Have you ever experienced that awful feeling that someone, somewhere, is going to discover that you aren’t as smart/talented/employable/beautiful/brilliant as everyone seems to think? It’s an insidious thing and slides beneath the praise and recognition to cut doubt into your mind: ‘they’re so kind to say that, but it isn’t true – what if they find out that I suck?’
I’ve noticed this a lot lately in some of my smartest, kindest, best students. Mostly girls. From the outside it can be infuriating – believe me when I say you’re amazing dammit! But I know how it feels from the inside, and it can be very damaging.
I don’t know what causes imposter syndrome. I had it once upon a time. I don’t so much anymore, well, not about certain areas of my life. I’m confident I’m a good teacher even though I’m very aware of my failings and those lessons that could have been better planned. But when people praise me or tell me I’m amazing at my job I am super pleased, happy to be recognised, but I don’t feel like an imposter. I used to. I used to feel that people thought I was so smart, and one day they’d discover that I’m no great intellectual. I don’t know why I thought this. My family is probably the most supportive, encouraging, and affirming group of people you could imagine. The bullying I experienced at school was more about my lack of social inclusion rather than my actual attributes not being good enough. Even at 11, I understood the difference. I had a huge shock the other day when I realised my youngest son has a form of imposter syndrome. He’s super smart. Like, really smart. He is worried that everyone has said that he’s smart but because he doesn’t feel smart he’s just waiting for his teacher to discover he isn’t really. This has stopped him attempting homework – he gets frozen by the fear of being found to be an imposter.
The thing about imposter syndrome is that it warps your perception of reality. If you really think about it – what’s the literal worst that could happen if you didn’t do so well at something everyone thought you were brilliant at? The other day I asked a student: ‘What do you think I say to myself if I read your essay and it isn’t your best? Do you think I throw it on the desk with a sneer and say ‘I’m disgusted. I thought she could do better than this. I shall never be so taken in again.’ ” For a moment after I asked this, her face told me that although she knew it was silly she did, indeed, fear this exact thing.
It also warps your perception of your actual abilities. My son knows that he is good at maths and good at reading. He knows he ranks well above his age group on these things. But he is frozen by expectations of his project based homework. I tried to tell him that I had not always done great homework, even when I tried, and that I had turned out okay. His whispered response hit me in the heart: “But what if I don’t turn out okay?”
Even with unconditional love and acceptance, even with positive encouragement from teachers, some of us have to battle an irrational fear that it’s actually all a facade and that if it falls, we will somehow lose people’s good opinion of us. This is bunkum of course. People who love and support us do so regardless of how well we do in whatever endeavour we engage in. Imposter syndrome stops you believing that.
I don’t know how I got over imposter syndrome. Maybe it’s just growing into yourself, liking yourself more. I got better at talking to myself like I’d talk to a friend, and when I speak to a friend I, oddly enough, don’t tell them that they’re actually rubbish regardless of what anyone says. This is probably the key for me. You can only squash imposter syndrome like the bug it is if you put a bit of reality and logic in to the mix. The same way you do that for a friend. When someone you care about is having a melt down about something they think they’ve sucked at, you don’t join in. What you do is point out all the good things they’ve done, the effort they made, the fact that okay maybe they needed better time management but really they’ve done ok. This logical and kind support is what we have to give ourselves. That’s the bug spray.
Some cultures promote self pride. New Zealand cuts its Tall Poppies down to size. Maybe that’s why we feel that being proud of what we do is somehow really just arrogance. And arrogance is often not based on truth. So if we are proud of what we do and it’s not really all that, well then everybody might see that we are a fraud. Best to be self-deprecating.
I don’t agree. There’s a huge difference between being arrogant and knowing your own worth. I have taught students of both stripes. Arrogance is thinking you know everything and are the best regardless of the evidence. Knowing your self worth means squashing the imposter syndrome and recognising what you’re good at while knowing that there are things you could do better at also. I have taught young people who have gone on to earn scholarships to top international universities. Young people whose brains are so sparkly with intelligence they shine. Young people who have musical talents so extraordinary I could listen to them sing or play all day and feel privileged to do so. These kids know they are good. But they know they work at it too. They know they have times when they don’t hit the high note, when they had to rush an essay or missed the point. Their sense of self is not predicated on their success and, in one of those strange twists, this makes them ultimately more successful.
So that’s another reason we need to squash imposter syndrome – we are far more than our achievements. Far more than a grade written on a paper. Far more than the applause we receive. Finding your sense of who you are, knowing that it doesn’t rely on validation from others, well I think that’s more than bug spray – that’s an exterminator.
And I just realised why I don’t get imposter syndrome any more. When you spend every day trying to convince students to overturn their doubts, that the mark on the paper doesn’t say anything about who they are, it’s hard to not realise it about yourself.