. There's all kinds of ways and tools that you can break it up but the idea is to break up the cycle. To know what it looks like for you and to figure out what is the intervention point that might make it even just slightly different.

Dr. Joy: More from my conversation with Dr. Lisa after the break.

[BREAK and Dr. Joy's Webby Award CTA]

Dr. Joy: I wonder if you can say a little bit about what are some, maybe other overlooked components of workplace culture that can contribute to being a trigger for somebody's impostor syndrome?

Dr. Lisa: There are a variety. Having a toxic boss. One of the things that drives us most batty is how many toxic bosses are allowed to be toxic openly and so I think a toxic boss can be very triggering. There's especially certain types of toxic bosses, like perfectionistic bosses who are like the "prove it to me" bosses that are like you're only as good as your last performance. There's a bunch of different boss types that can be triggering. Also, cultures can be very triggering. An organizational culture that tends to reward overwork and so the people who are doing well are killing themselves. And so your model is to work, overwork, over function. There are certain industries that are like that. Law tends to be one that is very much like that, where the expectation is 60 to 80 hours a week of work. Medicine is like that. There's a lot of fields in which it's inherently built in that overwork is not considered overwork, it's just considered work. Although people see the consequences of it and recognize it's not healthy for them, it's still part of what's considered standard. And so that can be pretty problematic. I think one of the things we talk about is places that are not psychologically safe for you to work, where you don't feel like you can bring your whole self to work. It kind of triggers this idea of covering and hiding and being someone else, that you're not good enough. So there are a variety of things that workplaces do and promote that really do consistently reinforce impostor syndrome.

Dr. Joy: Dr. Lisa, I'm curious. Is there any research that talks about people who struggle with impostor syndrome being drawn to particular career paths?

Dr. Lisa: Oh, that's a really good question. I haven't seen it being about being drawn to career paths, but I have seen research that shows that they will kind of veer off a career path as a result of impostor syndrome. A bunch of studies have looked at STEM (issues around science, technology, engineering and math) and that, especially for men, and they also find it I think for people of color, that when you have impostor syndrome, you're likely to veer off STEM paths because of this idea of like I'm not good enough. And as a result of that, even if they are good enough, if they see any glimmer of not being good enough, they'll veer off because they don't feel like they can master it. So I think we've seen it with STEM kind of leading. But I think your question is well taken, because there are certain career paths in which you are constantly proving yourself, you constantly don't feel good enough. We're talking about law, medicine, where I see it probably considered almost normal. I've done work in law firms and other places and everyone was like, I thought this was normal. Like this is just the way you're supposed to function. And so I do think there are certain fields in which I think the culture of the field probably pulls… There's not research to say this; I'm just saying, based on anecdotally, that it pulls for you to feel like you have to prove yourself, and that feeling feels familiar. And so that feeling of being familiar makes it feel like it's a fit. And so I do think I could see that a lot. I could see that potentially could be well researched and there might be some interesting findings there.

Dr. Joy: Yeah, that's what made me curious about it. When you mentioned law and medicine, I can imagine that if people don't have access to a conversation like this or they don't necessarily know the signs and symptoms of impostor syndrome, it may just feel like, oh, this is what happens in law school. Or this is what it looks like to be an emergency room doctor. And not until they run across this kind of information do they realize like, oh, everybody doesn't feel this way and it shouldn't feel this way.

Dr. Lisa: Yeah, that life might be easier if it didn't feel this way in terms of feeling like I could actually set limits, I could set boundaries, I could say no, things that are nearly impossible to do when you have impostor syndrome.

Dr. Joy: You spent a lot of time talking about the bad bosses and what people should not do to trigger people's impostor syndrome. Do you have some suggestions for bosses and managers of things that people can do to not trigger people's impostor syndrome or further contribute to it?

Dr. Lisa: Yeah, I think number one, psychological safety is really important. Really making people feel like they can show up as their full true selves, and also be able to raise issues without being challenged in the workplace. To be able to disagree with something and it not be the worst thing in the world. It's really important for there to be disagreement and different opinions. I also think it's really important that we model balance. And that's a tricky kind of perception. People are saying there is no balance, but to be able to model the fact that you can separate from work and you can have a personal life, and that becomes really important in the workplace. I think also really understanding when you see people struggling with impostor syndrome, that you're not accidentally reinforcing it and engaging in behaviors that encourage them to continue to prove themselves to you or that they're not good enough.

I remember when I started my doctoral program and I was with five of my cohort, I mean it was only five of us. And after the day of hearing all their accomplishments and all the things that they had done, and I was 24, I hadn't done half the things that they had done. And I remember walking out of there and seeing my mentor outside and he said, how did it go? And I said I feel like I don't belong here, I feel like they made a mistake. And he said, well, we're about to find out. And while he may have felt like that was encouraging, all I heard was, okay, we may have made a mistake and now you're going to prove that we didn't make a mistake. And so I spent the next three to five years trying to prove I belonged. And so we can accidentally say things off the cuff or things that we think are encouraging, that are actually reinforcing impostor syndrome in the workplace.

And I do also think one thing that's pretty scary is that oftentimes people think about how impostor syndrome affects them personally, but it can affect you as a manager and a leader. And that when you're a leader and you have impostor syndrome, you can engage in behaviors that can be quite toxic, quite accidentally. But I think it's really important to recognize, for example, you can be quite a bad micromanager because you're afraid of how other people will perceive someone else representing you and your work and your team. So you can micromanage, you can be very bad at representing the team's wins because you just are very uncomfortable with doing that. You can be a person who actually accidentally reinforces impostor syndrome for other people. So it's really important to recognize this intrapersonal issue that can have large impacts on others.

Dr. Joy: Impostor syndrome is not a DSM classification so this is not something somebody's going to diagnose you with. But I'm wondering, people may be listening to this and thinking like, oh, is this something I struggle with? Is there some kind of quiz or worksheet or something people can fill out to see if this is something that they actually struggle with?

Dr. Lisa: We have a quiz on our site so you can look at my Instagram and there's a quiz there. But doctors Clance and Imes also have a quiz that you can easily Google and it's free to take. Mine is free to take, too. And so you just kind of get a sense of whether or not this is something you're experiencing.

Dr. Joy: Got it. I'm gonna get a little personal with you, Dr. Lisa. I feel like I have kind of struggled with impostor syndrome on and off. I'm preparing for my book to be released in June and I feel like this is when it has been the highest, like writing a book. And you are preparing for your new book to come out so I'm curious about your process of managing impostor syndrome while you were writing and launching books.

Dr. Lisa: You knew how to hit the trigger point, didn't you? It was rough, it was really rough. The book had come in this very beautiful way. The acquisition editor had reached out to us and had said, you've been writing about this – we'd love to write a book on impostor syndrome, would you be open to it? And they were lovely. I couldn't have found a less impostor syndrome triggering experience. They were like, you write the book you want to write, you be free. But good lord, did it trigger. And I was like, be free? But I don't know anything. What am I doing here? My husband, like I said, who doesn't really deal with impostor syndrome, he got right to it. We split up the chapters, he just started pounding things out. And I was procrastinating and like doing extra research. I literally read every single article under the sun and I didn't write anything.

And then the craziest thing happened, which was I thought the deadline for our book was October 31. But it was actually October 1. And so I was a month behind and so we spent a week writing the majority of the remainder of the book, pretty much almost like what felt like every waking hour. And it was very painful because I was already struggling with I wasn't competent enough and now I had to bust out this book in like a matter of a week. So it was a very intense, very difficult experience. My impostor syndrome was all over the place, and feeling like I was gonna get exposed. And so it was really rough. The first one was a really rough, painful experience to write. The second one felt different, but the first one was rough, because I think I was being massively triggered, and not managing my triggers, and not managing the cycle, and not doing anything I was supposed to do, but procrastinating. So it was difficult.

Dr. Joy: Right. And now you've signed up to do it again, right?...

Dr. Lisa: I think being through the process also of talking about the book, and sharing the book, and realizing how much we had impacted people with that first book, and seeing how many people had real change as a result of it, I felt like that I'm actually doing something, even if it's painful. I need to learn the lessons, so when I write the next one, it's not so painful. And I think with the second one, I was much more organized and I did face the kind of… I did not procrastinate. I actually tried to really learn from the first process because I was in such like, it felt visceral, the pain in my skin, about how fearful I was. And so the second book wasn't as bad in terms of really feeling like I had something to say, that I really wanted to make sure that I got it out there. And so it wasn't as bad the second time around. There were other things that were bad about the second time around, but it wasn't around writing.

Dr. Joy: Right, it wasn't that bad.

Dr. Lisa: It wasn't bad.

Dr. Joy: The new book is called Your Unstoppable Greatness: Break Free from Impostor Syndrome, Cultivate Your Agency, and Achieve Your Ultimate Career Goals. And it is more of a workbook, there are prompts there. I'm wondering if you can share maybe one or two of your favorite activities or exercises from that book that might be helpful for our community.

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. The first part lays out your agency in really thinking about how do you make yourself feel powerful in this process. One of the things that we noticed when we did the first book was that people were able to deal with the intrapersonal issues and their impostor syndrome scores went down, and they felt a lot better about themselves. But then they went into these systems, like we were talking about earlier, that were super toxic and they were sort of regressing them and making them forget their skills, making them forget their power and be like, I don't know, it's always gonna suck. And so that first piece is really about dealing with your agency and like honing and deciding that I have the power to do this. The second piece is probably my most favorite part because it's about the systems issues and really trying to help you recognize the ways in which some of your early family dynamics may create or show up in your work dynamics, and the kinds of bosses you choose, the kinds of environments you're familiar with. And so how do you break that? As a psychologist, that's the stuff that I feel most excited about.

And then the last piece is really about helping you to be a good leader and how you show up in the world. Making sure the impostor syndrome doesn't affect others in the ways that you build culture, the ways that you build teams. But in terms of specific exercises, I think some of my favorites are if you're dealing with a narcissistic boss or codependent boss, sort of taking a deep dive and looking into exploring what is it about those kinds of bosses that are kind of familiar to you, and what patterns you need to break around them. I think that's really powerful for me because that was my issue. I often had a very narcissistic boss and I had to take a really deep dive look at why that was the case and why I really was drawn to narcissistic bosses. I literally felt like a magnet. I didn't even know how that kept happening. And then when I was able to deconstruct it, I could smell it a mile away. And when I smelled it, I totally did not ever like… I don't care how good the job was, I was like I'm not. I can't take the risk, it's not good for me, it's not healthy for me. So learning that I think was really critical for me moving forward, because I did have other jobs after I left that job. Even though I started my practice and did other things, I had a plan for what my future was gonna look like, I still had to have other jobs to pay the bills as I was setting things forward.

Dr. Joy: You mentioned just now, and you've talked before during this conversation about some of those early life events that can kind of set the stage for impostor syndrome. Can you give us a sense of what some of those early life experiences are?

Dr. Lisa: Some of those early dynamics have to do with the family dynamics. And so these ideas around, for example, strict family rules. And so what strict family rules often do to people with impostor syndrome is that we know how to fall in line but we often don't know how to question the strict family rules, or we never were allowed to question them. So if we get into a work environment where there's a lot of rules and where we're asked to behave in certain ways, we're good at adhering to that, even if it's detrimental for us. And so learning to see those connections between the early childhood rules dynamics, and then seeing how it's showing up in your work world and what you need to change about it. Because sometimes being compliant in a work situation isn't the best thing for you. Sometimes it is and sometimes it's fine. But it's when it's unhealthy for you, and how do you challenge it when you've never had the skill or ability to challenge it before?

You know, also thinking about the narcissistic parental dynamic. Sometimes having a narcissistic parent can lead to being attracted to or drawn to, or finding familiar narcissistic bosses. And so that experience can also do that. Same thing with codependent dynamics – we have a codependent dynamic in your home, being attracted to a codependent work dynamic where we're like "we're all family, we all get along and no one disagrees." It can be very seductive because it feels very familiar but is it the best environment for you? Because oftentimes, codependent dynamics and codependent dynamics at work are very stagnant. They don't allow growth because they don't allow disagreement, they don't allow change and so they can really stick you in your career, you can get stuck. And so starting to look at these things. What I want people to do is kind of pull them apart and just look at them and observe them and think about what they'd want to change about them to give themselves more agency in the process.

Dr. Joy: I wonder if you could share with us one mantra or affirmation that you share with yourself when your inner critic is louder than your inner cheerleader.

Dr. Lisa: That's a great question. I think it's my husband's mantra, which is: When you work as hard for yourself as you do for others, you're going to be unstoppable. And I think for me, that often doesn't mean just about work. It also sometimes means about prioritizing myself. And I think that often when my inner critic is louder than my inner cheerleader, oftentimes I need to care for myself deeper. And I'm often losing connection to myself and that's when I start to focus on, okay, what else do I need? Do my meditations need to go up in time? Do I need to make sure that I'm taking care of my body? Do I need to take care of my mind? Like what's happening and how do I need to serve myself? So I do often think about when I'm feeling most dysregulated by all of that, I need to kind of care for myself in some particular way, and what is it? And I sort of take that moment to reflect back on that.

Dr. Joy: Thank you for that, Dr. Lisa. I appreciate that. I know that lots of people will want to stay connected to all the incredible things that you are doing. Where can we find you online? What's your website, as well as any social media handles you'd like to share?

Dr. Lisa: My website is and my Instagram handle is DrOrbeAustin and I'm also on LinkedIn pretty regularly. I'm a LinkedIn top voice, I'm on there pretty regularly. All of those, that's the three main ones, I think.

Dr. Joy: And where can we find the book?

Dr. Lisa: The book is available at all major booksellers, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Books-A-Million, all the big major booksellers.

Dr. Joy: Got it. And you mentioned that if we go to your website, we can find a quiz around impostor syndrome. Are there other free resources or things you have prepared that you want to share?

Dr. Lisa: Actually, we didn't talk about this, but I would be more than happy to share my toolkit with your listeners. That toolkit has like the ANTs cards in it and the coping cards that are part of the book, it has digital coping cards. It also has a video on how to actually approach the book because the book is a workbook, it's not a book you read in a weekend, it's a thing you do. And so we talk about that. I would be more than happy to share that as a free resource to your listeners. And the quiz is out there, we have a lot of free resources. We have a whole video section on our website with all the different videos that we've done. And if you've watched our Instagram, we're all about information so we love free resources and we'll make sure people have access, that's really important to us. So yeah, there's tons out there if you look at our stuff, both Richard's and mine. Richard's is @DrRichOrbeAustin, but he has a ton of resources as well.

Dr. Joy: Perfect. We'll be sure to include all of that in the show notes. Thank you so much for spending some time with us today Dr. Lisa, I appreciate it.

Dr. Lisa: You're so welcome. It's been my pleasure.

Dr. Joy: Thank you. I'm so glad Dr. Lisa was able to join us for this episode. To learn more about her work or to check out some of the resources she's shared, visit the show notes at And don't forget to text two of your girls right now to encourage them to check out the episode as well. If you're looking for a therapist in your area, check out our therapist directory at

And if you want to continue digging into this topic or just be in community with other sisters, come on over and join us in the Sister Circle. It's our cozy corner of the internet designed just for black women. You can join us at This episode was produced by Fredia Lucas and Ellice Ellis, and editing was done by Dennison Bradford. Thank y'all so much for joining me again this week. I look forward to continuing this conversation with you all real soon. Take good care.


Discover the transformative power of healing in community in Dr. Joy Harden Bradford’s debut book, Sisterhood Heals. Pre-order your copy now!

Sisterhood heals
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Discover the transformative power of healing in community in Dr. Joy Harden Bradford’s debut book, Sisterhood Heals. Pre-order your copy now!

Looking for the UK Edition? Pre-order here