Don’t Listen to the 1%: How to outwit your inner voice

This is a slightly more distilled version of my ‘energetic’ workshop session at #WomenEd yesterday. I’m far less predictable when I speak, but I quite like that! I have also attached the Powerpoint that I had prepared, but Dropbox let me down, and so attendees got the dulcet tones of my voice and my voice alone. Lucky souls.

Imposter syndrome is not a medical condition, but the label was coined by Clance and Imes in 1978 to describe feelings of self doubt in our own capabilities, particularly when in a profession that relies upon confidence, leadership or self-assurance as key traits to operate in what you would deem as professionally successful. 18% more likely to occur in women than in men (knowing look), whereas men atypically tackle the symptoms by ignoring them, women prefer to share their narratives in a bid to overcome feeling a sense of inadequacy.

Dancy and Jean-Marie (2014) found that the condition  presented highly in women where the women in question felt underrepresented within their profession, or that they were under fire from bias industry-specific bias; perhaps, this explains why the more senior the position, the more prevalent the syndrome in women. With only 38% of Secondary Heads as female, the ‘chicken and egg’ debate is more than relevant here: are we not progressing as women because we battle the symptoms of this condition, or do we battle the symptoms because we struggle to progress through to positions of leadership? 

With the self-perpetuation of Imposter Syndrome, it seems futile to look at it as something to tackle, or overcome. I have experienced Imposter Syndrome at key parts of every stage of my life, both personally and professionally. Sometimes, it has been the making of me, but in my younger years, I would say that it crippled my ability to achieve or enjoy success. I walked out of the exam hall when sitting my A level literature final exam, after two years of hard work, because the feelings of self-doubt were too much to cope with. I felt that if I listen to those, instead of experiencing the possibility of failure, it would be easier to cope with. Later in my career within banking, I was Area Manager across the North West, responsible for recruiting, training and managing over 300 staff. I was the youngest in my role within the Retail sector, and the only female. As a result, I was regularly told that I wouldn’t understand certain concepts, or lacked the experience to be able to have strategic input at meetings. I repeatedly felt as though I was in my position as a result of luck, or a fluke, partly fuelled by these external opinions, but predominantly because they became my truth, and part of my internal narrative: I was incapable, and pretending to do something that i was not equipped to do- it was just that no one had discovered that yet.

The mechanisms of Imposter Syndrome are complex to unpack, because it requires self-distance and self-regulation, but it is these traits that those with Imposter syndrome seem to master. I have distilled the key features of IS to six aspects, and it is with a level of self-awareness, that we can start to use them to our advantage and not identify with them as hindrances to achievement.

Labels and Language

IS sufferers usually or negative language to describe themselves in a self-deprecating way, to form a barrier of excuses that they believe will then act as sufficient justification for their failures. The failures are necessary, but they don’t recognise that as a positive process, and so will anticipate what they believe is disappoint from others by preparing themselves with such labels. ‘I’m disorganised… I’m tired… I’m not very good at that….I’m always late….I’m awful at maths… I’m bad at this…’ They lose the ability to detach the action from themselves, and it acts as a pre-cursor that they can fall back on should they need to, which they feel is both likely and inevitable.

Limits and Doubts

IS sufferers will set limits upon their capabilities, again to anticipate what they believe others are already thinking. The doubt that they place in themselves as a fruitless bid for perfection results in an unconscious wall that stands between them, and what they would secretly like their future self to achieve. This presents itself again through their own self depiction: they use ‘never’ and ‘couldn’t’ to outline the limits of their skill set, ignoring their potential as a lifelong learner. They often speak in past tense to do so, implying that they are ‘stuck:’ ‘I could never do that at school….I’ve never been able to… I’ve always wanted to…’ They are wistful at the missed opportunities they feel they have let slip by, but feel trapped by thei own self-doubt and consequently see a vast disaprity between their high expectations and their perceive reality.

Silencing and Self Worth

IS sufferers will seldom sing about their own achievements. They have a small group of people that they may occasionally mention a positive point that they wish to celebrate, but a lot of these celebrations happen internally, which results in them being squashed or warped by their voice of self-doubt. They struggle to validate an achievement as achievement, because they do not seek the validation from others, believing praise to be false, well meant and polite, or undeserved.

IS sufferers battle with being able to define their sense of self-worth. They walk into a room and often place themselves on a measuring stick in relation to others, shifting their place to a lower point on the scale, and perhaps on a rare occasion, sparing themselves the indignity of the very bottom because they understand that it is not that they have achieved nothing, just that they’re not sure if it was valid or significant enough. IS sufferers struggle to understand a sense of value, paticularly when there is a colaborative effort or a situation of competition, like interviews for example.

The ultimate result is that by experiencing these as limitations and barriers, we in fact feed the beast. We fuel these by perpetuating the ideas that they create, which creates a meta, self-referential perception of our own sense of self: we become the thing we imagine, and then we imagine the thing that we become. IS eats us up, if we will allow it to. This then results in repeated patterns of coping mechanisms, both in our personal and professional lives. At my most crippled, I would volunteer to speak in public, with a fierce determination to improve at it and battle with my nerves. I would have several internal conversations with myself in the days running up to events, almost cancelling many times, or sitting in the car park psyching myself up. After speaking, and being incredibly nervous doing so, any kind feedback I would dismiss as politeness, and anyone who didn’t come up to chat I would assume hated every word. I remember sharing this innate fear of speaking at PedagooHampshire with Freya some years ago, and it alleviated it, for a second. I also remember Alex Quigley saying never to let people know you are nervous, and dreamed of being able to pass that off as true one day.

By being aware of these traits, it is only then that we can recognise Imposter syndrome as one of our finest tools professionally and personally. IS sufferers are massively reflective, and their own worst critics, and as teachers, this can be a double edged sword- it means that you can successfully predict most feedback coming your way following lesson observations or strategic feedback, and it also means that you welcome the opportunity to improve, should it be offered. I asked the audience at #WomenEd to consider a time that they have encountered IS, and which of the six features they found to be most prominent. I’d like you to do the same, so that we can start to make a positive use of that feature.

Labels and Language

When sharing strengths, recognise them as actions and not an intrinsic part of your personality. You are not always disorganised: your working space can be. You’re not awful at maths: whilst you have successfully calculated data on a smaller scale, you look forward to being able to evaluate whole cohort discrepancies to inform your actions.

Limitless and Aspirational

Repeatedly ascertain to yourself the things that make you limitless: both your successes, and your success yet to come. Speak in future tense, about your future self: there is nothing that you cannot achieve. You would like, you will, you have, you can’t wait to, you wish, you hope, you relish.

Vocal and Valued

Share your achievements with others. It is far from self-promoting; as an advocate of IS, you are far from that! You have chosen to share because it is important to you, and you have deliberated over sharing it first. You don’t share for validation; you share because you want to enjoy these moments with others as they enjoy their moments of success with you. Become accustomed to seeing yourself as of equal value to everyone in every room that you walk into; your input and opinion is no more or less important. In the same strand, the input and opinion of others is no more or less important than your own. Hierarchy has a place within any school system, but it is to drive vision and change, not to dictate or silence, if done well.

My takeaways to drive this change from tomorrow:

  • Focus on the white space, not the black dot (thanks to Claire Hill for chanting this at me at times where I forget). Realise that what your IS will emphasise and caricature for you will always be the minority and not reflective of all the wonderful things you are doing in schools. Celebrate that regularly.
  • Choose your crowd. Not a yes group- that’s not helpful or productive, and in fact can reinforce the perception of a low sense of self-worth, because you feel the feedback is in genuine. Choose to surround yourself with honest yet supportive people, who will recognise the time to praise and celebrate, but also provide a great sounding board for when you are at points of crisis.
  • Maintain a sense of integrity- be true to yourself. That sounds very airy-fairy, but for IS sufferers, it is so important that you decide on a direction, or a vision of what is improtant to you, because IS will try and move you away from that and dilute any clear sense of perspective at its worst moments. Kathryn Morgan highlighted yesterday that, ‘we all wear masks,’ but when you feel as though you are trapped behind one, it is essential that you know what kind of person you are, at your very core so that when it is questioned, you know how to deal with it. It may be useful to write this down, as a reminder to yourself when IS attempts to cloud your judgement.

I discuss Imposter Syndrome and its prevalence in teaching, along with lots of other pragmatic solutions to workload in education in my book, Stop Talking About Wellbeing, out early next year. I have to keep mentioning it so that eventually, it will hit me that I’m actually going to have written a book, after talking about it for 25 years (and letting my Imposter Syndrome talk me out of it, of course). The book uses a range of research and expert case study interviews to consider the key challenges that teachers face in schools, and how we can start to take ownership of our workload through empowerment through knowledge, and self-reflection. You can pre-order it here:

You can find my presentation here:


Click to access ip_high_achieving_women.pdf

Dancy, II, T. E., and G. Jean-Marie. 2014. “Faculty of Color in Higher Education: Exploring the Intersections of Identity, Impostorship, and Internalized Racism.” Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning 22 (4): 354–372.


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