Imposter Syndrome: What Is It?
Coming from a small town, I have always heard the saying “a big fish in a little pond”. I was regularly considered smart, as I was at the top of my class graduating high school-- but in the back of my mind I knew I was a “big fish in a little pond”. Unfortunately, this saying is one that is widely used in rural areas, and in my opinion, it can unintentionally damage a rural student’s view of their own success. In a way, I see it as invalidating a student’s talents and hard work, thereby contributing to imposter syndrome.
Imposter Syndrome: What is it?
When I was in high school, I coined myself as the “teacher’s pet” (it’s a compliment). I loved speaking to my teachers, and I developed close, professional relationships with many of them as a result. So, when I entered university, I knew I wanted similar relationships with my professors. Each class, I would tell myself that I was going to get up and ask my professor a question, but the mere thought of approaching them was terrifying. My palms would sweat, my heart would pound, and my voice would shake. I simply could not do it.
So, for years I have let this anxiety limit my network. I have simply admired my professors from afar, wanting desperately to pick their brains, but never actually doing it. It is this awful sense of inadequacy that I continue to struggle with, and I haven’t been able to figure it out, until recently.
According to Harvard Business Review, imposter syndrome can be defined as a cluster of feelings related to inadequacy, even though the person is widely successful. This is a term that I learned very recently, but it’s a phenomenon that has been impacting my life since entering university. Coming from Ingersoll, Ontario, I was able to develop my skills academically, but I became abundantly aware that my university peers tended to have more extracurricular experience. As a result, I’ve begun to discredit my own success because of the presence of others’. (I should note that imposter syndrome is only one aspect of my experience with anxiety, but it is a major contributor to my daily struggles and I think it’s important to discuss. Additionally, imposter syndrome is comorbid with anxiety).
How Imposter Syndrome can Manifest
Valerie Young, an expert on imposter syndrome, outlined five types of people who tend to experience imposter syndrome.
First is the expert. As outlined by an article in Time, the experts feel a need to know all of the information, meet all job requirements, and constantly improve. If they feel they aren’t adequate for a job, they won’t apply for it, thereby limiting themselves.
Next are the perfectionists. Perfectionists tend to set high, unrealistic goals for themselves. They often feel like failures, even if they achieved most of them, and if they make one tiny error, they question their competence.
Third, are the natural genius. Natural geniuses are used to things coming easy to them, so, when they struggle with a skill, they feel they aren’t good enough.
Fourth, are the super people, who push themselves to work harder than everyone else around them to prove their worth and prove that they are not imposters.
Lastly, are the soloists; the ones that feel a need to get everything done on their own. If they ask questions, they feel like a failure and an imposter.
Do you identify with any of these? I sure do; more than one. I’m sure many people do, imposter syndrome is a very common experience, but one that isn’t talked about enough.
So, now that we’ve identified imposter syndrome, what do we do about it?
How to Combat Imposter Syndrome
The first step to combatting imposter syndrome is identifying and observing it. If you don’t know you’re experiencing something, and you can’t point out, how can you adequately deal with it? Make a conscious effort to be critical of your thoughts, and ask yourself, is this thought helpful, or is it hindering? It’s okay if the thoughts are hindering, it’s how you respond to those thoughts that are most important.
Next is trying to change your thoughts. This is not easy, and this likely isn’t something you can do on your own. Going to a mental health professional is extremely beneficial, especially if your feelings cause you distress. Having somebody who is knowledgeable and completely unbiased to talk to is wonderful (and you can reward yourself afterwards-- I personally opt for my favourite Starbucks beverage after a good sob with my therapist). If you’re in high school, look into the mental health resources your school offers, and if you’re in university, it’s likely that your school offers free therapy (woo!). If you aren’t comfortable seeing a mental health professional, talk to your close friends and family if you’re comfortable. My personal favourite thing to do is a journal. Writing your thoughts and emotions down on paper makes them less scary, and allows you to release the thoughts you’re experiencing. Not to mention, finding an aesthetically pleasing journal is the best part. Mine is brown leather with a beautiful gold cursive quote on the front; a true treasure chest that encases my very messy thoughts scribbled on paper.
Another great way to combat imposter syndrome is to remind yourself of all you have accomplished. The likelihood is if you’re a student or tradesman you’ve accomplished a great amount. Do not discredit your success. Looking back on previous challenges that you’ve overcome, it’s important to recognize your accomplishments. If you have gotten this far, why can’t you overcome your current challenge? (Spoiler: You can).
Probably my favourite solution is to seek out a mentor. Whether that be someone who is older than you, in the same program/job, or a faculty member, find someone who can guide you through the craziness of finding yourself and your career path. (Stay tuned for a blog on how to find a mentor).
Lastly, know that imposter syndrome is normal, and it’s okay to have no idea what you’re doing. This might be an extremely hard pill to swallow, especially for those who are perfectionists or experts. There is growth in what you don’t know, and it’s time to relish in it. Look at the situation and ask “what can I learn from this situation?”. As long as you’re growing and learning, you’re doing just fine. As my favourite podcast host, Alie Ward always says, “ask smart people stupid questions. They want to answer you”.
Be curious, be confident, and do the thing, even if it scares you.
H Bsc Psychology and Neuroscience Undergraduate Student