Imposter Syndrome and University Students

impostor syndrome

noun [ U ]

UK /ɪmˈpɒs.tə ˌsɪn.drəʊm/ US /ɪmˈpɑː.stɚ ˌsɪn.droʊm/

anxiety or self-doubt that results from persistently undervaluing one's competence and active role in achieving success, while falsely attributing one's accomplishments to luck or other external forces.

Since the term imposter syndrome was coined almost 40 years ago, its usage has crept its way into the mainstream. Many students don’t know the exact name of this feeling but have experienced it at one point or another during their time at university. I personally felt it in first year, when I felt that everyone around me was doing better than I was and that I was at Mac due to a fluke, or that I didn’t deserve to be here. In fact, imposter syndrome is affecting enough undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Alberta that counsellors are holding workshops to help them manage it.

According to Lianne Picot, a leadership coach at the University of Toronto, everyone experiences feelings of inadequacy at some stage and the feeling of “maybe I’m not good enough” can be healthy when it highlights areas where we truly need to hone our skills. However, imposter syndrome becomes paralyzing when this feeling becomes chronic self-doubt- even when an individual is presented with evidence of their success. There will be many occurrences in your university life where you may feel as though you are not deserving of how far you’ve come, you have been successful simply because of luck or that you are bound to fail. As a result, you might respond to these feelings by pushing yourself even harder, or putting more effort into conforming to the expectations that you think others have of you.

Whenever you struggle with thoughts or feelings like this, it might help to seek feedback from people that you trust. They may be able to help bring a new perspective or help you question the self-critical thoughts that you have, and reassure you that what you’re feeling is normal. Moreover, knowing others have been in your position can make it seem less daunting. You can reach out to family, friends, a mentor or even the Student Wellness Centre at Mac (located in PGCLL or through online platforms due to COVID-19).

Another important thing to keep in mind is to avoid comparing yourself with others. It is easy to get trapped in a cycle of comparing yourself to other students at university when you’re constantly surrounded by so many accomplished people. Whether it’s comparing the grades you and your friends got on a midterm or watching your peers celebrate their most recent co-op offer, there are many times where you might feel inadequate. In order to combat this, think about your own personal progress, such as how well you’ve performed on an assessment compared to your last one, or if you understand a certain topic better in your third year as compared to first year. Comparing yourself to other people with different skills, strengths and study methods will do more harm than good.

Lastly, take the time to celebrate your small achievements- big or small. Each success is a result of hard work and dedication on your part, whether it’s getting an A in a difficult course, completing all your assignments ahead of time or getting through a one-hour study window without looking at your phone. Before moving on to the next milestone, congratulate yourself on getting through the last one.

Written by: Rija Asif