Self-Doubt, Lack of Confidence, and Imposter Syndrome

July 11, 2022
  • Professional Development and Contributions to the Field
  • Professional Well-Being
Man hiding feelings of inadequacy behind a smiling mask.

By Dr. Ginnifer Cié Gee, Associate Vice Provost, The University of Texas, San Antonio

"Field Notes" is an occasional Connect column covering practical and philosophical issues facing admissions and registrar professionals. Various AACRAO members author the columns. If you have an idea for a column and would like to contribute, please email the editor at connect@aacrao.org.


Let’s talk about self-doubt. About feeling like you don’t have enough experience, you don’t know enough, or you just aren’t enough. Let’s talk about lack of professional confidence and fear of failure.  

Why? Because it affects EVERYONE, and we do not talk about it enough.

I’ll admit: I have struggled with self-doubt. I wonder if readers will scoff, dismissing this submission because it isn’t about enrollment management or new higher ed policy. Yet, I stand firm in addressing this topic on a forum like this. Is anyone worried about employee retention? Read on.

Over the past six months, I’ve been leading training sessions about self-doubt and how this impacts everyday interactions, quality of output, and one’s leadership trajectory. I predict most of you reading will agree that at some point in your career, you feared someone was going to knock on your office door and say, “The jig is up; we found out you don’t know what you are doing; pack up, let’s go.”  

Some of you are thinking that right now. I’ve completed five discussion groups/training at all different levels with staff and faculty on this topic, and the outcomes are strikingly similar.

  1. When one person in the group reveals confidence struggles, everyone begins to chime in (because we all have them).

  2. There is validation in not being the ‘only one’ experiencing self-doubt.

  3. Negative thoughts often arise from something new; a new leadership role, project, technology, staff, or university.

  4. Feeling doubt can manifest from many different places; gender, race/ethnicity, past supervisors, or parental influence. It’s unique to the individual’s lived experiences. 

  5. Digging down to the roots of doubt can lead to the realization that there is no objective evidence that you are deficient.

  6. Openly discussing self-doubt in a safe space (coworkers in the same office) increases motivation, connection, and a more psychologically safe environment.

To understand this vulnerable topic more deeply, I sent a survey to 250 higher ed professionals attending a workshop. I wanted to know how internal conversations feed a lack of confidence and self-doubt. One question produced interesting results. 

What do you struggle the most with in terms of negative self-talk or lack of confidence?

The top choices were Imposter Syndrome (inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or is legitimate) and Being Perceived (too mean/nice)

Let’s unpack this. First, both these struggles have to do with perception, not reality. “Imposter Syndrome” is an internal belief (perception) that you are a fraud; it isn’t specifically someone telling you that you are a fraud. It’s more the fear that a person will appear at your office one day in the “jig is up” scenario. The second struggle has ‘perception’ in the title, “Being Perceived,” a certain way. Again, there is no objective evidence that you are too nice, too mean, or too whatever. It’s the story created in our head that validates it. Can you see how this can be inaccurate?

Going even deeper, these top 2 choices are arguably hard to measure unless you sent a survey asking people if they thought you were a fraud or were too nice. I found it interesting that being wrong was among the lowest on the list. Does this mean we aren’t worried about actually being wrong (because we know we have the skills), but we are concerned by others thinking we are wrong?  

Another interesting result of this question is the creation of un-measurable assessments consciously or unconsciously so that we can never meet them. For example, some of the open comments about struggles in the ‘other’ category were things like:

  • Claiming authority

  • Not being strategic enough, not being powerful enough

  • Not perfect enough (yes, seriously, we are worried about not being perfect)

How do you know when you have claimed authority? Do you get a sticker to wear around the office that says, “Claimer of Authority!” What is the measuring stick for strategic enough or powerful enough? And I will argue with anyone who has a measurement for perfection.   It’s like saying I’m going to get healthy without any measurable goals; what does ‘healthy’ mean? If you are waiting to reach a certain point, but there is no identifiable measurement of success, you create a vicious circle. 

The takeaways:

  1. For yourself, identify the specific areas in which you feel ‘less than.’ For example, ‘I don’t have confidence leading a team’ is too broad, but maybe you feel doubt in conflict situations, making decisions, or with certain levels.  

  2. Explore the emotions that come up with these thoughts of doubt. Emotions can mask themselves behind others, so the initial feeling of anger may be hiding behind embarrassment. Understand that these feelings are real, and squashing them to move on will only exacerbate the issue. Reflect, think about where they come from and why. 

  3. Find the roots. During training sessions, several people revealed doubt that an ineffective former supervisor seeded. Sometimes we don’t realize what ghosts of the past we are carrying around. Stop letting a former toxic boss steal your power.

  4. Identify areas that you feel confident in now. How did you get there? Deconstructing confidence can help you realize how to build it in other areas.

  5. Where’s the evidence. For example, where is the proof that people don’t see you as an authority? Has it been stated? Is it a perception that may not mirror reality? Be open to the fact that there may be evidence that you need to improve. This is not a reinforcement of the doubt, only a growth opportunity.

  6. As a leader, DO NOT BE THE TOXIC BOSS. Talk to your staff. Are you doing enough to manage any self-doubt? Create an open environment for discussion? Do you know what areas or feelings of doubt your staff is experiencing?

  7. Finally, as I stated above, a new situation was the most common environment for doubt—the past two years have shown us nothing but new situations. Therefore, reflecting on and reframing how we talk to ourselves will cultivate stable ground to support the path ahead