Breaking the Silence
The impostor syndrome, at its core, is a distortion in the way we
see ourselves. The trouble is that we believe the warped image to
be reality—the "truth" we've somehow managed to hide from
the rest of the world. We are petrified that we will be discovered
and spend nearly all our energy guarding against that possibility.
One of the most difficult aspects of the impostor syndrome is
the fact that it demands that we keep our feelings a secret. Don't
stay silent. Find a way to speak about your fears. Whether you do it
with a trusted friend, a coach, a mentor, your partner, a therapist,
or in a journal, give voice to all the feelings churning inside.
(Writing to yourself can be one of the most effective methods to
face the impostor syndrome. It was for me and many others.)
* * *
I looked out the wall of windows of my corner office at the
masts of the tall ships tied up at South Street Seaport and at the
span of the Brooklyn Bridge just beyond. Cool, wintry early-morning
sunshine filled the large room. The city was waking up
but still quiet. And I had the entire office and the next hour and
a half to myself.
"I have the best job in the world," I said out loud, filled
with the contented knowledge of being in just the right place
at the right time. I had been President and CEO of Girls Inc.,
the nonprofit organization dedicated to inspiring all girls to be
strong, smart, and bold, for just over five years and was more
excited than ever to get up every morning and go to work.
Helping hundreds of thousands of girls shape their futures went
way beyond job satisfaction, it fed my soul. At long last, I felt
like a real success.
It had not always been so. In over twenty-five years of
singular achievements in corporate America, I had risen to
unprecedented heights for an African American woman,
becoming the first to be named an officer of Avon Products, a
Fortune 500 company. Just about every new accomplishment,
however, came with the stultifying doubt that I did not deserve
the success and that sooner or later I would be discovered as an
I glanced at the book galleys on my desk. The journalist and
author Ellyn Spragins had asked me to contribute to her book
What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self and had just sent
me the proofs as the book neared the final stages of production.
I picked up the galleys and reread the letter addressed to Joyce
You may not have set out to be a pioneer, but here you are,
out front, one of the few African American women working up
the corporate ladder. You achieve more every year, but each leap
exerts more pressure. Who would have thought success could feel
so much like a burden?
Yes, you thrive on it. You love marketing, and the more you
work, the more you're consumed and fascinated by it. Here at
Revlon, you're setting a personal record, working morning till
night—and both days on weekends. Exercise? Forget about it.
You can't even plan a lunch, because chances are a meeting will be
called at noon.
You're not complaining, because, strangely, there's a
giddiness in such hard work. You risked a lot every time you seized
an opportunity that presented itself. Laboring ever more intensely
shows you're worthy of the chances you've been given. It also
props open the door for every African American woman who
might be coming behind you.
This is what you tell yourself—and it's all true. But it only
goes so far. The way you drink up that steady stream of praise and
recognition is a tip-off. You did a good job. You belong here. We
want to make you an officer of the company.
Ever wonder why the glow wears off so soon? Because
somewhere, deep inside, you don't believe what they say. You
think it's a matter of time before you stumble, and "they" discover
the truth. You're not supposed to be here. We knew you couldn't
do it. We should have never taken a chance on you.
The threat of failure scares you into these long hours. Yet
success only intensifies the fear of discovery.
Stop. It. Now. You're not an impostor. You're the genuine
article. You have the brainpower. You have the ability. You don't
have to work so hard and worry so much. You're going to do just
fine. You deserve a place at the table.
And at the end of it all, people will remember you not for
hours you worked but for the difference you made in the world.
That letter was a turning point for me. As I had thought
about it, an odd phrase kept popping up in my mind: "The
Empress has no clothes. The Empress has no clothes." It was
so strange and seemingly out of context. But it was insistent
enough that I thought I had better pay attention to whatever
its message might be. The only thing I could think of was to go
back and reread Hans Christian Andersen's The Emperor's New
Clothes, in which the Emperor really has no clothes.
What I—as most of us, I think—remember about the
famous fable was that the vain Emperor goes parading through
his realm naked because neither he nor any of his people
want to admit that they cannot see the new "suit" the grifters
posing as weavers had "made" for him. What struck me now,
however, was the clothes' purported magical quality: "[The
weavers] proclaimed that they knew how to weave cloth of
the most beautiful colors and patterns, the clothes manufactured
from which should have the wonderful property of remaining
invisible to everyone who was unfit for the office he held, or
who was extraordinarily stupid."
In the story, it is the fear of being seen as unfit for one's
office or as being stupid that keeps everyone, except an innocent
child, silent. I recognized that fear immediately as the one I had
encountered so frequently throughout my life—the terror of
being unmasked as an impostor "unfit" for my post. I thought
about all the times that fear had kept me from speaking out, had
insisted that I work twenty-hour days, had whispered in my ear
that I did not deserve the promotions and recognition. "They'll
find you out," it kept saying. The letter for Ellyn's book came
straight from all those memories and a newfound confidence to
confront my fear of being an impostor.
That quiet morning in my office, as I took in the words, I felt
a new sense of pride. I had not only succeeded in spite of all these
fears, I had learned how to quiet them enough to enjoy my success.
I leaned back in my chair and looked at a brightly colored
tugboat guiding a barge downriver. In a wink, I was transported
back home to New Orleans, a young girl watching barges
carefully threading their way along the Industrial Canal. I could
almost smell the diesel of the tugs mixing with the heavy scent
of Mississippi river mud as I crossed the bridge that divided the
Ninth Ward from the rest of the city.
I was just a year old, the youngest of nine children, when
my mother moved the family from our hometown of Iberville,
Louisiana, to New Orleans after my father was killed in a hit-and-run
accident. She had two older sisters in the city, neither
of whom had children of their own, and figured that raising us
kids would be a whole lot easier in a place where she could get
steady work and help looking after us. By the time I was old
enough to remember, our household spanned between Mama's
house and Aunt Rose's house a few blocks away.
Neither Mama nor Aunt Rose had gone beyond the eighth
grade in school because they had had to go to work. However,
they reminded us every day that education was our ticket to
doing more in life, to getting beyond the limitations other
people would try to put on us. This was the South in the 1950s,
mind you, so, as young(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Empress Has No Clothes: Conquering Self-Doubt to Embrace Success" by Joyce M. Roché. Copyright © 2013 by Joyce M. Roché. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Thanks for reading!
Join BookDaily now and receive featured titles to sample for free by email.
Reading a book excerpt is the best way to evaluate it before you spend your time or money.
Just enter your email address and password below to get started:
Instant Bonus: Get immediate access to a daily updated listing of free ebooks from Amazon when you confirm your account!
Joyce M. Roché
View full Profile of Joyce M. Roché