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Mental Health

Imposter Syndrome: My Experience & Tips

Imposter syndrome is something I’ve always struggled with as opposing thoughts fight to dominate the forefront of what will be on my mind that day. It’s made me somewhat obsessive and compulsive about details like whether I used the right adjectives in an essay or conveyed information about a research topic in a presentation articulately. Even getting A’s on most of my assignments doesn’t feel enough sometimes; I tend to feel like something fundamental is missing from my work, something only I seem to notice. This is not to say I am unaware or unappreciative of my achievements; in fact, I am proud of the hard work that I put in to get to where I am today as a transfer student at Barnard. However, I’ve always had a huge problem with comparing myself to others, seeing the value of their academic (or otherwise) achievements as being somehow higher than mine. Over the years, I have had to make myself understand that my own worth is not contingent upon what other people do or their opinions. It truly comes from within. 

And I’m certain I’m not the only college student, especially at Barnumbia, who struggles with feelings of chronic inadequacy and self-doubt concerning their academic work and achievements. There is no doubt a hellish amount of competition, and sometimes it feels like college life here has been set up like a rat race where everyone is supposed to look out only for themselves. There comes a point when if you’re not studying 24/7, then you don’t feel productive. You begin thinking of the multiple ways you’ll fail an assignment or even the whole semester. I’ve been there. 

On top of that, my college experience has not been what you would consider conventional. I graduated a year early from high school, and did a semester at community college. During the summer before entering university, I volunteered with an NGO in Bolivia for a month. It was during this time that I discovered that I was capable of doing more than I thought I could and this made me realize how truly resilient I could be. Backpacking In South America forced me to stop worrying about the trivial things and really focus on my growth as a person since it put me in situations that were out of my usual comfort zone. I was able to meet amazing people, and I made an amazing friend who I’m still in touch with today. It was a pivotal experience that continues to drive me today both as an individual and a college student. My friends would be more than willing to tell you about my catchphrase, “Bolivia changed me.” Before coming to Barnard, I attended a university in rural Maine for two years where the amount of work given and quality of the material was easy for me. I did not feel challenged and a part of me felt unfulfilled. To be honest, I felt like there weren’t many people there who shared my love for learning and my thirst for knowledge; it was a feeling I was immensely used to. 

Fast-forward almost two years later; it was in April when I received Barnard’s decision letter. My fingers trembled as I entered the Barnard portal and clicked on the link that would lead me to the letter that would decide my academic future. When the letter read that I was accepted, I cried tears of joy and disbelief, dancing around my room. It was a surreal feeling that I continue to feel now, of being disembodied from the present. On one hand, I knew that this acceptance was the culmination of my labor, and not to sound arrogant, but being smart helped too. 

My time at Barnard has not been difficult for me so much as it has been disorienting. Even though the college experience is not novel for me as a junior, the mindsets of students at Barnumbia are significantly different than from those at my former university. With stress culture and high levels of competition, students who are used to shining at other educational institutions tend not to feel as special anymore at elite schools in the Ivy League or the Little Ivies. For me, seeing other students with similar habits to mine, such as asking professors questions after class just for intellectual curiosity or meeting with professors during office hours consistently was strange. In class, students already know quite a bit about a course topic, and are willing to do “recommended readings,” which, frankly, I have not gotten around to doing so far in the semester. At my other university, I was considered to be someone who went the extra mile, but here, my habits are very much the norm. I’ve heard horror stories of students camping out in libraries with toothbrushes and sleeping bags. And on Columbia Confessions, it seems like every other student has developed mental health issues due in part to the toxic stress culture that pervades the very air of our campus. It takes a certain strength to overcome the seemingly paradoxical alienation that occurs at a big university campus situated in the city. 

I am telling you all this because imposter syndrome is a huge problem at Barnumbia. If you believe that constantly thinking that your academic work is worth a B or feeling the need to be #1 in class at the expense of other aspects in your life is healthy — let me tell you, it’s NOT. There is a point in the semester when the workload piles where we begin to question our mental sanity. I have done so myself while at the brink of an existential crisis. There needs to be a reformation of our universities and college students — a sort of restructuring that will enable students to fulfill their basic necessities and feel less overwhelmed. 

But until that happens, there are tips — some that I’ve personally used — to cope with imposter syndrome.

Acknowledge your achievements

A huge component of imposter syndrome is chronic self-deprecation that spirals into a cycle in which successes are viewed as simply a stroke of luck and failures serve to prove this. Rather than doubting yourself, which may be instinctual after years of being in school, begin by simply acknowledging your achievements and strengths. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being satisfied with what you’ve accomplished in life, and this includes outside of academics. Whether you’ve trained your dog a new set of commands or thrown an amazing surprise party for your best friend, these are accomplishments to be celebrated.

Embrace failure

Failure is inevitable — there, I said it. Although this is an obvious fact, the standards that we hold ourselves to are much higher than the yardstick we use on other people. In fact, we can be so harsh on ourselves that the second we encounter a drawback, or god forbid a failure, we question our worth as a whole. Embracing failure means accepting that we are not perfect flawless human beings, and that we can ultimately learn from our prior experiences and shortcomings. Really, it means picking yourself up afterwards, and as Winston Churchill once said, “Failure is not fatal, it is the courage to continue that counts.”

Practice self-love and self-care

As you can tell from my article about Lizzo, self-love and self-care are two important components for one’s mental well-being. Practicing positivity towards oneself permeates every aspect of our lives, and it is something that has the potential to motivate other people. Imposter syndrome is a manifestation of low self-esteem where you disassociate from your accomplishments by discrediting and even through self-degradation. Forms of self-love and self-care to practice include looking in the mirror to find five positive attributes about yourself or taking a peaceful walk in a park. These practices can help one to develop a self of sense that is not hinged on receiving validation from others.

Talk about your feelings

Communication is crucial for resolving both external and internal conflicts. Imposter syndrome, which is very much an internal affair, arises and worsens due to a lack of expressing one’s feelings. Internalizing feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and a whole range of other emotions is never healthy. Talking to a close family member or friend can allow you to work through what’s troubling you and perhaps even receive another perspective from the people that know and love you. Even writing about them in a journal or an article (like I have) or capturing it in an artwork can be incredibly freeing.

Fake it till you make it

Sometimes, no matter which steps you’ve taken to lessen your own imposter syndrome, nothing seems to work. Even though this particular tip may not work for everyone, adopting the approach “fake it till you make it” — within certain bounds — can be really helpful for overcoming long-lasting opinions you’ve had about yourself. What I mean by this phrase is definitely not about suppressing and ignoring your feelings, or pretending to be something you’re not; rather, I take it to mean that one should adopt habits that prepare them in advance for various class assignments. And if failures are encountered, perseverance is important in order to see the fruits of your labor. On the other hand, this should be balanced with taking breaks for yourself, which is doable through establishing a schedule where you study only for a certain number of hours per day.

Get support

Finally, seek support if you need it and never feel ashamed of getting help. There are a variety of mental health and counseling resources on campus.

At Barnard:

Furman Counseling Center


At Columbia:

Mental Health Services at CUIMC:

Counseling and Psychological Services

(For stress, and problem-solving drop-in) 

In the end, different methods of overcoming imposter syndrome work for different kinds of people. It’s a process where you continue to work on yourself. Doing things that get you out of your comfort zone is important for dismantling perceptions that you’ve long held about yourself, and for breaking the cycle.

Sidra Imam

Columbia Barnard '21

Sidra is a junior at Barnard College studying Sociology and Human Rights who is proud to call herself an intersectional feminist. On a free day, you'll see her talk about social justice, pop culture and existential crises. Also, her taste in books, art, and food is most definitely highbrow.
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