I often like to paraphrase my School Assemblies in my blog, as this can lead to fruitful conversations between boys and their parents. Since half-term the Hodson Hall has been out of action as we have been turning it into a theatre in readiness for our epic performances of Les Misérables next week. I was only able therefore to speak to Years 11 to 13 on the subject of Imposter Syndrome: the feeling that, no matter your accomplishments, you are not remotely as competent as people seem to think you are, and that it’s only a matter of time before you are found out and identified as a fraud or imposter. I have thought about giving an assembly on this topic before, but I thought that this was the ideal time, because Years 11 and 13 have currently got the black cloud of examinations on their horizon. Some of these boys are dealing with the reality of having achieved mock exam grades beneath their expectations, and so are therefore prone to this sort of self-doubt. What can those of us who suffer from Imposter Syndrome do to banish our feelings of inadequacy and feel more optimistic about the challenges ahead?
I was reading an interview with Tom Hanks recently. He is one of my favourite film actors, and as one of Hollywood’s most successful stars of the last 30 years with two ‘Best Actor’ Oscars to his name, surely nobody could doubt a man at the top of his game? Nevertheless, despite his accolades, Hanks described in this interview that he still finds himself doubting his own abilities, saying:
“No matter what I’ve done, there always comes a point where I think, ‘How did I get here? When are they going to discover that I am, in fact, a fraud and take everything away from me?’ “
The phenomenon known as ‘Imposter Syndrome’ is incredibly common. I am sure that many of my audience know what Imposter Syndrome feels like, in spite of the successes you have achieved in your lives. Even when we have succeeded, many of us have a tendency to dismiss our achievements, saying to ourselves “I’m a fake. What I’ve done is all down to luck. I’ve succeeded only due to what others have done for me.”
I told the boys on Thursday morning that I personally know what Imposter Syndrome feels like. It’s not there constantly. I am quite capable of seeing my glass as half-full, and usually extremely enthusiastic, positive and ambitious about what I (or the School) can achieve. Nevertheless, I admitted to them that I have had quite frequent moments when I have doubted myself in my life, as a teacher, or as a friend, husband or father, and I then proceeded to share what I believe we can do about it.
Firstly, we need to understand that Imposter Syndrome is pretty universal, and it’s not inextricably linked with depression, so we mustn’t think that we are ill just because we doubt ourselves at times. We think that we are the only people who feel useless because of the difficulty we have putting ourselves into another person’s skin. This is the psychological phenomenon known as ‘Pluralistic Ignorance’. We each doubt ourselves privately, but believe that we are unique in feeling this way because others don’t tend to voice their own doubts.
Therefore, the first thing we need to do to combat Imposter Syndrome is to talk about it openly. I have written previously this year about the importance of talking (the T in GREAT men). On the whole, men would rather make a joke than admit to vulnerability, but we know that this doesn’t make them happy. If we tried to talk about our feelings of being an imposter, it would demystify it and prevent us from believing that we are unique in feeling unworthy. We need to do what women do more readily, which is to trust our friends and tell them what we’re really thinking.
Secondly, we need to find ways to escape from our negativity. I invariably turn to my wife as I know that she will say the right things to reassure me. I know, however, that Imposter Syndrome assails me disproportionately when tired or when I’ve been inactive. This emphasises how important good sleep is for our wellbeing. Similarly, I know that my mind clears when I go out for a run. Our mental health benefits from rest and exercise.
Thirdly, we need to surround ourselves with positive influences. I spoke to the boys about the concept of how those around us can be categorised as radiators or drains. Radiators bring warmth, kindness, love, and enthusiasm into our lives. They are genuinely interested and bring out the very best in us. Drains, in contrast, suck the energy out of others. I reflected about how this increasingly happens in the online lives of young people. In recent years, the phenomenon of the Internet ‘troll’ has emerged: negative influences who find the opportunity to be critical of any social media post, no matter how innocent it might have seemed. If we can surround ourselves with those who radiate, their positive approach to life bolsters our energy levels and can help to ward off our feelings of inadequacy.
Imposter Syndrome can be a positive influence for self-improvement; if we felt we were wonderful all the time, what motivation would we have to do things differently in our lives? But to escape our self-doubt, we first need to recognise the feeling and try to reframe our feelings by thinking: “the fact that I feel useless right now doesn’t mean that I am”.
I am convinced that, if over the next few important months, boys in our exam classes can try to surround themselves with radiators, talk to each other about their fears, and look after their mental and physical health through positive attitudes to exercise and sleep, they will be more likely to banish their feelings of imposterdom at a time when so much is at stake. We should all try to be kind to ourselves. We are entitled to make a few mistakes. Nobody is perfect.