Have you ever felt like you didn’t belong in whatever academic, career, or organizational role you found yourself in? Like you weren’t qualified to be doing the job, and it was only a matter of time until everyone around you found out? Well, you might just have a case of imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is generally described as feeling inadequate or unqualified, despite achieving success and without evidence to support that feeling. It is especially common in women and people of color, and even more so in academic environments like college!
For many college women, imposter syndrome shows up in a lot of different forms. Maybe you don’t raise your hand in class, because you don’t think your question or thought is worth discussing. Maybe you don’t apply for that leadership position or scholarship, because surely there is someone more qualified than you. Maybe you don’t go to that professor’s office hours, because they must be too busy to handle casual questions. No matter how this shows up, imposter syndrome can be really harmful to your mental health! It denies the success of your own experiences, and pushes you to listen to the little voice in the back of your head saying you aren’t enough or haven’t done enough.
This type of thinking, telling you that you got where you are by chance, is even more prominent in male dominated fields like STEM. Women are conditioned from a pretty early age to think before speaking, and when that comes into a classroom it can actually be harmful! The idea that your question is only valid if it is 100% correct, or your thought only valued if it has evidence immediately available to back it up, subverts your educational experience! We go to class to learn, and to expand our ideas, not just confirm what we have learned on our own. Rachel, a UW Conservation Biology major, talked to me about her own experiences in class. When comparing the way men in her classes participate to her own contributions, this is what she had to say:
“I find it frustrating that they can say whatever and I am not able to participate unless I have a thoroughly researched point to make. Also, constantly fearing being the dumbest in my class/not understanding material even though it’s because I don’t think I can ask questions!”
I know from my own experiences, that speaking in class can actually be quite intimidating! When you combine having to put your ideas out for criticism, with the fear that they aren’t qualified or reasoned in the first place, with the thought of some guy in your class deciding it’s the perfect time to play devil’s advocate, speaking becomes a bit scary! For many people, especially women, the end result is putting your hand down before the professor sees it to save yourself the trouble.
What this does over time, is deny the qualifications of women in these spaces within their own heads! Imposter syndrome doesn’t need external validation, it relies only on the insecurity in your head. Never mind your above average scores on those tests, never mind that positive feedback from your professors, your brain tells you that you don’t belong where you are. So, how do you fight back against that voice? Well, there are a few things we can do. First, when you’re feeling unqualified, ask yourself a few questions.
When you don’t want to ask a question:
What is the role of my professor/supervisor/TA if it isn’t to answer questions?
What makes my question less valid than someone else’s?
Is another student’s learning more valuable than my own?
When you don’t think you are qualified to apply for a position:
Outside of not receiving the position, what is the worst that could happen?
What if I am the most qualified applicant? Shouldn’t those reading the applications make that decision?
When you aren’t sure you want to share an idea:
Why is my idea less valid than another person’s?
Could my idea contribute to discussion? How will I know without voicing it?
What is driving me to share this idea? Is it because it is based on the course material, or related on the project we are working on?
By answering these questions, I hope you can begin to work against those thoughts and trust your thoughts and qualifications. It’s upsetting that our educational environments usually do more to reinforce these thoughts than push back against them, but there are steps we can take to make it better! If you have trouble trusting yourself, you can also take a look at others! When was the last time another student, let alone another woman in your class, spoke and your first instinct was to criticize their question/think it was pointless? I would guess that probably doesn’t happen often. More often than not, students recognize other students trying to learn. Other people will do the same for you. In the meantime, when you see a quiet person, or another woman speak up in class, support them! Use their efforts as a springboard for your own! You can use the classic segue of “building off that point” or even give some more praise with a “that was a really good point by ___, and I think it brings up this other thought!”
Feeling unqualified or like you don’t belong is never comfortable. But, it’s important that we all support each other while we fight these types of thoughts! Failure, or even the possibility of failure, is really scary. But taking small steps in lower-stakes environments (like a college class!) can help you work through it step by step. And, I guarantee the women around you in your classes or work know what you’re feeling like! Chances are, they still feel a bit of it too. Imposter syndrome is pretty good at hiding behind good grades or career success, but if you start to ask others about it, they can help you realize how those feelings impact your efforts. When you give a voice to those thoughts, the people around you can help you see that they aren’t true! I guarantee that nine times out of ten, you are far more qualified than you realize.
P.S. Even when you’re not all the way qualified, go for it! No one is 100% ready for any class, job, responsibility, etc. We all just do the best we can once we get there :)