How to Combat Imposter Syndrome
Imposter syndrome is easier to address than most people realize. For the past 5 years I’ve been working with students at Make School to silence their inner-critics. Here are the top three solutions we found most impactful.
Imagine you own a fancy Porsche GT3 with leather seating and self-driving capabilities (yeah, you paid extra). That beauty can purrrr around the bends and rolls down hills like butter. But you have an issue. Every night after you cruise into your driveway, a squirrel sneaks its way inside. The squirrel tears up the leather, gnaws on the muffler and distributor, and it leaves traces of nuts all over the car. And those nuts aren’t even organic. Sheesh.
That squirrel is many people’s experience of imposter syndrome — the anxiety producing, insidious voice in your head that makes you feel like a “fake,” even if you are competent. Most of my computer science college students say that imposter syndrome disrupts their ability to work.
So, how do you treat imposter syndrome?
There are ways to overcome it. And though I personally haven’t fully overcome imposter syndrome (I have two squirrels named Gladys and Frank), I’ve found three practices that act as a delightful squirrel rehousing program.
First, help students make an accurate judgment of their skill level. When students say “I’m not good at this” or “I feel like a fake” we get a magnifying glass and zero in on the exact skill in which they feel as an imposter. This is best done by having the student assessing themselves on competency-based rubrics. Here is one such rubric with annotations on the various components that make the rubric tool particularly effective at combating imposter syndrome.
Second, help students focus on constant improvement. Their count of self-deprecating thoughts outweighs those that are positive. Students need to build a mental practice of noticing their improvements. To do this, I present the idea of keeping a “learning journal.” Here’s a short recording of this speech I gave at orientation on the concept:
The journal prompts students to log their daily accomplishments and learnings. Over time, students can look back and notice how far they’ve progressed. They can always turn to the journal for proof of growth.
Third, ask students powerful questions. A powerful question creates a perspective-altering shock to a student’s current way of thinking. It grinds and cracks their mental gears as it cuts into their current paradigm and opens up a new one. Here are a few powerful questions, taken from Dan Beverly, I ask students that are particularly helpful in combating imposter syndrome:
- Which of your successes are you not taking ownership of? This question guides students to see that they’ve accomplished more than they actively recognize: finished projects, took notes, worked hard, etc.
- Which of your beliefs about success are holding you back? This question helps students to recognize limiting beliefs such as perfectionism, that they need a job now, that they aren’t as talented as their peers. A strong follow-up question is “What’s a more useful belief you could adopt?”
- Which of your strengths are you overlooking? This question refocuses attention on their good qualities. Help them recognize how those strengths have supported their growth and success. Strengths could include: persistence, kindness, professionalism, motivation, hard work, etc. A strong followup question is “How will these strengths serve you throughout your career?”
- When you beat imposter syndrome, what will you be losing? There is always a secondary benefit and purpose to a habit of imposter syndrome. For most people these include, according to Beverly, “hard and diligent working (but which then became workaholism); determination and focus (which became anxiety and stress); quality preparation (which became over-preparation and procrastination); quality output (which became perfectionism).” We can then ask ourselves “what is a more productive mode of thinking I can adopt instead of the one hidden behind imposter syndrome.
These tactics have helped me and many others become friends with our squirrels. Together, we can drive through the warm sunset along the highway of tender growth.
Big thank you to Adam Braus and Megan Dias for your support developing these concepts.