Ever felt like a fraud at work? As if at any moment, everyone else is going to realise that you’ve bluffed your way to your current position? This phenomenon is known as the impostor syndrome, and even those who are at the top of their professional game feel it. Emma Watson recently admitted that she’s uncomfortable receiving praise because she feels like an impostor, and Rénee Zellweger and Kate Winslet have also acknowledged similar feelings.
Research into impostor syndrome shows that it is characterised by feelings of anxiety – thinking that you are not as talented as others believe, that your success is down to luck and that one day soon your lack of ability is going to be exposed in front of everyone.
We don’t know exactly what causes it, but the pressures of perfectionism, ever increasing social comparisons and a fear of failure all contribute. Having run workshops in many schools, we have seen that these worries are experienced by students up and down the country.
A survey found that female students are far less likely to describe themselves as “brave” compared to their male peers, with another survey finding that girls and young women feel less confident about entering the workplace. Although it is arguably more prominent in women and girls, it is worth noting that recent research [pdf] does suggest that this mindset is found in both genders. So how can we help our students overcome impostor syndrome and realise their potential?
Attribute successes to internal factors
How someone explains their successes can impact on how they will think, feel and behave in the future. Psychologists call this our explanatory style. For example, a student who attributes a good exam grade to external factors, such as “it was an easy exam” or “I got lucky”, is unlikely to take much confidence from the result (as it is detached from them).
Whereas if we can encourage students to attribute some of their success to internal factors, such as “I revised lots” and “I reacted calmly after the first difficult question”, then they will feel a greater sense of control and certainty when faced with similar situations in the future.
Discourage comparisons with others
Research suggests that the environment that teachers create can significantly impact on whether a student views an exam as an opportunity to see how much they have learned or as an opportunity to compare and contrast themselves with their peers. When it comes to motivation, the former is more stable and the latter far more stressful.
As Olympic legend Sir Steve Redgrave once said: “Not everyone can be an Olympic gold medallist, not everyone can be the best in their field. It’s all about personal bests. I admire people that can push themselves and drive themselves to get the highest level they can possibly be.”
Remind them they are a work in progress
If students know that they are a work in progress and not the finished product, it reduces some of the pressures associated with impostor syndrome. We now know that the teenage brain works differently to adults. In their adolescent years, the brain goes through a range of changes. One of these is called synaptic pruning, which describes how brain cells form, connect and strengthen during the teenage years, and partly explains why adolescents have a different view on risk, self-control and peer pressure (to name but a few).
Because the brain is constantly changing and developing, mistakes and setbacks are simply part of the trial and error process that is inevitable at this stage of development. If students can accept this truth, then their setbacks are not seen as proof that they are an impostor, but rather that they are an ongoing project. This will provide a more stable foundation to learn from.
Teach them to fail better
There is a concern among some that millennials have been wrapped in cotton wool, meaning they have less experience of failures. As a result, when they then experience disappointments, they have a narrower experience base to draw from on how to respond. There is growing evidence to suggest that if framed correctly, failure can help develop key psychological characteristics, such as motivation, resilience, empathy and metacognition.
We do not necessarily want them to fail more, but it would be prudent to teach them how to fail better. Tips include seeking out and using feedback, reflecting on what they did well and what they would also do differently next time, as well as actively taking a step back so that they can see the bigger picture. Once equipped with the ability to fail better, it will be easier to overcome impostor syndrome.
This article was originally published in The Guardian on 21st February 2017, you can read it here: https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2017/feb/21/four-ways-to-help-your-students-overcome-impostor-syndrome