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#4 Barriers to Learning: Imposter Syndrome

Updated: Aug 7, 2021



There’s an imposter in our midst! And… that’s you?

As confusing as the sentence above sounds, a psychological phenomenon called ‘Imposter Syndrome’ can cause you to feel that same sense of confusion.

There are, unfortunately, many other barriers to learning such as learning disabilities, peer pressure, etc., but in today’s lesson, we’ll be focusing on this rather common but unfamiliar phenomenon. You may remember the Dunning-Kruger effect from the second lesson on the three types of knowledge. (Just to recap, this is a cognitive bias where people think they know more than they actually do.) The Imposter Syndrome (Clance and Imes, 1978) is the very opposite of the Dunning-Kruger effect. This phenomenon is when you feel inadequate or feel like a fraud, even when there is substantial evidence that your successes were not just a result of luck.

This can lead to unnecessary perfectionism, fear of failure, and expectations that are too high to meet. In severe cases, people might have a constant fear that they might be exposed as a ‘fake’. Especially in the field of academia, experiencing Imposter Syndrome is not surprising. In a social environment like school, you constantly think about your successes in comparison to other people. This may increase your desire to hide any failures and only shine light on the successes. However, accepting that there is not one person who always succeeds, and that mistakes and failures are also part of the process to reach your goals is the first step to overcome Imposter Syndrome.

Another situation where Imposter Syndrome may prevent you from developing your academic skill set is within a feedback dynamic between a learner and educator. Getting feedback is a bi-directional conversation that requires the learner to actively engage with both receiving and incorporating the feedback to improve. Yet when there is a risk that the feedback may influence longer-term assessments (i.e. grades), the learner may present an idealised impression of themselves (Huffman et al., 2020). This occurs when the learner focuses more on performance than learning. If this is amplified via Imposter Syndrome, things can get a little more complicated.

Presenting themselves as more confident than they really feel, learners are trying to prove to educators as well as themselves that they are worthy of their position. Yet, seeking for opportunities to be praised can potentially harm the learner by reducing the depth and quality of the feedback (Thompson et al., 1998). As the dissonance between who they perceive themselves to be and their presentation to others gets bigger, professional growth will become limited and lead to greater feelings of inadequacy.

One way to make peace with who you are and ensure that you don’t feel like an imposter is by separating feelings from facts. When you make mistakes, you might feel like that will define your abilities from then on. However, if you realise that this one mistake is not nearly enough to make your existence a fraud, you’re going to be able to learn more. You might have subconscious rules that set yourself up for overwhelming expectations. Misguided rules such as ‘I should always know the answer’ or ‘don’t ask for help because people will think you’re stupid’ can make you feel so small. Start asserting your right to not be perfect at first try or your right to be wrong. There is nothing wrong with that.

 

Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15(3), 241–247. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0086006

Huffman, B. M., Hafferty, F. W., Bhagra, A., Leasure, E. L., Santivasi, W. L., & Sawatsky, A. P. (2020). Resident impression management within feedback conversations: A qualitative study. Medical Education, 55(2), 266–274. https://doi.org/10.1111/medu.14360

Thompson, T., Davis, H., & Davidson, J. (1998). Attributional and affective responses of impostors to academic success and failure outcomes. Personality and Individual Differences, 25(2), 381–396. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0191-8869(98)00065-8

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