You sit down for class with sweating palms. Nervously, you glance around at your highly qualified and incredibly intelligent peers. “You don’t belong here,” the little voice in the back of your head nags. The voice gets louder, to the point where it’s now all-consuming and all too easy to believe: “It’s only a matter of time until they all discover that you’re a fraud.” You are convinced that anything you accomplish is a result of sheer luck, whereas everyone around you is just naturally good enough. “After all,” the voice asks cruelly, “how could someone like you, who is so outrageously unqualified, succeed based on merit alone?”
If you feel like I’m reading your thoughts, don’t panic: they are my thoughts too. In fact, most high achieving college-age women share this incredibly pervasive and damaging mindset. If you fall under this category, you most likely suffer from imposter syndrome— the psychological phenomenon wherein an individual feels inadequate in their abilities and constantly fears being exposed as an unworthy fraud. Regardless of clear evidence demonstrating skill and success, these individuals simply never see themselves as good enough.
The positive news, though, is that you are not even close to being alone: it is estimated that roughly 70% of all people will experience imposter syndrome at some point in their lives. If you heavily resonate with all of the above and think you fall under this statistic, consider the following factors and symptoms associated with imposter syndrome:
You set unrealistically high expectations for yourself and fear failure.
You know the phrase, “if you reach for the moon, even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars”? To a woman with imposter syndrome, landing among the stars is not even an option. You would rather never even get in your rocketship than face the possibility of failure and humiliation.
You align with a historically oppressed identity or are part of a marginalized group.
Women of color— alongside women who are disabled, mentally ill, come from low-income or immigrant households, are part of the LGBTQ+ community, and exist in traditionally male-dominated fields— are especially susceptible to these feelings of severe self doubt and inadequacy.
You grew up as a “gifted child” and often feel burnt out.
Imposter syndrome often stems from childhood. If you grew up with intense expectations placed upon you (whether they were from yourself, your family, your peers, or your school environment), understand that this mindset is usually nearly impossible to outgrow. The same goes for individuals who grew up with “gifted” siblings, as this often leads to an unhealthy self image. As you grew up, you became less and less confident in your capability to satisfy this expectation, leading to feelings of inferiority.
You base your self-worth on tangible results (such as good grades or praise from a professor), but it never feels like enough.
The problem with basing your self worth on external validation is that it never truly satisfies the itch in the back of your brain. Women who suffer with imposter syndrome will usually find a way to invalidate their own accomplishments as not actually being “enough” once they are attained— despite “enough” being an arbitrary measurement of success. Even if you spent hours and hours on an essay in hopes of getting an A, the A never feels as good as you told yourself it would once it shows up on Canvas. If your professor tells you that you did a good job, you may wonder to yourself, “why didn’t they say ‘I did a great job’?”. It’s an impossible cycle.
You constantly compare yourself to others.
Honestly, it’s hard not to. By putting yourself up against your peers in a mental competition, you are easily able to discover your own flaws. You convince yourself to work on the areas where you pale in comparison. However, this is incredibly damaging and completely unfair to yourself: you can only control your own actions, not the actions and successes of others.
Every small mistake or hint of failure feels like the end of the world.
Women with imposter syndrome often suffer from all-or-none thinking and perfectionism. It may be a common occurrence to feel like your academic career is done because you forgot a comma in an email to your professor. You often beat yourself up over the tiniest of errors.
Feel like I’m reading your thoughts again? No worries. Remember that they’re my thoughts, too! Although there is no actual cure for this mindset, luckily there are ways to work against the harsh realities of living with imposter syndrome.
Acknowledge that imposter syndrome is a result of social pressures and unrealistic expectations.
You internalize the standards set by yourself and others. Letting go of these standards and expectations is easier said than done, but acknowledging that it is not a problem with you as an individual, but rather the highly competitive society in which we live, is a crucial first step.
Remind yourself that everyone makes mistakes.
Yes, everyone. No excuses. No ifs, ands, or buts. Our mistakes are what make us human! Even some of the most successful women you can think of in the entertainment industry, some of which you may unfairly even compare yourself to, suffer from imposter syndrome and overanalysis of their mistakes. This includes, but is not limited to: Natalie Portman, Emma Watson, Amy Poehler, Lady Gaga, and Lupita Nyong’o!
Surround yourself with people who uplift you.
Toxic and harshly competitive environments only fuel the fire. By being around people who genuinely support you and don’t constantly criticize you or make you feel inferior is crucial to fostering positive self efficacy.
Seek professional help if imposter syndrome is severely impacting your performance or confidence.
Imposter syndrome is often comorbid with mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression, and countless others. Therapy is an incredible tool to help process these feelings and emotions to make life more meaningful and to limit negative thoughts. Likewise, refer to this masterlist of hotlines and resources if you find yourself or a loved one to be severely struggling: https://www.pleaselive.org/hotlines/.
The truth about imposter syndrome among women in higher education— especially within an incredibly demanding and competitive environment, such as TCNJ— is that your brain is lying to you to fuel your self-doubt. Understand that you are not alone in this, and try to ignore the nagging voice in your head telling you otherwise. You are not a fraud. You are highly qualified to sit in that lecture that makes your palms sweaty and knees shake. You are just as intelligent and capable of merit-based success as those around you. Congratulations on getting where you are today, despite every ounce of negativity in your body that told you that you could never make it. Regardless of what the little voice in your head tells you… you truly do belong.