Discussing Imposter Syndrome

By: Professor Amanda Peters (South Texas College of Law Houston)Grayscale Photo of Human Hand

Like most of my law professor colleagues, teaching online is new to me. One of the many options unique to virtual teaching is the discussion board, which has been touted as a tool to keep students engaged. While I was unsure how my online class discussions would go, I was especially pleased with the discussion board responses I recently received on the topic of imposter syndrome, which involves the belief that you do not deserve to be where you are, that you do not belong.

At the online LWI Conference this summer, one of the presenters mentioned a TED Ed talk on imposter syndrome. I heard about this syndrome for the first time on NPR many  years ago. Although I had never put a name with it before,  I immediately recognized it from my own experiences, and I knew how harmful it could be.

I remember feeling uneasy about my abilities as I began law school. Two women in my 1L study group were ranked 2nd and 4th in the class after the first semester. I remember wondering whether my good grades were a product of studying with them or whether I alone was capable of earning those grades. I questioned whether I really belonged on Law Review.

When I became a lawyer, I doubted I was talented enough to work among the best litigators in Houston or whether I was smart enough to move from litigation to appellate work. As a new law professor, I remember feeling insecure that my office neighbors went to Harvard when the diplomas that hung on my wall came from Texas Tech. In each of these situations, I would eventually come to realize that I had earned my place, but that realization took time.

I’ve also seen imposter syndrome affect many of my students over the years. In my first semester of teaching, the top student in one of my classes was smart, hard-working, friendly, and beautiful. I quickly learned in our conferences that she suffered from low self-esteem. She sincerely believed that the only reason she succeeded in law school was because she worked twice as hard to overcome her perceived intellectually inferiority. I recognized a damaging, false script running through her head, but my attempts to counteract it were unsuccessful. Even though she received the best grade in the class, graduated with highest honors from the law school, and beat out Ivy League law school clerks for a job at a prestigious law firm, she always believed she was not as worthy as her peers.

Over the years, I met other students with similar feelings, some of whom never made it past the first year of law school. Imposter syndrome was causing some very promising students to shoot themselves in the foot before they even had a chance to succeed. As a result, I decided to discuss it in class and at orientation as soon as I knew what it was.

While the in-person class discussions were good, the discussion board activity that I incorporated into my virtual classroom this semester was even better. In the prompt, I asked students to watch the TED Ed clip above and an interview with a popular actress, comedian, and musician who discussed how imposter syndrome had impacted her and other famous actors she knew. Then I asked students to identify a concern they had about their preparedness or ability to perform well in law school and to suggest things they could do to combat any feelings of inadequacy. What followed was an honest, authentic discussion and a sense of relief that their classmates were experiencing the same concerns.

Students identified with the struggle of feeling like an academic imposter. They mentioned characteristics they believed negatively set them apart from their peers like intelligence, age, skills, being an introvert, lacking connections to the legal profession, etc. Some admitted they put off applying to law school because of those perceived weaknesses, thought their undergraduate grades or law school acceptance were mistakes, or believed they would be unable to keep up with the rigors of law school. Some students mentioned aspects of the videos that resonated with them. Several students were surprised to learn even celebrities feel like imposters at times. Many shared that their classmates’ comments reassured them they were not alone.

In the end, our online conversation helped convince students that they deserved to be here and that I am rooting for them to succeed. Going forward, I plan on making this the first discussion of every 1L class I teach, whether virtual or otherwise. The eternal optimist in me hopes that this discussion helps replace the early and persistent doubts that many students have with feelings of confidence, accomplishment, and belonging.


Have you incorporated discussion board activities into your virtual classroom? Do you discuss imposter syndrome? Share your good ideas at [email protected], and we might just post them. 






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