by Sabrina Lu
Have you ever felt like you don’t deserve your achievements? Do you feel like you don’t belong where you are? If so, you aren’t alone. Many people experience feelings of self-doubt, and they are symptoms of imposter syndrome.
Imposter syndrome, also referred to by psychologists as imposter phenomenon, is a psychological pattern that causes one to doubt their achievements and foster an internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud or a failure. Despite their apparent external accomplishments, people experiencing the syndrome remain convinced that they do not deserve the success they have.
Those who suffer dismiss their achievements as being attributed to good luck or timing. They think that they reach these goals by deceiving others into thinking that they are more competent or intelligent than they really are.
While imposter syndrome is categorized as a phenomenon, not a mental disorder, the imposter experience is often accompanied by heightened stress, anxiety or depression. The symptoms can be debilitating and cause feelings of low self-confidence and shame.
Imposter syndrome is experienced by many different types of people, especially by those who are highly successful and a part of underrepresented groups, but the feelings of inadequacy are especially commonplace on college campuses.
[Imposter syndrome] is something I’ve struggled with for a long time and I sometimes don’t feel like I belong here,” said Laurren Henning (COM ’22). “Everyone is always doing things, and I just feel like I don’t.”
As the college application process becomes increasingly rigorous and selective, institutions pride themselves on selecting the best of the best out of their large pools of applicants. When students arrive on campus and are told of the notable alumni, remarkable student body and a myriad of academic and professional achievements that have happened on campus, students often begin to doubt themselves, thinking that they don’t belong there and there must have been some kind of mistake.
“When I first arrived on campus, I was so impressed by the people I had met” said Julia Yang (CAS ’22). “Everyone seemed like they had done so much, while I just felt like I wasn’t on the same level.”
According to a 2019 study conducted by Brigham Young University, 20% of students sampled in an elite academic program suffered from “very strong feelings of imposterism.” The study revealed many of the negative ways students cope with imposter syndrome. Some try to take their mind off of school through outlets like video games, but then become fixated on escaping through gaming instead of studying. Participants also tried to hide their feelings from their peers, pretending to be confident when in reality they questioned their place in the program.
“The root of imposterism is thinking that people don’t see you as you really are,” said Bryan Stewart, a professor at BYU and co-author of the study. “We think people like us for something that isn’t real, and that they won’t like us if they find out who we really are.”
“I always feel like I’m letting down my mentors when they say they believe in me,” said Annette Yan (CAS ’22). “I feel like they see some sort of potential in me that I haven’t realized yet, but I feel like I don’t have it and I always want something that I can’t achieve.”
However, there are ways to relieve the stresses of imposter syndrome. Based on the students interviewed in the study, those who sought social support from friends and family outside of their academic programs fared better than those who opted not to.
“Those outside the social group seem to be able to help students see the big picture and recalibrate their reference groups,” said Jeff Bednar, a BYU professor and co-author of the study. “After reaching outside their social group for support, students are able to understand themselves more holistically rather than being so focused on what they felt they lacked.”
For students hoping to combat these feelings of inadequacy or imposterism, there are several strategies that can help.
Ask for help. In educational settings, peers and professors are all people that are happy to help. Asking for help can help foster feelings of support and therefore mitigate feelings of failure.
Share your feelings with others. So many people in the community suffer from the same problem. Reaching out to people and realizing that you are not alone in your struggle can help you feel less lonely and isolated.
Celebrate your success. More often than not, it is easy to get caught up in your failures. Celebrate the things you do well and realize that you are deserving of the successes you achieve.
Value growth over perfection. When surrounded by peers who seem to be able to do it all, it’s easy to let yourself believe that you are falling behind. Thinking about how your setbacks and experiences help you learn and grow can change your mind set; instead of focussing on perfection, you can focus on growing into the person you want to be.
Surround yourself with people who encourage you. Being with people who believe in you is important. Knowing that someone understands your capability and worth—even when you might not understand it yourself—is a big factor in overcoming these feelings of low self-worth.
Acknowledge yourself. Recognize your own abilities and put yourself in a place to receive great opportunities. Ambition and confidence will help you attain these goals, and when you finally do attain them, you know that it was 100% attributed to your own capabilities.
Imposter syndrome is more common than one might think, and it affects people from all backgrounds and professions. Sharing your own experiences of imposter syndrome with others and breaking the silence can help destigmatize these feelings. Learning about the symptoms and acknowledging the problem is the first step to taking control.
“Experiencing doubts is normal, but the important part is to not let that doubt control your actions,” says Valerie Young, imposter syndrome expert and author of “The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women.”
“The goal is not to never feel like an imposter. The goal is for people to have the tools and insight and information to talk themselves down faster,” she said. “They can still have an imposter moment, but not an imposter life.”