Asian American Women Aren’t ‘Imposters’ But Society Makes Us Feel That Way

imposter syndrome asian
Illustration by Melanie Lo

Vivian Chan is the co-founder of East Meets Dress, a contemporary fashion startup that serves thousands of brides each year and allows Asian Americans to celebrate their heritage without compromising style. Despite revolutionizing the wedding world and having the revenue to show for it, Chan didn’t feel like a success at the time.

Like many women in the workforce, Chan felt that she was suffering from “imposter syndrome.” The original term “imposter phenomenon” was first explored in a study about high-achieving women by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines imposter syndrome as “the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills.”

Countless people have identified with the term, but it is thought to be more prevalent in women of color. The phenomenon gave rise to a movement of self-confidence workshops and summits, but what isn’t often asked is what exactly causes women to suffer from so-called imposter syndrome?

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In a recent piece in the Harvard Business Review, Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey explained what is less questioned is how “workplace systems play in fostering and exacerbating it in women.”

“The impact of systemic racism, classism, xenophobia, and other biases was categorically absent when the concept of imposter syndrome was developed.”

In my experience, I found that the Asian femmes around me, including myself, felt imposter syndrome but rarely spoke up about it. To tackle imposter syndrome, we must examine the biased systems that create and promote it in women. In the case of Asian women and children of immigrants, I want to also recognize that the cultural values we inherited can contribute to the confidence issues that many of us face. 

Differences in Asian and American Parenting

“Tiger parenting” is an infamous term associated with Asian parents, who are said to be abnormally strict towards their offspring, punishing them if they are less than perfect.

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Yale Law School professor Amy Chua released a controversial book about raising her daughters called “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” What she described as a “strict, traditional Chinese upbringing,” involved telling her daughter she was garbage, treating an A- as a bad grade and threatening to donate her beloved dollhouse unless she could master a piano composition by the next day. 

Perhaps not nearly as ruthless as Chua, many children of Asian immigrants can recall the callousness they endured as children that may have contributed to the insecurities they have today.

“I felt like I had to be a doctor or I would let my mother down,” Chan of East Meets Dress shared. Even after starting her business, she remembers her mother asking, “Will you get a real job again?” 

Asian children are raised with different expectations and cultural values that can clash with American ones. We are taught to hold our tongues, to conceal pain and to never be a nuisance. This greatly contrasts with American values that teach us to be confident and celebrate accomplishments in extravagant ways.

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“Confidence wasn’t something that was taught or valued,” claims Natasha Wu, a UX design manager.

Wu now oversees one of the design teams at Salesforce, a successful cloud-company that is known not only for its software but also for its unmissable floating park and tower in the San Francisco skyline. 

“Americans value trailblazers, outspoken people,” Wu commented. “Growing up my dad’s impression of a ‘good’ woman was one who was docile and obedient, neither of which could shape you into being a confident person.” 

It could be said that being “good” in Asian cultural values doesn’t quite translate to American ones, and that has warped the way we perceive success. Instead of recognizing accomplishments, our brains may be wired to think, “What can I do better?”

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Suffering in Silence

With the recent rise of anti-Asian attacks, many people are finding the courage to speak up about their experiences. This wasn’t always the case, for stoicism is favored in some Asian cultures. To be stoic is to endure pain or hardship without showing emotion, and this may root from Buddhist doctrines that say that to live is to suffer. 

In her article, Swallowing Our Bitterness, Kathleen Hou explains that there is “a common Chinese saying of 吃苦 (chīkǔ). It translates literally to ‘eat bitterness,’ to swallow our pain and suffering and endure it.”

“We persevere and we don’t complain, and it is seen as a virtue: Work hard for things that people can’t take away from you.”

The pain we swallow can be both physical and mental. When I was in college, my father was involved in a near-fatal accident. He was sitting in his parked car beside a construction site when a piece of lumber fell from the site. The lumber crashed through the windshield of his car, and he was rushed to the ER. 

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He didn’t even tell me at the time that it happened. Only around a week or two later, when I came home and saw his incredibly bruised face, did he mention the incident. 

“I didn’t want to worry you and distract you from your studies,” he said. 

I was upset that my father hid the accident from me, but I felt even more upset that he minimized his pain as a burden. 

With a mindset bent on survival, we are taught to dismiss pain. If my father didn’t even want to open up about his horrifying accident, how could I possibly bring myself to trouble others with my negative feelings that seem so small in comparison? 

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We keep pushing forward and lock away the feelings of fear, insecurity, and doubt. Those feelings fuel the voices that make us question our ability, our work and even our worth. Just like a physical wound that could be infected and lead to further health issues if not treated, not addressing pain or trauma can lead to lasting mental and self-esteem issues. 

“I don’t belong here.”

“I’m not good enough.”

“I don’t deserve this.” 

Systems Where We Weren’t Meant to Belong

Chan, who graduated from Yale, recalls how she felt like an outsider in her dorm full of the children of prestigious CEOs. Unlike them, Chan was raised by a single mother and did not come from a wealthy family.

This feeling of doubt returned during her tech career. She remembers being in important meetings but not feeling confident enough to question product decisions for fear that this would make her seem “difficult” and tarnish her image of being a good employee.

This is also a feeling familiar to Wu, whose uncertainty prevented her from leaving her previous job where she felt unfulfilled: “I felt like I was on a treadmill that was constantly going but I was too scared to jump off.”

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Women of color tend to feel displaced in workplaces and institutions because they were originally built to be white and male-centered. Unlike women of color, Tulshyan and Burey comment that white men’s “feelings of doubt usually abate as their work and intelligence are validated over time. They’re able to find role models who are like them, and rarely (if ever) do others question their competence, contributions, or leadership style.”

Despite making advancements in their careers, women are often met with microaggressions or are scapegoated when something goes wrong. How can women of color succeed in the workplace and not feel like “imposters” when they are routinely marginalized? Imposter syndrome is not a woman problem, it is something that has been pathologized about women but is the result of systemic bias and racism in society.

In light of the Black Lives Matter protests last June, many large corporations finally opened up about their employee statistics and made promises to diversify their workforce. That was only last year. It may also surprise you that the Crown Act was only introduced two years ago. The bill protects against discrimination of natural hair texture and hairstyles, a racial injustice that Black women and men frequently face.

“In truth, we don’t belong because we were never supposed to belong,” said Tulshyan and Burey.

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How Do We “Cure” Imposter Syndrome? 

We have to be careful here because imposter syndrome is not something that needs to be fixed about women. We cannot place blame on women for feeling insecure. Instead, we must work together to dismantle systems and change the values that make women feel doubt.

Corporations need to foster an inclusive work environment, place more women of color in leadership positions, and actively work to ensure their organizations are antiracist.

For those who have been taught to minimize our feelings and experiences, we need to unlearn those tendencies. There are many traditional Asian values that I respect and follow, such as filial piety, but we must also address the values that can be toxic to our well-being. 

Change takes time, and it is a long process. For now, we need to take care of ourselves and treat ourselves with tenderness. Create positive affirmations, cultivate a support system and connect with people we share things in common with. 

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“Keep surrounding yourself with mentors, friends, and loved ones who verbalize their recognition of your strengths and their genuine appreciation of who you are,” Dr. Yesel Yoon, an Asian American NYC-based psychologist advises readers.

“The more we can inoculate the negative messages we get from society by surrounding ourselves with affirmative messages, the better,” Yoon writes. “It takes practice and being intentional about what you say to yourself and who you surround yourself with. Because so much of the external and internal negative messaging are what contribute to imposter syndrome, the opposite of these are what can help counteract it.”

Feature Image by Melanie Lo

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