Jeannine Kranzow, Azusa Pacific University
Faculty and professional academic advisors play an essential role in student support, and research indicates that contact with an advisor increases the likelihood of student success (Vasquez et al., 2019). Advisors help students with a number of challenges experienced during the college years. Among those challenges discussed, Academic Advising Today authors Ewing-Cooper and Merrifield (2019) identify Imposter Syndrome (IS) as one of the most common. While IS might sound like a mental health disorder, it is not an official diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association (Naruse, 2021; Weir, 2013). Rather, it is a personality tendency that leads people to negative thinking about themselves and altered wellness (Clance, 1985; Cohen & McConnell, 2019; Weir, 2013). For advisors wanting to better prepare themselves to support students experiencing IS, this article will provide information and practical insights to help guide and educate students toward healthier mindsets.
Those experiencing IS (also referred to also as Imposterism or Imposter Phenomenon) struggle with feeling inadequate, having low self-worth, and/or experiencing self-defeating thoughts about the role or task at hand (Clancy, 2018; Wyatt et al., 2019). Transition periods into higher education environments often bring about IS (Clance, 1985; Parkman, 2016). Students in new academic environments might have worries about not belonging in college, not being smart enough, or not being up to the academic tasks required of them. They often fear they gained access to the institution or program by mistake and that someone will figure this out.
By its very nature, IS negatively impacts student mental health. It can bring out anxiety, a tendency to isolate, feelings of inadequacy, and depression (Peteet, Brown, et al., 2015; Peteet, Montgomery, et al., 2015; Wang et al., 2019). While some students are familiar with the term Imposter Syndrome, most are only familiar with the thoughts and feelings being experienced. Therefore, assisting students with identifying and overcoming IS can help them both mentally and academically.
One significant thing advisors can do is to be proactive in talking to students about IS (Richey et al. 2021). Looking and listening for IS in both verbal and nonverbal student messages is important, as breaking the silence of shame is critical. In a recent publication of Academic Advising Today, advisors and learning strategist Richey et al. (2021) present a coaching/questioning model used with medical students in order to identify and intervene with students experiencing IS. To further their conversation, the following sections offer specific success strategies that advisors can apply with undergraduate students and those doing other types of graduate work. This article notes recommendations which can help determine whether students are experiencing IS and offers research-based advice for advisors seeking to help students wanting to become more confident and at peace with their academic abilities as well as find a sense of belonging.
In order to understand how students are feeling, advisors might consider asking open-ended questions such as:
- How comfortable do you feel in approaching a faculty member with a question?
- What are you thinking and feeling in terms of the tests and other assignments coming up this term?
- Do you feel included and that you belong in this community (or class or program)?
Answers to these questions can illuminate student lack of confidence, isolation, and fear of asking a question (out of concern that it will expose them for a fraud). In conversations, also listen for perfectionistic tendencies which are negatively correlated with IS (Wang et al., 2019).
If the conversation reveals that the student is experiencing IS, the student can be assured that it is common for those in new academic environments to feel that way and that their peers may also be experiencing those feelings (but might be uncomfortable bringing up the topic). Sharing with advisees that people from nearly every profession (from library science to medical professionals to academic faculty) struggle with it (Johnson & Smith, 2019; Ladonna et al., 2018) may bring a sense of relief that they are not alone. If you, the advisor, personally had to overcome IS, consider sharing that with the student. Students can be reminded that they were invited to the program or institution because they are capable, and they do deserve to be there as much as anyone else.
Simply opening up the conversation will likely bring students experiencing IS some relief, but IS requires students to change their thinking about themselves if students are truly going to overcome it. Helping students recognize the importance of taking control of inner thoughts is important (Meichenbaum, 2008). Advisors can recommend multiple approaches for helping students to change their thinking.
Some suggestions are relatively simple to employ in order to help students with thinking more positively. One of these is to have students write down successes and accomplishments (Wyatt et al., 2019) which helps students to focus on the positive and powerful things they have done instead of what they have failed to do. To supplement the writing of success and positivity, students can practice positive self-talk. Much of what takes place for those struggling with IS is negative self-talk, so encouraging students to recognize the negative self-talk and turn it into positive self-talk can be significant.
Literature has suggested that reframing negative “I can’t do this” thoughts into a posture of intellectual humility “I don’t know all I need to know, but I can and want to learn,” can be seen as a good thing (Wang et al., 2019). This approach offers students the chance to view IS in a new light and to see that a willingness and openness to learning is far better than a know-it-all attitude.
Another approach is to have students visit the counseling center to speak to a counselor or therapist. Most counselors are adept at using a cognitive behavioral therapy approach to help students navigate life circumstances, which can help them overcome IS as well as other challenges they may face in the future (Reynolds, 2009). Counselors can help students learn to understand how their thoughts impact their feelings and actions. De-stigmatizing counseling is critical so that students approach counseling as part of a well-being and success plan and not as something they go to because of a problem.
It is important to note that literature suggests some environments lend themselves to students experiencing IS. Especially for students of color in predominantly male or white environments, sometimes, “they don’t just feel like imposters; they are made to feel like imposters, regardless of how self-assured, smart, and confident they are” (Johnson & Smith, 2019, p. 4). First-generation college students frequently experience IS (Whitehead & Wright, 2017) as do African American students (Peteet, Brown, et al. 2015). While environments and cultures must become supportive environments and helpers are charged with being student advocates, changing these things takes time. As such, it is imperative that individuals are supported with advising, coaching, and possibly counseling in the meantime (Young, 2021).
Perhaps one of the most powerful tools for helping students experiencing IS is mentorship. Mentors can affirm, remind, and encourage students that they have what it takes and teach students to give themselves credit for hard-earned successes (instead of crediting the mentor, teacher, or another student). For students from underrepresented backgrounds, a mentor is often someone who has been there and overcome the same struggle.
One final suggestion in the literature is that students can be encouraged to fake it until they no longer feel like an imposter. There is reason to believe that over time, many students will begin to think of themselves in a new, more positive way (Cuddy, 2018), but in the meantime, students can relax and be willing to wait for that feeling to come.
Not every suggestion will work for all students, but advisors can utilize different approaches with different students and try to determine what is best in any given situation. By engaging in conversations about IS, advisors can help students to become more confident and find their sense of belonging.
Department of Higher Education
Azusa Pacific University
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Cite this article using APA style as: Kranzow, J. (2022, June). Advising students struggling with imposter syndrome. Academic Advising Today, 45(2). [insert url here]