Imposter syndrome: You probably have it.

Today I’m writing to you about something that’s so central to my experience of being a teacher and an academic that I considered calling this The Imposter Blog. (I decided that might be confusing.) Imposter syndrome has become a widely documented phenomenon in the fields of psychology and education. It simply means feeling like everyone else in your group (whether that’s a class, a doctoral cohort, a department at work, or even a group of gaming friends) belongs there, but that you’re an unqualified, inexperienced imposter–a poser, as people my age used to say when we were teens. If you’re a teacher, have you ever though as you approached your students (whether online or in front of a classroom), “I don’t know enough about this topic to be teaching other people about it?” If so, you’ve experienced imposter system. (If not, are you lying?)

One of the strongest triggers of imposter syndrome in my life has been joining the faculty of the university where I earned my first two degrees, coming to teach alongside professors who once taught me. Besides the perpetually awkward conundrum of what to call them (there are some whose first names I’ll never be able to bring myself to use), I have a really hard time shaking the feeling that I’m just the annoying kid who tags along with the adults. Although it’s been a few years and I’ve started coming into my own as a colleague, there are still situations that send me straight back to being a shy nineteen-year-old sitting in my first British lit class. These include having to express disagreement with one of my former professors, serving on a thesis committee with them (especially if I’m the chair), and being asked to share my expertise on something (gut reaction: what expertise?).

Instead of giving you my five steps to overcoming imposter syndrome (as a matter of fact, I don’t have those), I’d like to ask you to share your expertise, or at least your stories. In what situations, if any, have you felt imposter syndrome? Is there anything you can do that helps? Is there anything your colleagues or administrators have done that helps, or that you wish they would do?

Thanks for being part of this community! Next time, I won’t make you wait so long for a new post.

4 thoughts on “Imposter syndrome: You probably have it.

  1. Todd Stockslager says:

    Hi Tess. Yes, I think most most people who perform jobs that exercise a specific learned non-repetitive skill have imposter syndrome at some point in time. As I have been in my line of work (technology, as you know) for 30+ years, for most of those years I was the youngest person in the room , and usually felt more comfortable watching and learning, only speaking when necessary. Now that I am (ahem) often the oldest person in the room, I still speak only when necessary. While neither of those cases might be considered imposter syndrome, my expectation is that others are likely to know what I know if not more, so I only have to speak when I am sure I have some bit of specific learned skill or insight they don’t have. Perhaps I could paraphrase the cliche: Better to have imposter syndrome and keep my mouth shut than to open it and prove myself an imposter.

    • That’s a good point! The extreme opposite of imposter syndrome would be acting like an expert when you haven’t earned that right. I’m arguing that the antidote to both is a realistic understanding of yourself.

  2. Kristy Ann Motte says:

    My first university teaching assignment was for a class that required students be 25 or older to enroll. I was only 23. MAJOR imposter syndrome! Years later, my dissertation chair did a fantastic job helping me navigate the transition from candidate to colleague, never allowing me to feel like I didn’t belong. This term I am teaching my first section of a doctoral research course where I dig in with students who are choosing their dissertation methodology and building a prospectus. Imposter syndrome is trying to rear its ugly head again, but I know that living in that mindset wouldn’t be helpful for any of my students. Interestingly, I think people sometimes experience imposter syndrome in regard to their faith. The enemy can use it to distract or even to paralyze. The key truly is discipleship – a mentor who intentionally sharpens us and encourages us to grow.

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