How to Overcome ‘Imposter Syndrome’ as an English Teacher Abroad
So-called “imposter syndrome” affects many first-time English teachers abroad – so, if you’re feeling its effects, know that you are not alone!
Here, we’ll explore what “imposter syndrome” is, how it commonly affects teachers (especially if you’re new to the field), and a handful of proven strategies based on psychology that you can use to overcome it.
What is ‘imposter syndrome’?
First things first: what is “imposter syndrome”?
Here’s a concise definition via Psychology Today:
“People who struggle with imposter syndrome believe that they are undeserving of their achievements and the high esteem in which they are, in fact, generally held. They feel that they aren’t as competent or intelligent as others might think—and that soon enough, people will discover the truth about them. Those with imposter syndrome are often well accomplished; they may hold high office or have numerous academic degrees.”
Some of the telltale signs of imposter syndrome, according to Asana, include, but are not limited to:
- Poor self-confidence in the classroom
- Over-sensitivity to making mistakes
- A fear (usually unfounded) of letting your co-workers and/or bosses down
- Burnout due to trying to overcompensate for the feelings of inadequacy
- Setting impossibly high standards for yourself
- Disbelief that you “belong” in your position
The thing to understand about imposter syndrome is that it can affect anyone – no matter how well-credentialed or experienced.
If you have an advanced degree and even if you’ve already got teaching experience but you still feel unsure about yourself without justification, you might be experiencing imposter syndrome.
So, what can you do to compensate for these feelings and feel just as good about yourself and your abilities as everyone else who watches you work does?
Strategy #1 to beat imposter syndrome: Talk about your feelings with someone you trust
Because individuals affected by imposter syndrome are already insecure about themselves, they might hesitate to discuss their feelings with anyone else for fear that their insecurities will be externally confirmed, or that their feelings will be interpreted as strange and they will suffer socially as a result.
However, repeating your internal, self-defeating dialogue out loud in front of a trusted confidant is an excellent first step to begin to seriously grapple with your insecurities.
Strategy #2 to beat imposter syndrome: Seek out honest feedback from respected sources
In some cases, seeking out an honest appraisal of your talents and the quality of your work from an authoritative source might be all you need to overcome your anxieties.
However, for others, the utility of soliciting this sort of feedback is often limited.
Even after receiving praise for your performance from a respected source in a position to know how well you’re doing, like a co-worker or boss, it’s not uncommon to go on feeling the same sort of self-doubts as always.
Strategy #3 to beat imposter syndrome: Play to your strengths
In the context of English as a second language (ESL) instruction, the “playing to your strengths” strategy could look like incorporating something you know for sure you are good at, something you feel confident in your ability to do and do well – like musical instrumentality, illustrative prowess, etc. – into your lesson planning.
By including these elements you already feel fully confident about in your work, you increase your chances of feeling better about your ESL talents that you might be less sure of.
Plus, if you add elements that you genuinely enjoy into your lesson plans, your students will pick up on and reflect that joy. Enthusiasm is contagious, after all.
Strategy #4 to beat imposter syndrome: Assess your performance objectively with real-world examples
One method that may work for some people to ease feelings of inadequacy as an ESL teacher is to objectively assess your performance using evidence.
In the context of ESL, such evidence might include but is not limited to observations from other teachers or administrators (you can use observed teaching practicum from a TEFL course or real-world notes from actual classroom work).
If the feedback does include any suggested areas of improvement, then develop a plan, perhaps in consultation with a trusted colleague, to improve your relevant skill set in that area. If the feedback contains no such suggested area of improvement, let that ease your mind.
This strategy may not work for everyone, as imposter syndrome is almost never based on an objective analysis of your ability or performance, but rather is fueled by negative self-talk.
Strategy #5 to beat imposter syndrome: Acknowledge, validate, release
As any therapist or counselor worth their salt will confirm, ignoring your feelings is no way to overcome your anxieties and fears. When you try to suppress negative emotions, they have a nasty knack for popping up in all sorts of surprising and horrifying ways.
Instead, a better way to process imposter syndrome is a three-parter: acknowledge, validate, and release.
In other words, make a conscious effort to really feel what you are feeling without attempts to bottle it up, reassure yourself that it’s okay to feel those feelings and that it’s not at all uncommon, and then simply let them go.
Realize and accept that there’s only limited utility in trying to rationalize your way out of imposter syndrome because, in fact, it’s not a rational condition in the first instance.
Strategy #6 to beat imposter syndrome: Meditation
This one is related strongly to Strategy #5, in that one of the main goals of meditation is to learn how to manage intrusive, persistent mental “noise” that harms quality of life overall, not just in the professional context.
If you’re new to meditation, feel free to experiment with different methodologies and disciplines.
If you’re looking for a good place to start, consider this guided meditation tailored specifically to individuals affected by imposter syndrome:
Strategy #7 to beat imposter syndrome: Create a list detailing your skills
One common trait of individuals battling imposter syndrome is a reluctance to acknowledge their personal strengths, and to instead harp on their perceived limitations.
Many people incorrectly regard listing their positive traits as braggadocio or narcissism. But that need not be the case.
Accordingly, a big part of overcoming imposter syndrome is reframing your mind to focus on the positive rather than the negative.
To this end, consider making a list of your most positive attributes. Don’t be shy, and don’t hold back; no one but you, unless you elect to share your list with someone close, will ever see it but you.
Strategy #8 to beat imposter syndrome: Commit to ongoing professional development
In some cases, imposter syndrome might be borne out of a sense of apathy or stagnation in your career. You might be able to remedy this by consciously committing to ongoing professional development, which for an ESL teacher might mean taking an advanced TEFL course or attending an industry seminar.
Strategy #9 to beat imposter syndrome: Join a professional network of ESL teachers
Similarly to the previous strategy, enlisting in a professional network of ESL teachers can help you reify your status as a serious, bona fide ESL teacher.
Having the proverbial seal of approval from a recognized professional association not only cements the perception of your legitimacy in the minds of prospective employers and colleagues, but also in your own mind.
Contact RVF International for more info and tips regarding teaching English abroad
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Ben Bartee is a Bangkok-based American journalist, grant writer, political essayist, researcher, travel blogger, and amateur philosopher. Contact him on Linkedin and check out his portfolio.