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Frustrated Female Student with imposter syndrome lying on the floor surrounded by books, papers and other stationery
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How to identify and overcome imposter syndrome

“I shouldn’t be here. How did the university admit ME into this program – I don’t even know anything.”

“One of these days someone is going to call me out.”

If you’ve ever found yourself having similar thoughts or feeling unworthy or undeserving of your success, then you may be dealing with the Imposter Syndrome. The term was coined by two American psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in reference to an internal experience of intellectual phoniness that they found to be particularly prevalent and intense among a select sample of high achieving women.

They posited that “despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the imposter phenomenon persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.” More recent research has revealed that this is a universal phenomenon experienced by all genders. It usually manifests as a belief that your accomplishments are a result of luck, coincidence and an overwhelming fear of being exposed as a fraud.

Imposter Syndrome is common among high achievers, creative people and students and abundant studies have revealed that it can have detrimental consequences for an individual’s well-being and career development.

student who is biting a pencil indicating she is stressed
Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

An environment with defined expectations, such as a university, can sometimes incite feelings of inadequacy; feeling less intelligent, capable or talented. The impact of the pandemic and remote learning means that most students do not have a sense of belonging within their universities which exacerbates the insecurity and self-doubt they experience along their academic journey. An article published by the University of Sydney clearly demonstrates how imposter syndrome can manifest and affect students:

  1. Emma is struggling to write an assignment for her unit of study. The task has a weighting that requires her to achieve a high mark to do the honours component of the degree. She feels that failure to do honours would make her inferior and a disappointment. Thinking she could not achieve the desired mark, Emma decides to pay for someone to complete the essay for her. This is contract cheating.
  2. Tom’s first year of university proved more difficult due to the COVID pandemic. He is convinced that everyone in his unit is smarter than him and that the university made a mistake in accepting him into the degree. Tom’s main unit of study has an essay that he doesn’t think he can pass. He decides to copy and paste from a journal article to write the essay and hopes that the markers won’t notice. This is plagiarism.
  3. Katy is having a difficult time at university, thinking everyone in her classes is more organised than her and handling commitments well. She has not started her assignment but realises it resembles an essay she completed in a previous unit for which she received a Distinction grade. She recycles substantial sections of the paper with only minor adjustments. This is known as recycling.
  4. A group of friends are feeling as though they do not deserve to be in their degree. They cannot fail their unit as it is a prerequisite for a future unit of study. For their online quiz, they choose to share their answers in a Facebook chat. This is collusion.
be positive in wooden blocks
Photo by Amanda Jones on Unsplash

Instead of resorting to measures that could compromise your career and reputation, there are positive ways of overcoming the imposter syndrome.

  • Talk to someone. The inner critic in your head will have you convinced that you are on your own in this. You are not alone and you can overcome these thoughts. Opening up to someone will help to counter the negative narrative that presents itself as imposter syndrome. Reach out to a close friend, mentor or advisor/ counsellor in your university.
  • Let go of trying to be perfect. While we encourage students to set goals and strive for the top marks, it should be emphasised that it is a process. Practice makes progress, not perfect.
  • Collect and recall positive feedback. Keep a journal of your achievements, compliments and affirmations. It’s okay to own your accomplishments – you DID THAT!
  • Fail better. Instead of framing a failure as a disappointment or tragedy, approach it as a learning curve. Just like a muscle is strengthened by exercise, your mind builds resilience with experience.

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