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The first time I taught a course by myself was in 1984. I had a newly minted masters degree and was asked to cover an evening class for another professor. I was so nervous I called in sick to my research job and spent the day going over and over my notes. The students in the class were engaged and appreciative of my lecture, and I walked out feeling that maybe I did know something about psychology, which undoubtedly contributed to my decision to continue pursuing teaching opportunities.
That was almost 40 years ago, but I still find myself thinking that I don’t know enough or haven’t prepared enough to teach a class, give a lecture, or write a paper. With the benefit of experience, I know that the feeling will pass once I get immersed in my topic. But this pattern of doubting your own expertise, often called imposter syndrome, is ubiquitous in the world of academics.
Causes of Imposter Syndrome
There are certainly a number of things that could account for imposter syndrome. Our higher education system is largely based on a culture of criticism. From the moment you apply to graduate school until you retire, people are judging your accomplishments, your expertise, and your contributions to your field.
In the classroom, students are asked to assess every course you teach, every time you teach it, while at the same time you are assessing their work. Furthermore, scientific findings and theories rarely emerge without controversy. Your peers, students, fellow experts, and, increasingly, politicians may all disagree with what you say or how you say it, leaving you wondering what you can even say with certainty in a contentious world.
How Do You See Yourself?
If you harbor secret concerns about your own intelligence, competence, or role in your field, your sense of being an imposter may be even more deep-seated. Those of us who pursue a career in higher education tend to be motivated, hardworking, and interested in learning. We want to master our field, and share what we know with others, but may at the same time have reservations about whether we are qualified to do so.
One of the ironies of teaching is that the more you care about being competent and getting things right, the more you agonize over the occasional mistakes you do make. Whether it is a typo in a document, a misstatement in class, or being unable to answer a question, it can fuel the fear that people are going to figure out that you shouldn’t be where you are, doing what you are doing.
Imposter Syndrome Hinders Growth
At its most extreme, imposter syndrome keeps us from progressing in the field or tackling new challenges. Failing to write or submit papers, to seek grants, to teach a new class, or even to apply for awards or promotions is a way of avoiding future disappointment. But passing up such opportunities can also contribute to our belief that we aren’t as capable as the people around us.
Further complicating the picture is that many academic disciplines and settings don’t reflect the diversity of the larger world. Women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ individuals often feel like outsiders, especially if they receive less mentoring and support than others, which contributes to the feeling that maybe they are not as smart or qualified as others.
Such thoughts can also contribute to anxiety, depression, sleep problems, stress-related physical issues, including fatigue, headaches, stomach problems, frequent illness, and the exacerbation of underlying health issues.
Attribution Theory: An Explanation
A psychological theory that helps to explain the development of imposter syndrome is called the Attribution Theory, which posits that the way you make sense of the world has a powerful impact on our well-being. If you assume that when bad things happen it is your fault and that the negative consequences will spread and be long-lasting, it is much harder to recover than if you believe the situation is due to external factors and will be limited in scope and time.
Likewise, assuming when you achieve something good it is largely due to luck, will have a limited impact on your life, and will not last, it is easy to become discouraged. Imagine that you are lecturing when a student raises their hand and says that you just said something inaccurate, and you realize they are correct. The way the incident will impact you depends entirely on how you think and respond.
If you compliment the student for paying attention and recognize that it is impossible to lecture for hours on end without slip-ups, you will likely walk out with your confidence intact. Additionally, planning to double check your notes more carefully before the next class can further enhance your confidence.
Complimenting the student will also make them feel good, modeling to the class that it is okay to acknowledge and learn from mistakes, affirming to them and yourself that you care about being a good teacher. If, however, you get defensive with the student, ruminate about how you could have made such a “stupid” error, and leave class thinking that you are never going to be a good teacher, you may well find yourself worrying about being an imposter.
While Hard to Accept, Imperfection is Normal
It is not easy to develop the capacity to make mistakes with grace and avoid self-destructive thoughts in a culture where we are the experts people turn to for information and advice. And, ironically, experts often underestimate their own knowledge, and people who don’t know much about a topic overestimate their expertise, a paradox sometimes referred to as the Dunning-Kruger effect.
But not knowing is something most of us find hard to admit because we think we should know. As a result, we keep our doubts to ourselves and try to project confidence and competence. Like teenagers comparing themselves unfavorably to photoshopped celebrities, we make negative assessments about ourselves in comparison to our colleagues without factoring in differences in our circumstances, resources, or experience.
So how can we continue to grow as teachers, without unrealistic expectations and the assumption that anything less than perfection is proof that others are waiting in the wings to declare us an imposter?
Using The ACT Formula
There is a strategy called the ACT formula that I found in a Cognitive Psychology Book from the 1980s called Rapid Relief From Emotional Distress. Although it sounds deceptively simple, the three components of this formula can change the way you think about any situation.
The ACT Formula:
- Accept reality.
- Create a vision of how to respond given the reality of the situation.
- Take action.
The first, A, refers to accepting reality. To do this you have to stop thinking about the situation in “what if” terms. When we find ourselves in stressful situations we frequently spend time wishing that things were different. If only we had spent more time preparing for the lecture, if only we could take back an error, if only no one asks us a hard question. The trick though is to stop wishing for an alternate situation so you can come to terms with where you are. We could spend more time preparing for a talk if we didn’t need to sleep and take care of all of the other things going on in our lives. We will make mistakes, and there will be questions we can’t answer.
Once we accept that reality we can think about the second step, C. C refers to Creating a vision of how we want to respond given the reality of the situation. Maybe next time we could start working on our powerpoint slides earlier or do more reading on a confusing topic. When we make mistakes we can acknowledge the problem without assuming that doing so obviates everything else we have done well. We can even turn hard questions into an opportunity for growth.
I have found that students are gratified when I compliment them for coming up with a challenging question, and they are pleasantly surprised when I research the topic and get back to them online or in the next class. Even when the questioner is a colleague, I find that they take pride in coming up with a novel question, and respond well when I admit that fact, and ask them how they would suggest I could find an answer.
Finally, the T refers to taking action. This is easy if you did A and C thoughtfully. Once you create a vision of how you would like to cope with a realistic situation, putting it into play isn’t difficult. So, the next time you find yourself questioning your intelligence, competence, or right to be an academic, take some time to think about the pressure you feel, and give the ACT formula a try. You may be surprised by the results.
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- Dunning, D. (2011). The Dunning-Kruger effect: On being ignorant of one’s own ignorance. In J. Olson & M. P. Zanna (Eds.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (vol. 44, pp. 247-296). Elsevier.
- Emery, G. and Campbell, J. (1987). Rapid Relief From Emotional Distress. Ballantine Books
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- Hutchins, H.M. (2015). Outing the Imposter: A Study Exploring Phenomenon Among Higher Education Faculty. New Horizons in Adult Education & Human Resource Developoment, 27 (2), 3012
- Limburg K., Watson H.J., Hagger M.S., & Egan S,J. (2017). The Relationship Between Perfectionism and Psychopathology: A Meta-Analysis. J Clin Psychol. Oct;73(10):1301-1326. doi: 10.1002/jclp.22435. Epub 2016 Dec 27. PMID: 28026869.
Professor of Psychology
University of Texas, San Antonio