The term “imposter syndrome” was coined by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978, to describe those who live with the fear of being found out and exposed as a fraud.
This common phenomenon is said to have affected some of the highest achievers in the world: supposedly Albert Einstein, Maya Angelou and even Meryl Streep have experienced it.
I’d wager that those feelings of self-doubt sound familiar to a large number of teaching professionals, myself included.
Quick listen: Why there is no such thing as an unteachable child
Want to know more? Why a shared school calendar boosts teacher wellbeing
A little anxiety and passing insecurity is natural, beneficial even, when facing a new class or setting or – God forbid – speaking to staff. Imposter syndrome this is not.
It’s more than that. It’s a persistent, nagging feeling that you’re somehow lacking or undeserving of the position that you find yourself in.
It’s an inner monologue of “I can’t”, “I’m not X enough” and “Who am I to think I can do this?” It’s the discounting of positive feedback and the tendency to attribute achievements to luck, timing, resources or colleagues.
As teachers, we experience a continuous expectation to self-reflect, as well as listening to others reflect on our capabilities.
These could be beneficial, if they weren’t so frequently combined with an unsustainable workload and unrelenting pressure, which can all too easily become fuel for feelings of insecurity and self-loathing.
If this sounds familiar, the following could help:
Push back against perfectionism
Imposter syndrome thrives on expectations of perfection, so a good place to begin is by recognising that this is neither helpful nor realistic.
Let’s say you’ve just been promoted, so you begin comparing yourself to others in that role, picturing them to be confident, capable, flawless.
Ask yourself: are these pictures accurate or are you glorifying these individuals and their skills? Are you assuming that just because they appear confident and capable when presenting to staff, that they’re always this together, even behind closed doors?
Remember that no matter how incredible someone might appear, we all have flaws.
Aim for authenticity
Thanks to the wonders of hindsight, I can see that my lifelong phobia and subsequent avoidance of public speaking was propped up by the expectation that I must appear calm, confident and collected at all times. Showing nervousness, therefore, made me a shameful, incompetent fraud.
Nowadays, I reinforce the idea that I don’t need to be perfect, I just need to be me, warts and all. If re-framed, vulnerability and imperfection can become powerful tools in enabling better connections with the audience. And it doesn’t half take the pressure off.
Don’t accept damaging inner dialogue
When the voice in your head shouts that you should be able to do this, why not respond with “Who says so?”. If your brain screams “Who am I to do this?” instead ask “Why not me?”
Whenever you hear words like “should” or “must”, know that that is your cue to argue back with yourself (but maybe don’t do it out loud).
Talk about it
You might just find that no one else knows what they’re meant to be doing either; that the majority of us are just faking it until we make it.
Jo Steer is a teacher and experienced leader of SEND interventions