You just got your second midterm back, and, whatdyaknow, there's a gorgeous, red A at the op of the page. Instead of feeling proud of yourself for the accomplishment, though, all you can focus on is the negative stream of thoughts running through your head: You got a good grade on the exam, but you were just lucky this time. You obviously did well because the test was way easier than you thought it was going to be. You got through this test, but the next one is the big one you're going to fail.
This may just sound like a typical student being humble or insecure, and it's such a recurring, widespread sentiment on college campuses that most people don't give it a second thought. However, these feelings may actually denote a serious problem that students are especially susceptible to—impostor syndrome.
What is impostor syndrome?
Impostor syndrome—huh? Is it something from a TV crime show? While it sounds extremely dramatic, impostor syndrome isn't some super rare disorder that police squads are always on the lookout for. Instead, it's a psychological phenomenon in which people are not able to internalize personal accomplishments. Although it's not considered a psychological disorder, it involves chronic self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy and intellectual fraudulence, even when there's evidence that the opposite is true.
"It's not a fancy word for low self-esteem," says Dr. Valerie Young, a leading expert on impostor syndrome. "Low self-esteem is more of a global sense we have about ourselves, but impostor feelings are specific to achievement situations like school, work, career, academics."
Basically, students who suffer from impostor syndrome think they're not actually successful, competent or smart and only pretending to be that way (hence the word "impostor"). People who feel like impostors also unconsciously employ different coping and protecting strategies like blaming things on luck to manage the stress of feeling like an impostor and avoid being “found out.” They try to fly under the radar because they fear getting exposed as a fake.
"Have you ever felt like a fake or fraud in your workplace or academic program, or worry that other people might 'figure you out?'" says licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Lauren Feiner. "Impostor syndrome is that insecure feeling deep down inside that you don’t believe you deserve the job or career you have, despite maintaining high performance. It is that nagging fear that you will be 'found out' for not being as smart or as experienced as people think."
For example, someone who feels like an impostor might have a great GPA but will find all kinds of explanations for why that's the case. She might get her senior thesis approved but doesn't think her senior advisor even read it (“she just put it on a scale and weighed it”). She might often tell herself, “If I can do it, how hard can it really be?”
Sarah* has struggled with impostor syndrome for longer than she can remember. She recently got an amazing job, but while everyone else was really happy for her, she wasn't all too excited about the accomplishment herself.
"I was thinking things like, 'Oh, I was only selected because no one else with experience applied, because I did horrible in the interview,'" Sarah says. "I never really feel proud of myself, and [I] always downplay my achievements."
Who is susceptible to impostor syndrome?
Unfortunately, it seems like impostor syndrome was made especially for us college students. According to Young, it's prevalent on college campuses and commonly a part of the student experience.
"[Impostor syndrome] is a problem that high-achieving people, students being among them, have internalizing and crediting or owning their accomplishments," Young says.
Feiner recalls meeting many highly qualified, bright, successful women who felt like they managed to "fool everyone." One was a doctoral graduate student at Stanford who worked as an engineer at a big tech company.
"She would constantly argue that she wasn’t smart enough or competent enough, and others would soon discover this about her," Feiner says. "Examples of success were quickly downplayed as luck, a fluke or the result of deceiving others."
Race and gender also play into impostor syndrome. Women, people in the STEM fields, first-generation professionals, students of color or people who fall into more than one of these categories are particularly susceptible because they may feel like they don't belong or like they’re taking on the pressure of trying to represent a group, according to both Young and Feiner.
"A sense of belonging fosters confidence, so the fewer people there are in a major who look like you—and that also applies to race—the more likely you'll struggle with confidence," Young says. "Whenever there are assumptions about people's competence, and there aren't many people who look like you, then you're more susceptible."
In other words, if you don't see others like you in your profession or career path, it's easier to attribute your success to luck instead of merit.
Students in creative majors like writing, art, music and acting are also more vulnerable to impostor syndrome because, unlike other majors, they aren't necessarily being judged by objective standards.
"You're being judged by people whose job title is ‘professional critic’ once you get out into the art world or literary world," Young says. "You're only as good as your last performance."
Stereotypes can also affect your susceptibility to impostor syndrome. Those who fall into certain groups that are prone to stereotypes about intelligence, like blonde women or Asians, face labels about competence and thus are more susceptible to impostor syndrome.
How it affects your work and career
Have you ever gotten a competitive internship or accomplished something huge at work and then kind of just brushed it off as luck or told yourself that it was because no one else was there to compete with you? This is what people with impostor syndrome go through all the time. These impostor feelings also have consequences on their work performance and careers.
For college students, waiting until the last minute to do things is simply a way of life, but there is actually a link between impostor syndrome and procrastination. While not all procrastination is a result of impostor syndrome, the tendency to procrastinate on super important things like applications for internships is connected to the syndrome because it can act as a coping mechanism. Since those with impostor syndrome might be afraid of being discovered as a fraud, they might use procrastination as an excuse or fallback in case things don't actually work out.
"If they don't get the internship, then they can say, 'Well, I'm really disappointed, but I'm hardly surprised because I know it really didn't reflect my best effort,'" Young says. "But the rub is that if they had gotten accepted, they would have felt like they had fooled them. They wouldn't have felt deserving because they knew it really didn't reflect their best effort, but they picked them anyway, so now they feel like a big impostor."
Having impostor syndrome can also turn people into workaholics. Most students have to work hard to do well in school, but self-identified impostors feel like they have to study harder and work harder than everyone else for all the wrong reasons, like believing that they're innately less smart than their peers.
"It's coming from this place of feeling like they have to do that because they're not as intelligent as other students," Young says. "They think, real or imagined, that it's easier, that I have to work harder because other people are inherently more intelligent than I am."
Not only do people with impostor syndrome tend to discount their successes, which can negatively affect their relationship with their work and career, but they may even fear success because of the visibility that comes with it and the strain that it puts between their inner feelings and outside perceptions. This can cause people to hold back and avoid reaching their full potential.
"Although impostor syndrome may drive some people to work harder and achieve more, it can also lead to chronic self-doubt, low self-esteem and burnout," Feiner says.
So while impostor syndrome might have its basis in psychology, its effects on work and life are very much tangible.
How to overcome impostor syndrome
College life can be tough all by itself, but tack on impostor syndrome, and anybody would want out. How can you get rid of that awful feeling of being an impostor? There are certain fundamental steps you need to take to free yourself of the syndrome.
1. Normalize your feelings
Basically, accept that impostor syndrome is a part of the student experience, especially if you're taking advanced classes or you’re in grad school.
"It just goes with the territory," Young says. "Your intellect is being tested over and over and over almost on a daily basis. That doesn't happen outside of school, so just know that it makes sense that, given I'm in college, I'm likely to have these feelings."
The feelings of inadequacy typical of people with impostor syndrome usually come with a lot of shame, but normalizing your feelings and realizing that having these thoughts is a pretty common experience can start to take some of that shame out of the equation.
2. Reframe your failures and your definition of competence
As collegiettes, we’re constantly subjected to this crazy definition of what it means to be competent. Students think that to be truly competent, you have to be absolutely perfect. This leads to the idea that if a student was truly intelligent, she would ace every single thing, which causes people who feel like impostors to feel ashamed when they do fail because they think they shouldn't. They experience the same situations of failure as others do, but they have different automatic thoughts in response.
Failure, of course, is part of all success stories, including those of our favorite celebs. Oprah Winfrey was fired from a TV reporter job, Dr. Seuss had his first book rejected by 27 publishers, Steven Spielberg was rejected by USC's School of Cinematic Arts multiple times and Lucille Ball was considered a failed actress before landing her I Love Lucy role. And look how everything turned out for them!
3. Realize that perfection is unrealistic
Why? Because it is.
"You don’t have to attain perfection to be worthy of the success you’ve achieved," Feiner says. "If you continually set the bar at a level of perfection, you will always feel disappointed. Set the bar at a realistic level so that you don’t always fall short."
It's important to question these automatic impostor thoughts, rethink the standards that are imposed on people and acknowledge that these standards are very much unrealistic. Have you ever met someone who's great at everything? Neither have we. In fact, it's pretty impossible. So focus on the value and unique strengths you bring to the table, not on attaining perfection at everything.
"It's not doing everything perfectly, it's not knowing it all, it's not doing everything by yourself and never getting any help," Young says. "Confidence is … identifying the resources it takes to achieve a goal."
4. Stop comparing yourself to others and own your own successes
Don’t even think about comparing yourself to the girl you know who seems to have it all: the amazing career lined up after graduation, the hot boyfriend, the fancy car and the designer clothes. Trust us, she’s definitely not perfect—nobody is! Instead, focus your energy on your own achievements.
"Most people have an easier time focusing on their failures and mistakes rather than on their accomplishments," Feiner says. "It is important to have a balance. Write down a list of things that you have achieved or succeeded at in the last year, [because] these deserve space as well."
By focusing on yourself rather than others, you can more easily avoid comparisons that are often unfair, biased and rarely helpful. There's often the idea that "everyone else seems to be doing fine," when in fact, that’s far from the truth.
"We often compare our internal insecurities to others’ external appearance of confidence," Feiner says. "You only have access to your own self-doubt, so you mistakenly conclude that your self-doubt is more accurate. We are aware of how much we’re struggling and falsely assume that others are getting by more effortlessly."
According to Feiner, we also tend to compare our weaknesses to other people’s strengths, leaving us feeling inferior. We say things like, “But I’m not as creative as Jessica,” or, “I’m not as efficient as Kayla.” Meanwhile, Jessica and Kayla may be wishing they were as detail-oriented as you are.
So go ahead: Take more risks and don't be afraid of falling down, because even the best of us fall short sometimes.
"If you can accept your failures, you can succeed much quicker," Feiner says.
5. Don’t give up
Keep going no matter how you're feeling, what grade you got on your last exam or what kind of day you're having.
"People want to feel confident 24/7, but that's not how confidence works," Young says. "We have moments of confidence, it ebbs and flows, and to realize that if you're in a tough major or that you're really challenging yourself, you're going to have these ‘oh my god’ moments, and that's okay—it's what you do with it [that counts]."
If something didn't go well, try to accept it and then focus on what you can do differently next time. Maybe seek out some tutoring or have someone look at your paper before handing it in. No matter what you do, don't give up.
6. Remember that this is a gradual process
There are no magic pills you can consume that will take all of these feelings of inadequacy away. However, there are steps you can take.
"You have to change how you think," Young says. "You have to change your thinking and then change your behaviors, challenge yourself, do the things that scare you, realize you can do it—or you fall down, you get up and you try again, and then, after a while, your feelings will start to change."
Be courageous, take on challenges, own your achievements, learn from your failures and don't let your doubts hold you back. After all, the only thing being an impostor here is the impostor syndrome itself!
*Name has been changed.