Education Opinion

Tips to Conquer the Big Bad Wolf of Imposter Syndrome

By Megan M. Allen — March 04, 2016 5 min read
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Yesterday I shared (well, more like confessed) that I have a big, bad wolf in my professional life: imposter syndrome. And I’m not the only one that is haunted by this leadership dementor. So what teacher ninja strategies can we employ to battle this common dilemma? I asked some of the greatest teachers I know. I looked at the research. Below are some suggestions I landed on to try on for size.

  1. Discuss it--don’t internalize it. Why is this a secret if so many of us have felt this way at one point (or many times) in our lives? Just knowing that there are others experiencing the same thing is a huge step in battling this beast. Talking it out with colleagues and getting it out in the open is so much better than dwelling in the pits of internal dialogue. Expose the wolf!
  2. Embrace it! Angie Miller, a media specialist from NH and the 2012 New Hampshire teacher of the year, recommends that if you are honest about your insecurities, it can actually help with credibility. That transparency has a direct correlation to trust. Imposter syndrome can actually be a catalyst to connect! And another secret: when you embrace it and carry on, you show your greatest critic (you!) that you DO have what it takes.
  3. Own your accomplishments! So many teachers do not see themselves as education experts when they step out of the classroom, but the truth is...they are! Teachers are the ones who know the inner-workings of the classroom and the complexities of learning. So when you are in conversations outside of the classroom, recognize that you have so many accomplishments that make you an expert. How many people outside of education can say that they inspire the next generation? Or taught someone to read? Or encouraged someone to push themselves to reach their goals? Those are HUGE accomplishments. And they didn’t happen by chance, but from hard work, late nights, tears, sweat, and mounds of love and expertise. I’m not saying to go all Kardashian-narcissistic on us, but do own your accomplishments!
  4. Focus on the work at hand. Remember your purpose for everything we do in education--our students. Redirecting our attention can help release the stress and doubt shadowing a situation and allow the sun to rain down on our main goal. One of the most terrifying bouts of imposter syndrome I experienced was testifying in front of House Democrats regarding the sequestration. Who was I to be sitting in front of that microphone? But I had a strategy. A photo of my students was clutched in my hands (the one below). This helped redirect the major anxiety associated with the imposter syndrome bug to my purpose at (and in!) hand--those beautiful fifth grade faces in my classroom.
  5. Fake it until you become it. Have you read Amy Cuddy’s book Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenge? Or watched her amazing TED talk? If not, you should. Cuddy discusses the idea of faking it until you become it. Giving yourself permission to fake confidence until you actually might have a little bit bubbling up in your own courage pool. One strategy she has researched is power posing, where you expand your body language until you are increasing testosterone levels (linked to dominance) and decreasing cortisol levels (the stress hormone). So feeling a little lackluster in the courage department? Strike a pose and fake it until you become it.
  6. Visualize a body double. Think about someone you look up to who may have been in a similar situation. What would they do? How would they handle the situation? I think of this as being in the spirit of the movies Big or Freaky Friday (am I showing my age here?). Channel your professional hero (confession--mine is my Aunt Gerri, who never breaks under pressure and is a beacon of warmth to all around her). One of my colleagues also suggested a different version of the body double. Visualize someone that you don’t necessarily hold in high regard. Would you want them to be in your place? You’re shaking your head “no?” Then chin up. That’s why it’s you!
  7. Speak up early and break your own “internal ice.” This nugget of knowledge was shared anonymously, and I think it’s brilliant. I remember the first time I went rappelling. I was scared out of my mind and wanted to abandon ship. But after I took that first nail-biting plunge off the edge, I realized I was doing it! I had taken my first step towards success! Sometimes we just have to dig down and take that first step.
  8. Give yourself a pep talk! Focus on what you have done well and why you are an authority. Think about why you were invited and chosen for that experience. Change your mindset and frame your anxiety as a positive lever that can be used to bolster success. Then visualize yourself succeeding in the situation. Take control of your inner dialogue and don’t let the wolf steal your power. (Another confession: I sometimes write positive messages to myself on sticky-notes and keep them on my mirror. And I’ve been known to recite Maya Angelou’s “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me.” Geeky but it works. #edugeektip)
  9. Lean on others in your orbit. I don’t know what I’d do without a circle of really strong women in my professional life. Amazing teachers and teacher leaders who inspire me daily, and I consider it such a privilege to be in their orbits. These are the women that I lean on when needed. They are who I visualize when I’m needing a body double. They are my tribe and my support when my own courage falters. I can only hope I am the same to them!
  10. Admit to yourself that feeling this way is OKAY! Every situation is a learning experience and is an opportunity for us to grow. And guess what? Growth is uncomfortable. If it’s not uncomfortable, we probably are way to close to our safe zone. We’re not stretching. We’re not doing it right. One of my sticky notes (on my dresser mirror for years) reminds me to “grow your frog legs, tadpole.” Accept the discomfort of growth. It’s a beautiful part of the learning process.

We should become comfortable with both fear and anxiety. Let’s make them friends, invite them in for coffee. For they signify that we care deeply about what we are doing. And when we become comfortable with those feelings, those emotions, they can bloom into courage. Fear, anxiety, and anxiety are like robins and spring: you usually don’t have one without the other. As Mark Twain said: “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear - not absence of fear.”

So let’s embrace our imposter syndrome. Let’s admit it’s a normal part of growth as a person, a professional, and a common step in the leadership process. Let’s strike a “power pose” in the mirror, grow our frog legs, and battle that wolf. And let’s do it together.

First photo by Lauren C.

Second and third photos by the author

The opinions expressed in An Edugeek’s Guide to K-12 Practice and Policy are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.