We Belong, Regardless of What Our Impostor Voice Claims
I have been caught, I thought. He knows I am a fraud. My recent interaction with my inner impostor started as I was wrapping up class. You nailed it! The high participation was awesome, I told myself. At the end of class, a student approached me at the podium fidgeting with his t-shirt and glancing around the room, eventually making eye contact with me. “Hi Professor Clark. I, um, I was hoping to speak to you in private. When do you have office hours next?”
Even though I had been teaching at the college level for five years, the moment he referred to me as “professor,” a warmth radiated throughout my body. Hearing myself referred to as Professor Clark felt astonishing, exciting, and at times, unfamiliar. How did this sarcastic rough-around-the-edges kid from the Route 1 trailer park go from being kicked out of middle school to becoming a professor? Something that always seemed so unattainable.
I had a pep in my step as I bounced back to my office, feeling like a superhero when I could support a student’s academic and life journey. I wish more students reached out for one on one conversations, I thought.
The next day at 2 o’clock sharp, the student entered my office.
“Thanks for requesting this meeting,” I said. “How are you liking the class?”
“I wanted to talk to you about that… I’m just going to come right out and say it. I’m not learning anything…”
I swallowed dry air and gripped my pen. My heart started racing as images of me running out of the office entered my mind. As I stiffened my body to conceal my trembles, all that came out of my mouth was a high-pitched, “Really? Nothing?”
Suffering from impostor syndrome, this scenario was what I feared most. This syndrome is a psychological pattern in which we doubt ourselves and our accomplishments, and we have a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud. It is the idea that success has only found us because of luck, not because of talent, qualifications, and hard work.
It is common among high achievers, like me, who have a difficult time accepting success. It’s estimated that 70 percent of the U.S. population has experienced impostor syndrome. Due to the lack of discussion about this topic that affects our mental health — especially in higher education — I can’t help but feel like the only one suffering from it.
In that moment with my student, my mind dumped my four business degrees in the dumpster; struck a match and threw it onto the above average teaching reviews from my students and dean; and rapidly clicked “delete” on the hundreds of emails from students thanking me for helping them to get a job, for being there for them when times were tough, and for motivating them to be more than their past.
After blindly tossing my academic achievements aside, doubt and fear took over me. The voices in my head always want me to remember I was once labeled an at-risk youth and that I only have a GED. Then I question myself:
Maybe I should have pursued the traditional Ph.D. and not the Doctor of Business Administration (DBA)? Was I too young, too bubbly, too empathetic — too female to be an effective teacher? Should I give my notice? After all, I don’t deserve to be in the classroom because I am an impostor.
The day my student met with me was not the first time I had slipped into that irrational self-defeating voice inside my head. There are many similar stories. Two years before, I was asked to teach an advanced graduate course at a top tier school. I told myself the opportunity was mine only because the school was desperate. I had also recently convinced myself that I won a grant because only a few applications were submitted. One month before meeting with my student, I was eating lunch at my desk and a colleague came into my office. I grabbed a nearby piece of paper and pretended to read so she did not think I was lazy and avoiding work.
In academe, my impostor syndrome has thrived and revealed itself in many forms. Whether I am belittling my well-earned achievements or assuming my colleagues and students think my teaching is mediocre, the feeling that I am less-than or not worthy to be called “professor” can be overwhelming.
After the flood of fear invades my system, I am eventually able to take a step back and remind myself of who I am today. Affirmations help. I am worthy. I am a professor. I earned this. I belong.Hearing and reading about others’ impostor syndrome stories help too. I am reminded that I am not alone and that the problem is not as individualistic as it feels. Students often feel conquered by self-doubt as well. They make up a part of the 70 percent of the population that has suffered impostor syndrome. In a recent study, interviews revealed 20% of students suffered from very strong feelings of impostorism. Another study found first-generation students who perceived their class to be highly competitive tended to experience greater feelings of being an impostor.
During this time of uncertainty in higher education and in life, I am taking steps to improve my sense of worth and confidence by talking about my impostor syndrome. On the first day of class, I plan on giving my students this article to read and spearheading a conversation around impostor syndrome so that we can support each other throughout the semester. It is empowering to name my fear, and it is rewarding knowing my experiences can give my peers and students a heightened sense of belonging, while reinforcing my sense of belonging too. As we step into this unfamiliar new world, I hope more of us are vigilant about recognizing impostor syndrome and managing it.
As for the conversation with my student? We spent thirty minutes together discussing his thoughts about the class and how we could address his concerns. As he spoke, I worked hard to listen intently and resist taking his comments personally. I asked questions and he did too. Together, we created an action plan on how we would move forward: I would add more visuals to my lectures, and he would improve upon his attendance and be more active in class.
After he left my office, I wiped my clammy hands on my pants, turned my light off and made my way to the car. Although I had another thirty minutes left for office hours, my headache sent me home. By 5 p.m., I was journaling all the reasons I was enough and by 7 p.m., I had an epiphany and my true self was back: I must be a good teacher if my student felt comfortable coming to me.