Smart Health

Coping with Complex Feelings

Overcome imposter syndrome by combatting your inner saboteur.

Progress is an interesting thing. For some members of the LGBTQ community, things are definitely better. LGBTQ people are out in their families of origin and have found acceptance while living authentically. Partnered or married couples have built families of their own. There are vacations and dinner parties and community volunteering and social events. At work, their co-workers appreciate their contributions to the team.  

Unfortunately, this is only one side of the story. For many LGBTQ folks, family is still far from a safe space, and familial relationships are characterized by rejection, abandonment, the secrecy of the closet, or an unspoken agreement to “never ask, never tell.” For others, meaningful romantic connections are fleeting and, despite a few friendships, an inner struggle with loneliness or emptiness is pervasive. At work, there may be a variety of experiences ranging from judgment to isolation to frequent microaggressions. In some cases, staying in the closet may feel like the only way to remain employed—particularly in a state like Texas, where anti-discrimination protections are not extended to LGBTQ people. 

Defining Imposter Syndrome

Regardless of where you may land along this spectrum, we have all experienced complicated feelings about belonging. And despite the markers of progress, we live and operate within a society that sends both implicit and overt messages that we are not fully accepted. At our core, it can be hard to feel like we’re part of “something bigger” when we have still never been fully accepted. 

When these negative experiences frame your upbringing and your primary relationships, it can be hard to feel secure in the world—and in yourself. This lack of confidence can make one feel like an imposter or a fraud, even in situations where you might have experience or expertise. Imposter syndrome, as it is sometimes called, can show up particularly in places related to work or community, and trigger some of our deepest insecurities and fears of not being good enough. 

Not only can imposter syndrome attack our sense of self, but these feelings can impact our work performance and our job satisfaction. Instead of focusing on work, battling the feeling of not truly belonging can take up much of the space in our brains and become the main thing we focus on. 

This feeling can be further exacerbated in those with intersectional identities, since racism, sexism, and ableism also contribute to exclusion and complicate our sense of belonging. 

Recently, there has been a growing movement to throw off the shackles of imposter syndrome and call it what it is. The feeling that you may not belong in a particular setting may be rooted in the actual experience of being LGBTQ. Systemic homo- and trans-phobia are real forces that contribute to the perpetuation of bias and stigma within institutions. If you’re picking up on the messages that are being sent to you by your peers or supervisors, perhaps you have a heightened sensitivity and awareness of this exclusion because of past experiences. Either way, placing the burden of addressing imposter syndrome entirely on the individual misses the huge role that society and culture plays.

Responding to Your Inner Imposter

To combat the voices of your inner saboteur, two battles must be waged. The first battle involves recognizing when imposter syndrome is rearing its ugly head. Are you not speaking up in meetings or at work because you feel that your contribution isn’t good enough? Is this part of a more pervasive pattern rooted in the sense that your contributions are inadequate? Wrestling with these questions can expose the need to seek out honest feedback from peers or colleagues regarding your performance.

The second battle requires you to assess your environment. Has it been communicated to you that perhaps your ideas or work are not thought of in the same light as non-LGBTQ co-workers? Does your team, supervisor, or workplace contribute to your feeling of not belonging and being unable to be your authentic self on the job? 

Question the origins of these feelings. When feeling like a fraud at work or in the community, ask yourself where that feeling is coming from. Is this something that I believe because others tell me that I am not good enough? Or is this being generated by my own feelings of inadequacy? If it is difficult to tease this out, practicing vulnerability with a close friend and talking it out could be helpful. This is also an issue that a counselor or therapist could help you examine more closely. 

If you determine that your work environment is contributing to the feeling that you’re not good enough, this opens another road for you as you reflect on this particular job and its importance to you. Are there co-worker conversations that need to be held? Is it time to look at other options like going back to school or getting back in the job market? 

Thinking through your options in the workplace can perhaps create a spark that leads to action and the potential for greater job satisfaction. 

If, however, the feelings of inadequacy you have at work carry over into your relationships with family and friends, then it might be a good idea to explore this further in therapy.

Although it can be uncomfortable to look at, the need to confront imposter syndrome actually represents an opportunity. Think of it as a great excuse to honestly appraise the quality and value of your work, the openness of your workplace, your deeper sense of self, and your overall competency. 

This article appears in the August 2021 edition of OutSmart magazine.

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Daryl Shorter, MD

Daryl Shorter, MD, is a Diplomate of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology and is board certified in both general and addiction psychiatry. His clinical practice focuses on veteran care, and he lectures widely on LGBTQ mental health. Dr. Shorter can be reached at [email protected]
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