Feeling as though you’re about to be found out to be a fraud is a surprisingly common phenomenon, not least in the world of education. Imposter syndrome, identified in 1978 by academics at Georgia State University, is a curiously destructive form of self-doubt, sometimes leading to careers being cut short or significantly downgraded if it isn’t kept in check. Sadly, it’s not uncommon to hear of talented people adapting their careers to accommodate, rather than overcome, imposter syndrome.
Diligence and doubt
Ironically, having more professional success, or improving your knowledge, won’t guarantee immunity to imposter syndrome. On the contrary – it seems that if you are susceptible (and more women are affected than men), the more success you have, the more likely you are to succumb. This can lead to an avoidance of additional responsibility and a blurred image of just how successful we really are.
As Oliver Burkeman explained in his Guardian article on ‘imposterism’, ‘true frauds and idiots rarely seem to experience it’. Bertrand Russell, too, noted that ‘the stupid are cocksure and intelligent are full of doubt’.
So how can we guard against being in the icy grip of imposter syndrome in our jobs? These thoughts may help:
– There’s a difference between self-deprecation and self-destruction. We need to learn where that line lies for us and be aware if we cross it. Be realistic about your competence. There are no prizes for doing it down.
– At the heart of imposter syndrome may be a chronic under-valuing of ourselves. Maybe it’s time to get real. Each time you agree to something that feels like an imposition, ask yourself why and consider whether it’s possible to negotiate a better deal for yourself.
– Perhaps confidence, or a lack of it, lies at the heart of imposter syndrome. So it makes sense to do what you can to ensure your confidence levels are just right – neither too high, nor too low. Working with a trusted friend or mentor can help you here, as can having an honest appraisal of your skills and talents from an accomplished colleague.
– Never suffer in silence. Talk about your fears and concerns about your work to anyone skilled enough to listen; perhaps a family member, your GP, a counsellor, a trusted friend or colleague. Perspective is key.
– Don’t internalise apparent failure. It’s a gift. Use it to push forwards. Learn from it and move on. It doesn’t have to crush your confidence.
– Acknowledge your expertise. Be as open about what you do know as what you don’t. There’s no such thing as a perfect practitioner, so you can drop any unrealistic ideals.
– Support colleagues who may be experiencing the same. It can be the case that we are better at giving the advice we need ourselves than we are at taking it!
Stamping out causes
A growing phenomenon I worry about is the extent to which teachers can be apparently ridiculed on social media for putting a view forward that is at odds with a prevailing opinion. It’s entirely counter-productive. As we would expect if we treated children in this way, the result is often to kill debate, and therefore the opportunity to learn and move forwards. Perhaps this is a trait of communication on social media or a phenomenon peculiar, ironically, to teaching, but as a profession we have to stop doing it. If we don’t, we risk increasing the incidence of imposter syndrome and allowing confidence levels to plummet. And the cost of that to the profession is too great.