Living with Imposter Syndrome

You only have to google imposter syndrome to realise that although suffering from it makes you feel as if you are alone, actually it is a very common condition. Imposter syndrome (Clance and Imes 1978) is the belief that in which you doubt your own abilities or achievements and feel at any time you may be called out as a fraud. It can affect anyone, although typically it affects women more than men. Some have suggested this is because women produce less testosterone – the confidence hormone. Many women and men I admire suffer from it, such stalwarts as Michelle Obama, Maya Angelou, David Bowie and Tom Hanks, all talk about overwhelming feelings of self-doubt at various points in their lives. Hanks, for all his success in TV and film said: “No matter what we’ve done, there comes a point where you think, ‘How did I get here? When are they going to discover that I am, in fact, a fraud and take everything away from me?'”

My suspicion is that there are a huge number of teachers who suffer with imposter syndrome. We work in a profession where the feeling is that the job is never done, that that lesson will never be good enough, where the strive for perfection is all around us. You only have to look at Twitter to see the fabulous resources, beautiful classrooms or incredibly eloquent and resonating blogs that people share to start to feel inadequate, let alone the people that actually write books! It’s easy to feel that your lessons are poor in comparison, or to follow a thread of teachers discussing academia and feel as if you have nothing to add. 

When I write down on paper what I have achieved in my (almost) 41 years I can stand back and feel quite proud. I’ve been somewhat “successful” in my career, and personally have achieved things which required enormous dedication and hard work, most notably my 8 stone weight loss. And yet, that voice continues to niggle at me: “You’re not good enough” “This is all a fluke” “Wait until you’re really put under pressure” “Wait until your boss realises you don’t actually know anything.” Most commonly, I feel this when working alongside teachers and leaders from other schools, although it can occur in my own workplace. I doubt my intelligence, my creativity and whether I have anything important or different to say. Sometimes, I’m able to talk the voice down and overcome the imposter syndrome to the point where I am able to interact and give opinions. Other times, it is crippling and I may sit shyly in a corner hoping nobody notices I’m there. Often the night before a conference or event, I’ll struggle to sleep and the feelings of inadequacy will take over. Kat Howard’s brilliant blog on this subject really resonated with me. This section stood out and I think goes some way to describing how it feels “IS sufferers battle with being able to define their sense of self-worth. They walk into a room and often place themselves on a measuring stick in relation to others, shifting their place to a lower point on the scale, and perhaps on a rare occasion, sparing themselves the indignity of the very bottom because they understand that it is not that they have achieved nothing, just that they’re not sure if it was valid or significant enough.“

You can read Kat’s blog here – I highly recommend it. https://saysmiss.wordpress.com/2019/07/07/dont-listen-to-the-1-how-to-outwit-your-inner-voice/

On a day to day basis, imposter syndrome can be damaging to self-confidence and prevent you making the advancements you could or should be making. At various points, I’ve held off from going for a promotion or getting involved with a project for fear that I would be found out, just not be able to say anything worthwhile, or be laughed out of the room. But imposter syndrome is having a wider impact on women in the economy. Nat West carried out some research in 2019 and found lack of confidence often prevents women from starting businesses – only ⅕ of UK businesses are run by women. 28% of the women questioned said imposter syndrome had stopped them speaking in a meeting and 26% had failed to change career or role. Women don’t put themselves forward for pay rises because of a fear they will be found out or are asking for too much, and this is having an enormous effect on the gender pay gap. I have a very close friend who took on a temporary headship due to bereavement and yet never received a penny extra, and wrangled for months about asking for remuneration, despite being one of the most brilliant teachers and leaders I know and doing an incredible job in the role. I often wonder whether imposter syndrome is what has kept me at the Academy I work in and have been in since my NQT year. Is it really because the right opportunities have come along at the right time or have I just been too scared to put myself out there in another school where no one knows me? Certainly the idea of selling myself at an interview terrifies me. I compare myself against the other candidates and can hear the voice of Adhemar in A Knight’s Tale “You have been weighed, you have been measured and you have been found wanting.”

So what’s the answer? I can’t claim that imposter syndrome is something I have successfully tackled. In the past year whilst taking part in a senior leaders training course it’s something I have had to battle over and over. Even writing this blog I have wondered if anyone will actually read it or whether I’m just copying what others have said better before me. But perhaps with age or lots of practice, it’s something I now recognise in myself and have got better at strategies to cope with the feelings of inadequacy.

  1. Befriend your inner critic and focus on your strengths. When the voice of imposter syndrome rages inside of me, the first thing I try and do is accept it’s there. I can’t ignore it or it just shouts louder in my experience. Instead, I listen and then engage my rational brain. Where is the evidence you wouldn’t be any good at that job? Look at your pupils’ books – where is the evidence that lesson was a failure? I may not create the most amazing looking powerpoints in the world of History teaching, but as long as my pupils are encouraged to think hard and be inspired, does that matter? I may not be able to add anything to an academic discussion about medieval monarchy, but I could if the discussion was about The Cuban Missile Crisis. I try and think about my strengths, and focus on them, rather than dwelling on my weaknesses.
  2. My passion for reading and learning has undoubtedly helped quieten my imposter syndrome. I try and read a wide variety of books and feed my hunger to know more and to do better. Reading education books and blogs makes me a better teacher and leader, and therefore more confident. It’s easier to not believe my imposter syndrome voice when I can use evidence from my reading to show that I do have knowledge and ideas.
  3. Lift others up. Getting to grips with my own self doubt and talking more openly about imposter syndrome has opened my eyes to the fact this is something common to many other people and teachers in particular. So I try and encourage others wherever I can. A simple – that looks great, I really enjoyed that or this has changed my teaching, thank you can make the world of difference to someone struggling with their own inadequacies.
  4. Fake it until you make it. When I first started teaching, I was crippled with fear in front of the class. A natural introvert, I was painfully shy. That changed the day a mentor told me to fake the confidence when you walk in the room. Teaching is an act. When I walk into the classroom, I am Mrs Ball History teacher and I take on that role. Leadership is much the same. I fake the confidence, pretend I am unfazed and gradually the self doubt eases.
  5. Be inspired by History. As a history teacher, I’m always going to come back to lessons from the past. I’m moved and challenged by the many men and women who were brave in ways I can only dream of; people of the past who made a difference despite hardship, abuse, people’s disbelief in their abilities or their own fear. 

Ultimately, I want to make a difference, to the pupils I teach, to the teachers I support and the colleagues I work with and that requires being out of my comfort zone, not always taking the easy route. I know deep down that’s where the greatest growth happens and I’m determined not to let my imposter syndrome win. In the words of Eleanor Roosevelt “Do one thing every day that scares you.”

Rachel.

13 thoughts on “Living with Imposter Syndrome

  1. Really nice post, thank you for sharing. It’s something I’ve had to deal with a number of times in the past and I know many other people will be able to relate. It can be crippling.
    I came across a lovely anecdote a few years ago that both helped and made me laugh. It’s by Neil Gaiman and I’ll paste here:

    —————–
    Some years ago, I was lucky enough invited to a gathering of great and good people: artists and scientists, writers and discoverers of things. And I felt that at any moment they would realise that I didn’t qualify to be there, among these people who had really done things.

    On my second or third night there, I was standing at the back of the hall, while a musical entertainment happened, and I started talking to a very nice, polite, elderly gentleman about several things, including our shared first name*. And then he pointed to the hall of people, and said words to the effect of, “I just look at all these people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.”

    And I said, “Yes. But you were the first man on the moon. I think that counts for something.”

    And I felt a bit better. Because if Neil Armstrong felt like an imposter, maybe everyone did. Maybe there weren’t any grown-ups, only people who had worked hard and also got lucky and were slightly out of their depth, all of us doing the best job we could, which is all we can really hope for.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I loved this! Thank you for writing it. This is me; everything you’ve mentioned resonated with me in my role at school and it’s reassuring to know I’m not alone!
    The more we talk about these things and support each other, the more we will realise we are where we are because we earned it, we deserve it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I know less about the education world but so much of what you say above rings true in the corporate world too. Looking forward to reading more from you!

    Like

  4. Thank you Rachel. I just discovered this blogpost. You have hit the nail on the head. This is my feeling every day. Some days very strong, others not so much, but always there. Great to know that amazing people like yourself have the same issues but can reflect and live with it. Thanks again

    Like

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