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Wellness

You Belong Here: Tackling Imposter Syndrome at University

After years of hard work at high school, I was thrilled to receive an academic scholarship to attend my undergraduate university in Australia. When invited to a welcome event for scholarship recipients, however, I found myself worrying I wouldn’t fit in. ‘These students will be really smart,’ I told my friends, ‘I won’t know what to say to them’. As I milled about with a champagne glass in hand, making polite conversation with the other scholarship-holders, I worried they would realise I didn’t belong. These genuinely worthy student geniuses would no doubt cotton on that I shouldn’t be there. And maybe, as in my recurrent nightmare, the high school grades which had won me the scholarship would be angrily revoked by the school board, who must have got something terribly wrong.

Do you ever feel this way? As though your successes or achievements are not genuine, and that it is only a matter of time until your true, inadequate identity is uncovered? You might be experiencing imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is the persistent incapacity to believe that your successes are genuine and well-deserved. Instead, you may feel that you have ‘lucked’ or ‘faked’ your way into your current position, and that your fraudulence might be uncovered at any time. Imposter syndrome can impact anyone, but many studies have demonstrated that high-performing women are disproportionately affected.

Although very common, imposter syndrome should be taken seriously. It can make you feel more anxious or depressed, contribute to a cycle of low self-esteem, or hold you back from taking on new challenges. At university, where some students may be the first to go to university in their family or find themselves surrounded by people who look different to them, imposter syndrome can hit particularly hard. Here are five ways to deal with imposter syndrome at university and beyond:

1)    Separate facts from feelings. Everyone will occasionally feel stupid, unsuccessful or fake. Try to recognise that these are just feelings, which will pass, and don’t necessarily represent reality. Just because you feel like you don’t deserve to be at university, it doesn’t mean that’s true.

2)    Write a new script. Become aware of the negative ways you might be talking to yourself, and consciously replace these tired phrases with new, more helpful ones. Instead of walking into a classroom and thinking “Wow, everybody here is so smart and I’m not,” you could try thinking, “Wow, everybody here is so smart – I’m going to learn so much.” This technique might feel silly or forced at first, but it can be an important step towards retraining an overly critical mind. 

3)    Talk to others about your doubts. It can be helpful to know that lots of people, including those you admire and look up to, are feeling the same way.

4)    Be aware of what you are filtering out. Those suffering from imposter syndrome often focus on small setbacks and minor criticism, while mentally glossing over compliments and concrete achievements. As much as possible, focus on the good!

5)    If anxiety about your abilities or achievements is seriously impacting your wellbeing, consider speaking to a professional. A counsellor like those provided by the University of St Andrews can help you to reframe your mental script and replace negative core beliefs and self-talk with a more constructive and realistic mind-frame.

6) And finally… be part of the wider solution. Personal efforts to shake off our own imposter syndrome are only part of the answer. One of the reasons that women are disproportionately impacted by imposter syndrome is that in many contexts, men’s success is validated and celebrated in ways that women’s success is not. It’s hard to feel confident in our abilities when the world does not reward or back up this confidence. And, this kind of disadvantage can be exacerbated by differences in race or class. We can all help to combat imposter syndrome by celebrating and validating women’s success in its many forms.

Remember, you have earned your place at university, and any success you achieve here is yours to be proud of.  

Ruby Ekkel

St Andrews '21

Ruby will be graduating with a Master of History from St Andrews this year. Originally from sunny Australia, she loves to write about the natural environment, travel, plant-based living, women’s history and student wellness. When not writing or tutoring, you can usually find Ruby making music with friends or enthusing about ancient Scottish castles.
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