The Character Movement

Megan Deutschman with husband smiling in a flower garden

Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

By Megan Deutschman, Teacher Frontiers Project Manager

“70 percent of successful people feel like imposters or fakes about their work at some point in their careers” (Bohart, 2015).

My first week of class was typical: introductions and syllabi. I was excited to finally be realizing my dream of studying education at a doctoral level. After five years of classroom teaching, I knew I was ready to continue on in my field in a different way. And then I started to orient to the world of academia and that feeling of excitement and certainty began to evaporate …

In one of my classes, the teaching assistant informed us that she had triple majored in her undergrad work at Harvard. Since this is a family-friendly blog, I won’t mention my college activities, although it’s safe to say they were less scholarly than my TA’s. At orientation, an apparently well-known international ranking of programs was produced to show us students that we had made it into the top program in the world. I felt like an idiot that I didn’t even know individual programs were ranked and my initial thought was, “If this is such a big deal, how did I get in?!”

As I got to know people in my classes, I was overwhelmed by their accomplishments: multiple degrees from prestigious schools, complex vocabularies, international aid work in countries I’d never heard of … I had to Google East Timor last week. (Yep, it’s a real place.) It seemed that day after day, I was faced with situations, information and people who were seemingly so much more impressive than I. I seriously doubted that I should have been accepted into the program and figured some great mistake had been made. I felt like I was waiting to be “found out.”

Megan heads to her first day of grad school.

Throughout the first few weeks of school, I told these stories to my sister. After one particularly difficult day, she looked at me and said, “Don’t fall for imposter syndrome. You are enough.” I didn’t know what imposter syndrome was and plus, I figured she was biased; she is my sister after all. But later, being the nerd that I am, I did some quick research on imposter syndrome. I discovered that imposter syndrome is feeling less competent or intelligent than others around you, attributing your success to luck and/or feeling like a fraud (Borhart, 2015). There are other “symptoms,” but those three that I listed above perfectly explained how I was feeling. Apparently, imposter syndrome affects people of all walks of life and has been observed in Supreme Court justices, authors, actors, lawyers, doctors, teachers, students. It equally affects men, women and children. Even Maya Angelou once said, “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’ ”

Once you know about imposter syndrome, you can’t help but see it everywhere. It’s the new mother feeling like she doesn’t have a clue what she’s doing. It’s your partner doubting his or her competency at a new job. It’s your coworker undermining their brilliant idea or shying away in the face of recognition. It’s the student getting upset over three wrong answers on his spelling test. It would be great to look at these people in the midst of their doubt and say, “You are enough.”

Reading about imposter syndrome changed everything for me. I started to see my differences as strengths. I don’t have an Ivy League degree, but I do have two loving parents who provided me with an education and a close family and loving husband who have always supported me. I don’t have a litany of academic awards from my undergrad but I have lasting relationships with three amazing women whom I met in my freshman year dorm. I’m certain I don’t have the highest of GRE scores, but I do have a high level of professional skill that I get to bring to a job that I love.

Instead of focusing on all the things I don’t have, I’ve decided to focus on the things that I do have. With just this simple awareness, I now go to class and feel proud of who I am and what I have accomplished. I claim my seat at the table. When I feel overwhelmed by the new world I have entered, I remember that after all, this program isn’t entirely about me. It’s about being a part of something bigger than myself: working with a community of educators to do what I can to improve education.

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