“I’m probably not clever enough to write this article…” Imposter Syndrome: why do so many of us feel like frauds?

What do Albert Einstein, Maya Angelou and Meryl Streep all have in common?

Deep down, they all view themselves as imposters, fraudsters, cheats, fakes, phonies. In other words, they all have expressed the psychological phenomenon we now term: Imposter Syndrome.

Einstein commented: “the exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler”

Maya Angelou claimed: “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, “Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.”

Meryl Streep says that she can’t imagine why anyone would want to see her acting and never watches back her performances.

What is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is difficult to factually define. But it can be described by a collection of emotions such as self-doubt, fraudulence, inadequacy and the haunting sense of the imminent discovery of failure. Essentially, it’s a sense of “waiting to be uncovered as a fraud”; a chronic feeling of “I’m not good enough and soon everyone is going to find out”.

Often, those who experience Imposter Syndrome state that these feelings persist, despite evidence of success.

Emma Watson speaks on the subject:

“It’s almost like the better I do, the more my feeling of inadequacy actually increases, because I’m just going, any moment, someone’s going to find out I’m a total fraud, and that I don’t deserve any of what I’ve achieved. I can’t possibly live up to what everyone thinks I am and what everyone’s expectations of me are. It’s weird — sometimes [success] can be incredibly validating, but sometimes it can be incredibly unnerving and throw your balance off a bit, because you’re trying to reconcile how you feel about yourself with how the rest of the world perceives you.” —Rookie, May 2013

Surprisingly, research suggests that around 70% of adults in the UK experience Imposter Syndrome at least once in their lives. So, why is it so common and what can we do within teaching to lessen its prevalence?

In her book, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer From the Imposter Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It, Dr. Valerie Young, draws on years of research surrounding the fraudulent feelings of high-achievers. She categorizes this into 5 subgroups:

  1. The Perfectionist: “I’m never going to be good enough
  2. The Superwoman/man: “Everyone else knows what they’re doing so I better work 3 extra hours a day to make up for it”
  1. The Natural Genius: “I’ve always been told I’m smart but I can’t understand this quick enough: I must be a fraud”
  2. The Soloist: “If I ask anyone for help they’ll know I am a fraud for certain”
  3. The Expert: “Why do people call me an expert? I can never know enough!”

Ultimately, it seems that Imposter Syndrome is a relational feeling; a feeling that one is not good enough in relation to others that surround us.

It’s no wonder then, that in a school, surrounded by experts who are shaping the minds of the future, that Imposter Syndrome is overwhelmingly present in the teaching profession.

Why do teachers feel like imposters?

There seem to be a number of recurring themes that make teachers prone to experiencing Imposter Syndrome. To simplify, I’ve listed the most common below:

  1. Judgement

Whether by OFSTED, observations by line managers or other members of the senior leadership team, or simply by the 32 teenagers sat in front of you, teaching is, without doubt, a performance. And one that invites judgement (wanted or unwanted!).

2. Results

Teaching is a results-driven job. Whether we like to admit it or not, the sleepless nights, exam results nightmares, the sweaty palms on the drive to school, all point towards the crucial fact that the success of the previous academic year feels as though it comes down to a bunch of numbers on a piece of paper handed to you by your head of department.

3. Subject knowledge

The time made available to teachers to develop their subject knowledge is limited after the training or NQT year. Often, battling the fiery attitudes of teenagers and keeping afloat in the workload, means that teachers can feel a sense of inadequacy in their subject knowledge because we aren’t given any time to develop our practice.


What can individuals do to manage this feeling?

Dr Sam Akbar, a Clinical Psychologist, offers three steps to conquering Imposter Syndrome:

Notice it: Notice when the ‘fraudster’ narrative pops up. Notice if you start avoiding challenges because of your mind telling you you are a fraud.

Name it: Say ‘Ah! There’s my imposter story coming out again’.

Nail it: Do what matters to you, even when your mind says you can’t.

Adam M. Persky in Intellectual Self-doubt and How to Get Out of It, offers some solutions that he has gathered from anecdotal encounters with colleagues and professional mentors. Some of these steps include: accentuating the positive character attributes that have led to Imposter Syndrome, avoiding ruminating on mistakes, and visualising success and rewarding yourself accordingly. Finally, he advocates a “fake it ‘til you make it” mentality: accepting that we can’t know everything and having the confidence to keep going, despite feeling uncertain about whether you’re doing the right thing.

What can schools and leaders do?

In previous blogs, we’ve spoken of the Self Determination Theory: a theory that outlines our basic psychological needs. We’ve found this research to be incredibly powerful and to have the potential to substantially aid a teacher’s sense of wellbeing. Within the three aspects of this theory – autonomy, relatedness and trust – it’s possible to tie this in with the prevention of Imposter Syndrome. Schools could consider the following:

  1. Research and CPD:

Enabling the empowerment of teachers through enhancing their subject and general pedagogy knowledge through individual, bespoke research projects, rather than mundane, whole school CPD sessions could be a powerful tool within schools. Facilitating teachers to be able to research, trial and feedback on pedagogy will improve a sense of autonomy and trust. But importantly, this could also offset the feeling of inadequacy associated with Imposter Syndrome.

2. Collaboration:

Give teachers the opportunity to design curriculums and schemes of work in collaboration with other members of their department. This sense of relatedness will instill confidence in the individual members of the department and eradicate a fear of “what are they teaching and are they doing a better job than me?”

3. Open discussion:

Schools can encourage teachers to speak about the failures they have encountered. Discussing hurdles that have been overcome, or are yet to be overcome, can empower other, perhaps more junior teachers, and teach us all that success comes about because of failure and how we respond to it.

Thank you for reading; please do get in touch if you have any personal experiences or solutions to Imposter Syndrome and its effects on teacher well being.

Rachel and Sam

Interesting links:

https://thriveglobal.com/stories/the-best-ways-to-beat-imposter-syndrome/    Dr Sam Akbar, D Clin Psy, Clinical Psychologist

Adam M. Persky, PhDa,b. Intellectual Self-doubt and How to Get Out of It, published in American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education 2018; 82 (2) Article 6990.

Dr. Valerie Young, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer From the Imposter Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It

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