The Curse of Feeling Like a Fraud

Is imposter syndrome really just in our heads?

By Dulce Zamora

This year, one of my stories, Buried Asian Trauma and Treasure, won Best Blog Post of the year, awarded by the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA). The post included some of my encounters with discrimination as an Asian female and a sidebar detailing anti-Asian history in the U.S. This is the second year in the row that ASJA recognized WindsweptWildflower. Last year, Treading Between Coronavirus Worlds, a post on my family’s experience as American expats in Singapore during the early days of the pandemic, received an honorable mention.

Each time I’ve earned an award or achieved something remarkable, I’ve felt like a fraud. What if I only received it because I was a woman or a person of color? Due to movements such as Black Lives Matter, Stop Asian Hate, #OwnVoices, and #MeToo, there are more campaigns aimed at addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion. That sounds like good news, though I can’t help but wonder if my accolades were simply handouts for the token minority. If you think this is a pathetic attempt to solicit praise, think of how pitiful it is that I’ve had the same thoughts since the 1990s, when I was an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley (Cal). It was at that time that I discovered the astounding academic caliber of my cohort. Believe it or not, I did not know what I was getting into. The only college preparation I had done at that point was to apply to schools based on their location. Although I graduated salutatorian of my class, Cal was a whole new ball game. I literally tied my long hair back and got to work, prioritizing school over social life, love life, and my part-time jobs. (My sister and I joke now about having so little pocket money that we sometimes shared a $2 quesadilla for lunch.)

Don’t get me wrong. My parents raised my siblings and me with the mantra, “Education is the ticket to a better life.” College was always the goal, even before we moved from the Philippines to the U.S. However, as new American citizens, we did not know enough about the system to maximize our educational outcomes. My high school was wonderful in that nearly 100% of graduating seniors entered college, but there’s getting in the door, and there’s striding in, claiming your reserved seat, and leaping over the first few steps of the staircase leading up to graduation. Some of my peers had already fulfilled the university’s basic requirements and skipped to more advanced courses. In the first semester of my Freshman year, I took the preparation classes needed to move on to the basic 1A and 1B Math and English courses. Eventually, I fulfilled all the requirements and was eligible to graduate with honors. All I had to do was complete a thesis. I spent weeks investigating a topic and outlining the research. A faculty sponsor reviewed my work and gave it a thumbs up. Then…

Nothing. Nada. Zilch.

I graduated, but not with honors.

I didn’t write the darned thesis.

Why? Surprise, surprise: I felt like a fraud. I thought: Did I get into Berkeley because of merit, luck, or affirmative action? By the fourth year, I was working two jobs, which gave me an excuse to be too busy. In reality, though, I had enough time to write my thesis. I chose not to continue the work.

Attending Cal: “I felt like a fraud. Did I get into Berkeley because of merit, luck, or affirmative action?”

The Imposter Monster

I have struggled to make sense of this imposter syndrome — the doubting of my success and abilities. There are layers of “stuff” that could play into it. As an Asian-American and as a female, I’ve been told to be humble and to consider others. It’s unbecoming to raise my voice, to sit with my legs apart, to be bossy, to play sports too aggressively, to dress too provocatively, etcetera, etcetera.

There’s nothing wrong with traits such as humility and attentiveness to the needs of others. Yet, the barrage of do-good-be-good messages tell women and minorities like me to mind the space we occupy on this planet. Be present to serve, but don’t overstep your boundaries.

Imposter syndrome can strike everyone, not just women and people of color. The condition is real and debilitating as people who have it constantly second-guess themselves despite their education, experience, or accomplishments. Identifying the syndrome can be problematic in itself. It is framed as a psychological condition and puts the onus on the sufferer to deal with it. I’m all for taking responsibility for our actions and not blaming others. Yet, staying silent on the environmental triggers feels a lot like martyrdom.

the barrage of do-good-be-good messages tell women and minorities like me to mind the space we occupy on this planet: Be present to serve, but don’t overstep your boundaries.

One particular trigger originated in the 1990’s, when I was a TV news producer. I was one of a handful of minorities in the newsroom. There were colleagues who often turned down my story ideas about people of color, because “they do not cater to our demographic.” At the same time, these people wouldn’t bat an eye in reporting about crime in the more diverse areas of town. They would constantly question whether or not I was fit to be a producer. Once, I had to cancel a live feature report during a morning show because of technical difficulties. This meant I had a lot of dead air to fill. I decided to use a pre-recorded feature video about an animal at the zoo. One of my anchors vehemently protested, saying we had just played another zoo segment (though it was about a different animal). He wanted to re-read the news headlines. We argued during commercial break. He said a second zoo segment would look dumb. I said we just read the news, and we were replacing a live feature report with a feature video. Plus, barring breaking news, we were a regional morning show tasked with exuding a lighter tone compared with other news programs. Our show was already stacked with a couple of serious local news segments and cut-ins to national network news broadcasts.

The anchor refused to introduce the feature and rehashed the news. Once he was on camera, there was little I could do behind the scenes. I felt defeated. What kind of producer was I if I could not manage my own show? How did I look to the rest of the team? In hindsight, both of our ideas could have worked. The problem was, I found it hard to ignore his apparent disdain for my leadership. He was not much older than I was, but his body language and tone matched other colleagues’ contempt for my youth and inexperience. It didn’t help that I looked like an outsider, at least around their circles.

Because of my Asian genes, I also looked young for my age. However, I already had work experience as a newsroom staffer in major cities. I had also received a News Management Award from the Radio and Television News Director’s Association (RTNDA). I was selected as one of six young journalists with leadership promise in the industry. My colleagues did not know about my award or my work experience. Google and LinkedIn didn’t exist back then. I had grown up thinking it was crass to brag about these things, but I’m beginning to realize that modesty has prevented me from asserting myself as a journalist worthy of her station. Of course, awards don’t necessarily command respect, and, of course, I made mistakes (as everyone does). Yet, I wonder: Why did I have to go the extra mile to prove my worthiness? How many of my mistakes were really about crossing the line between where I was tolerated and where I was not?

How many of my mistakes were really about crossing the line between where I was tolerated and where I was not?

From Fake to Authentic Me

I’ve gotten sick of the self-doubts. In order to write this blog post, I’ve waded neck-deep in the muck of my own imposterism. The insecurity, which is internal but has some origins in the external world, has done nothing but make me feel bad about being an award-winning journalist, an honors-level student, and a human worthy of praise and recognition.

Questioning my success has also prevented me from moving forward as a woman, as a person of color, and as a writer. It has robbed others of seeing people like me in influential positions. When I say “influential,” I don’t mean wielding power so we can take over the community, country or the globe. I mean being included in the demographic that matters and growing the muscle to expand the boundaries of tolerance.

People naturally fear what they don’t know. If varying perspectives are out there, they might seem less foreign. For those who see themselves represented, the world could feel like a safer and easier space to explore. This harnessing of diverse ideas and perspectives is likely a win-win for everyone. Sure, it’s idealistic, but where would we be as a species without hope and efforts toward a better tomorrow?

Be the change you want to see in the world.

Mahatma Ghandi

If you judge people, you have no time to love them.

Mother Theresa

Love recognizes no barriers.

It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination

full of hope.

Maya Angelou

The best way to predict the future

is to create it.

Abraham Lincoln

Writing is one of the things that I do to make sense of chaos. It’s how I see making a difference on earth. With words, I can bridge the gap between ignorance and awareness. I can only do this when I keep the internal and external critics at bay and acknowledge my own value.

So, World, I’ve won this prestigious Best Blog Post award, and it’s AWESOME. As I graciously learn to accept this distinction, I hope to uplift not only myself, but others who also find themselves lurking in the shadows. Step up to the light with me, my friends. We can hold each other up and be gloriously AUTHENTIC together.

© 2022 Windswept Wildflower

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