There are no impostors among us: Understanding impostor syndrome 

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Imposter syndrome is commonly described as feeling like you don’t belong despite evidence otherwise. More people than not experience it at some point, and it can easily damage one’s self view. (Photo courtesy of yipengge on iStock)

With the beginning of the school year, classes are getting into full-swing and students are settling into a routine. Some classes have begun exams, assignments are becoming more regular, and both academic and extracurricular demands are growing. It may be difficult to handle everything, but most students are figuring out what works for them. 

However, with all of these rigorous academic and extracurricular stressors, it is easy to look around, see how others are handling the stress and feel as if you don’t belong — in your classes, in your major, in your clubs, in your sports teams or even at this university. This feeling — the feeling that you don’t belong, that you don’t deserve whatever achievements and accomplishments you’ve earned, that you are actually a gigantic fraud and you will be called out for this — is commonly known as imposter syndrome. 

Imposter syndrome is essentially defined as feelings of inadequacy or fraudulence despite success and earning one’s achievements.

People with imposter syndrome often attribute their success to pure luck rather than their own merit. Approximately 70% of people of all different fields experience impostor syndrome at some point during their lives.  

Although the exact cause of imposter syndrome is largely unknown, it can occur for many reasons. In some cases, it occurs in people who have, due to previous experiences, equated success with the feeling of being loved. In addition, imposter syndrome is often seen more in women, people of color and members of the LGBTQIA+ community because they are often underrepresented in their fields. 

For college students, imposter syndrome may occur due to a combination of these factors. For example, it may present as a result of being in classes with other high-achieving students who want to go into similar careers. It is important to understand that imposter syndrome is real and can negatively affect people’s mental health. 

As college students, especially with classes starting up again, it is easy to feel that you don’t belong. It is difficult to refrain from comparing yourself to the people around you. In the past, I’ve felt imposter syndrome precisely because I’ve fallen into the trap of comparing myself with my peers. It has forced me to wonder, in several different scenarios, whether or not I belong in my career path. Even in high school, impostor syndrome forced me to believe that some of my achievements were because of pure luck, rather than actual hard work. 

Imposter syndrome is not a diagnosis found in the DSM-5, however, many psychologists do recognize that it is a legitimate form of psychological self-doubt. Imposter syndrome is often accompanied by anxiety and/or depression. These people often work harder and hold themselves to impossibly high standards, which may also take a toll on their mental health and can eventually cause burnout, which has long-term effects. 

As college students who are prone to feelings of imposter syndrome, we should all be equipped to recognize and deal with these feelings.

Common feelings associated with impostor syndrome include feeling immense pressure not to fail, feeling like a fraud in whatever field, class or activity you are taking part in and that  success or accomplishments are attributed to luck, rather than skill and hard work. Recognizing these feelings is one of the first steps to combatting them. 

After recognizing that you’re experiencing feelings of imposter syndrome, the next step is to change the way you think about yourself — which is easier said than done. However, with practice, your thoughts can slowly be reframed. In a Time Magazine article, psychologist Audrey Ervin said that she tells her clients to ask themselves, “Does that thought help or hinder me?” to encourage clients to change their mindset. It is also helpful to share these feelings with others, such as trusted friends, or to seek out professional help if these feelings of imposter syndrome become a significant problem. 

Imposter syndrome is not uncommon. Many high school, undergraduate and graduate students face these feelings at some point during their academic careers. Even those working in a professional field face these feelings as well. Regardless of the circumstances, it is important to acknowledge what is going on and understand that you’re not alone. 

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