Updated: Sep 20, 2019
A knot of anxiety bundled in my stomach. I felt my breathing become faster, and my cheeks flush red. I was sitting in class, so intimidated to speak up and answer the professor’s question. Why did we have to do these class discussions anyway? All my classmates were so much smarter than me. They could read more quickly, think more critically, and speak more articulately than I could. Did I even belong in this college program?
My first year of college was filled with questions and situations like this. I knew I wanted to be in college, but I always felt a little out of place in my biology program. I liked science, but I had to work hard at it. When I started graduate school, these feelings intensified. I would think to myself, there is no way I’m smart enough to be here…I’m too young to be here…No one in my immediate family has ever done a Master’s… If only they found me out…Yikes!
It wasn’t until months into my master’s program that I could put a name to what I was experiencing: imposter syndrome.
What is imposter syndrome?
Megan Dalla-Camina of Psychology Today defines imposter syndrome as “a pattern of behavior where people doubt their accomplishments and have a persistent, often internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud.” Imposter syndrome can affect anyone, from scientists to businesspeople. The underlying fear is being “found out” or “caught” as an imposter. Someone who isn’t qualified to be there.
Imposter syndrome is a psychological term, and it affects people in different ways. For example, someone recently earned a promotion at work. This person then starts to doubt they are the best candidate or capable of doing the job, and instead attributes the promotional success to good fortune.
So how does this affect college? Sometimes we think we’re not smart enough to be in a college program, that we got into college by ‘luck,’ or that the admissions office just made a mistake. Despite the evidence that shows we got in for a reason and are capable of succeeding, it can feel overwhelming to be in college and to feel like a fraud.
The key to remember about imposter syndrome is that feelings are just feelings. They don’t always point to the truth. You may feel like you’re not smart enough to be in college or that you don’t belong, but the evidence says otherwise. You got into college for a reason, and you are completely worthy of being there.
What can you do to help manage imposter syndrome?
When I first read about imposter syndrome in a required reading assignment for graduate school, I highlighted the page, texted my best friend, and cried. It was such a relief to know that other people felt this way—enough for a book to include it!
Start by calling it what it is: imposter syndrome
Being able to put a name to what you’re experiencing is powerful. It helps you know that you’re not alone. And if you doubt that what you’re experiencing is common, Google it. Gill Corkindale, writing for Harvard Business Review, has a helpful article of suggestions, the first being to recognize what you’re feeling.
Write it down
“I don’t feel good enough to be in this class or program. Everyone is smarter than me. I definitely got in by chance.” Writing down feelings is a powerful exercise; it gets the chaos out of your head and somewhere you can analyze the thoughts more rationally. It’s easier to identify an untrue statement or limiting belief when it’s on paper. I did this frequently while in school. It’s a simple exercise, but getting thoughts out of your head and onto paper gives you another perspective.
Reframe the thoughts after you’ve written them down
We all know the adage, “attitude is everything.” Change that thought into something positive: “I don’t feel good enough to be here, but I know I got in for a reason. They wouldn’t have let me in if I wasn’t good enough to be here. And also, I’m here to learn! I don’t have to know everything right now. I’m here to keep learning, and I can do that.”
Talk to other people
What would you do if your best friend or little sister came to you with these fears of being an “imposter”? You would listen compassionately, and you’d help. You’d remind her that she is good enough and is capable of succeeding. Let someone be there for you. Many of your professors have probably experienced these feelings at some point in their career. Your friends might be experiencing similar feelings right now; be brave enough to discuss these feelings and to help each other. If you have TA’s or mentors of any kind, talk to them. If you’re not sure where to go, you can look into your school’s counseling center or other resources.
Focus on the class content rather than your own insecurity
In college, I switched from biology into integrated science education. I loved science, but something about teaching lit a fire inside me. In my education classes, I felt empowered in discussions and spoke up in class more often. I was so focused on the content, about learning how to help students learn, I suddenly forgot about my anxiety. Did this always happen? No. But when I focused less on my fear and insecurity, and more on my goal for being in college, I felt empowered.
Why are you in college? What’s your long-term goal? Keep this at the forefront of your mind.
If you’re feeling like an imposter, even a little bit, remember that you’re not alone. Many people have felt and do feel this way. Perhaps most importantly, remember that the reasons you may feel like an imposter are precisely the reasons you need to be there: Being the first in the family to do this, feeling young or different amongst peers—you have a valuable perspective to add. And you need to add it. You belong.
Corkindale, G. (2014). Overcoming Imposter Syndrome. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2008/05/overcoming-imposter-syndrome
Dalla-Camina, M. (2018). The Reality of Imposter Syndrome. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/real-women/201809/the-reality-imposter-syndrome