Navigating past imposter syndrome

An ongoing thread in my life has been encountering people who suffer from “imposter syndrome.” Growing up, I spent a lot of time with creative types. I was interested in art and music, inclined and talented in both directions, so I met a lot of other talented people. In talking with creative types, compliments were all too frequently rebuffed. “No, I’m not really that good.” This usually comes from someone who has had some form of recognition of their skill, achieving a place through auditions, receiving scholarships, acceptance into programs based on ability. These were people who I admired. And yet they still couldn’t recognize or own their talent.

Academia is just as rife with supposed imposters. Many of my colleagues admitted to a secret expectation that one day someone would realize they really aren’t that smart. These are people achieving high grades, receiving compliments from instructors, accepted into programs, being awarded scholarships. Something in the system is clearly failing if these people cannot believe in themselves.

I just read an article about Finding a Cure for Imposter Syndrome. In this case, the target is female academics engaging in public scholarship. Again, people who are highly qualified who hesitate to raise their voices. It saddens me to think that somehow these people have been indoctrinated to believe that they are not worthy. They are somehow not enough.

Other students in the class I am taking, EC&I 830, have also voiced this fear that what they have to say just is not valuable enough to justify saying it. These are people who are doing the work, having experiences, and yet they feel like what they know and have experienced is not enough.

Somehow, I avoided this for the most part. I tend to believe that I do, in fact, have something to say. I have my own self-confidence issues but they are rarely to do with what I think or create. It leaves me wondering if there is something about my personality that influences this, something about my upbringing, something about my school experience that gave me confidence that others did not develop. What was different? How could things be changed to reduce the number of people who are left feeling they still don’t measure up after numerous signs that they do? I remember having professors tell me that I am doing good work and yet these people heard similar things. Clearly that is not sufficient.

Not only do I have academic friends who are dealing with this, I’m also in the field of education. I can’t ignore this. So what do we do about it?

This is where I feel open learning can have some impact. When you start getting used to seeing your work as something for more than just your teacher, you have to come to terms with having a real, authentic audience. When there is no choice but to engage with the community of practice, and have at least some of the community of practice engage back, you start to see that you have something to say.

What else can we do, though? What else causes this fear of being exposed, the certainty that deep down you are not actually good enough and some day someone will see that? How do we make changes in our culture to acknowledge and change this phenomenon?

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