University is the worst and it's hard to know why we all put ourselves through it. Long days of painful lectures followed by long nights of last minute assignments and yet many of us come back day after day, year after year. University kind of sucks, but it can feel so much worse when the student is plagued by the big bad Imposter Syndrome. It can be a struggle to take a compliment sometimes, and maybe a grade is a little higher than it should be for the work that was handed in. Imposter syndrome makes you feel like a fraud, even in the middle of your success. It is characterised by someone's inability to accept their accomplishments for what they are or by their fear of being exposed as someone undeserving of the position they're in.
Imposter Syndrome is most common in high achievers. Imposter Syndrome as a term came about in 1978 and is labelled as a psychological phenomenon that creates feelings of intellectual fraudulence. Imposter Syndrome is said to commonly come through as feelings of anxiety. There is no specific cause of it, however, the overwhelming need for perfectionism and the increasing idea of social comparison, as well as an almost universal fear of failure all, play a part.
Imposter Syndrome can feel normal, especially in an academic setting where everyone seems so much more intelligent. It's easy to sink into the idea that everyone else in your class belongs and you do not, that everyone else works hard and succeeds while you somehow tricked whoever let you into your course because clearly you're not suited to be here. It is believed that a high number of students suffer from feeling like an imposter throughout their academic career and many cannot even put a name it. The ones who can still struggle to think past it and no one ever really seems to want to talk about it. Many students seem to just accept the feeling and go through their academic life struggling.
Penny* lives in a three bedroom flat, goes to classes most of the time and wears clothing that tells you she was an overachieving theatre kid in high school. She's undoubtedly felt a lot of feelings in her life but one feeling, the feeling of being an imposter, has stuck around. She says a counsellor once told her it wasn't really a syndrome because when you label things as syndrome they tend to make people think it's a mental illness, but it's more of just a feeling. Penny says Imposter Syndrome has followed her as a student throughout high school and university.
"Every day I'm struggling, like a lot, and I've kind of always felt it. I think a lot of other people feel Imposter Syndrome. A lot of girls I know are a lot less confident about their opinions like their default position is that they're wrong and they're doing something wrong. In some ways, I think it was good because it made me work a lot more, but it's not for the right reasons. It was because I was scared people would think I was an idiot,” she says.
“I've never really felt that I fully deserved a lot of the stuff that's happened to me and sometimes I tell myself that it's because I somehow cheated the system. There's this paranoia that people will think I'm cheating.
“In year 10 a teacher tried to get me to confess to plagiarising something I had written because it was so academic, but I just went really extra. I work hard on things that aren't important because they are proof that I'm capable.”
Penny says the first emotion she feels when she achieves something is disbelief.
“I'm sure that there's another reason that I got this and it's not because I worked for it. As a student, you're constantly being graded on stuff and if I get a good mark I get really confused by it like why am I getting a good grade for this work? I get frustrated at myself because I'll be in class and they'll ask a question and I know the answer, but I won't put up my hand because I'm scared that they'll say I'm wrong and everyone will think I'm an idiot, but if other people do it I don't think they're idiots.”
It is not an uncommon feeling, feeling like a fraud, and a great deal of people will feel it at some point in their lives. It can be easy getting swept up in it and not acknowledging what you've achieved or accept the praise you receive. However, it can be surprisingly common among students, so it is curious that there is not more discussion about it to make it easier for these students. We are surrounded by people trying to project the best version of themselves into the world because we want to share the good things and hide the bad things, so it can be easy to become dissatisfied when we compare our normal lives with others best lives. The important thing is to talk about how you are feeling, because though not everyone may be currently affected by Imposter Syndrome, no one is a stranger to thoughts like these. If you are struggling to the point of a serious problem don’t be afraid to reach out to a counsellor. The student health services on all three campuses provide counselling for free.
*Penny’s name has been changed.