"Afraid of Being 'Found Out'" by Director of Counseling Jen Hamilton
We all likely have vivid recollections of the last time we started a new school, even if it was decades ago. For many of us, there may be visceral memories of the excitement and nervousness we felt. If you were to talk with a group of people about these memories, you would likely come up with a list of commonalities such as having difficulty sleeping, feeling butterflies in your stomach, worrying that you might not know anyone or that you might not be able to find your way around. Yet there is one extremely common experience that students are much more hesitant to mention: The fear that we may be in way over our heads.
Why is it that something so universal is so difficult to talk about? The worry that "I'm not supposed to be here" is a very vulnerable thought to experience, and the secrecy around this fear only serves to make it bigger. This phenomenon is so common, in fact, that in the late '70s, psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes of Georgia State University coined the term "Impostor Syndrome." Perhaps the most illustrative example of Impostor Syndrome is that each fall, students at Stanford Business school are asked the question, "How many of you in here feel that you are the one mistake that the admissions committee made?" And each year, two-thirds of the class admit to harboring this fear.
Every fall, as I meet with new students, part of the conversation usually goes something like this: "It is normal, when you start a new school or join a new team or club or friend group, to feel like maybe you don't belong, or to worry that maybe you're not as good as you (or others) thought you were. Everyone feels like this sometimes. Where on this spectrum are you today?" The question, asked in this way, lets kids know that there's nothing unusual about fearing that you may be in over your head. In fact, it's very typical. Their answers are stunningly honest, peppered with a sense of relief. By opening this dialogue, we can quell some of the worries and talk about ways to cope with them.
Keeping silent about these concerns can cause us to be afraid to take risks and to feel anxious... so anxious, at times, that we go into "fight or flight" mode and can't perform to our full capacity. Recent research on this topic by Dr. Valerie Young has found that people actually develop coping mechanisms for Impostor Syndrome, which often include "procrastination, perfectionism, and other unconscious strategies... to avoid being 'found out.'" The antidote? First, recognize that this feeling is normal and that you're not alone! Second, talk about these vulnerable feelings with someone who you trust as a way to shed some light on those dark corners. Next, remember that although this is a strong feeling, it does not mean that it is the truth. And perhaps most importantly, take risks to try new things, ask questions, and focus on taking in new information and experiences. By cultivating a growth mindset (nobody is born smart or gifted... each skill must be developed over time with practice and hard work, and all skills can be improved over time with practice and hard work), we retrain ourselves from the faulty thinking that if we aren't the best at something, or if achievement doesn't come easily, then it must mean that we don't belong or that it's not worth doing. If you'd like to learn more about this, psychologist Carol Dweck has some wonderful books and resources on cultivating a growth mindset.
As a way to engage your children in conversation about this topic, I encourage you to share stories with them about times when you have felt unsure of yourself and worried about being "found out," yet persevered. They just might open up and share more about their own experiences. They may also be relieved to learn that literally hundreds of accomplished professionals have written about working through feeling like an impostor. Even Justice Sonia Sotomayor, when asked about this topic, said, "I have that initial insecurity but I’m capable of stepping outside of it and proving to myself it’s wrong.”
As always, I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic, or to talk with you about ideas or concerns that you may have regarding your children. Please don't hesitate to email me.