The Imposter Phenomenon

Words on a journal page "You are enough"

Have you ever thought something like the following?

  • “I don’t belong here. The admissions committee clicked the wrong button when I got my acceptance.”
  • “The co-op before me was so awesome, there’s no way I can ever live up to them. I’ll be fired when they find out I’m not as qualified as them.”
  • “Everybody around me is so good at what they do. I’m the only one who isn’t able to get that job in Cali.”

If yes, you might be suffering from something called Imposter Phenomenon or Imposter Syndrome. Imposter Syndrome was first developed as a concept in the late 70s by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes and, according to UBC, refers to “feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt that prevail despite obvious accomplishments and successes.” It is actually quite common for university students to have Imposter Phenomenon feelings of fraudulence, inadequacy, and an inability to accept praise.

Imposter Phenomenon can leave you feeling a lot of self-doubt, like you can’t take credit for your accomplishments, a lack of confidence, or frustration when you can’t meet the standards you’ve set for yourself. With a few changes to how you think about things, you can minimize the impact of Imposter Phenomenon thoughts.

How to combat feelings of Imposter Phenomenon

Compare yourself to yourself

It is easy to get trapped in a cycle of comparing yourself to others while you are at university. Whether it is your program releasing class rankings, watching your classmates celebrating their most recent co-op job offer, or finding out who has gotten into their dream grad program, there are lots of opportunities where you might feel inadequate or not enough.

However, it is much more worthwhile to compare yourself to yourself. Did you get your co-op placement in first-round instead of continuous like last time? That’s an improvement. Do you understand more about fuzzy logic now that you are in fourth year than you did when you were in first? That’s progress. Are you able to write 20-page essays now that you are in third year, when you felt like it was a stretch to put together five in first year? That’s a skill you’ve built over time.

Comparing yourself to other people with different skills, strengths, and study methods can only ever leave you feeling poorly. Understanding that all people (including you) have different strengths is important to help yourself feel a sense of achievement as you move through life.

Often when we find we are comparing ourselves to others, it is because other people are something, have something, or are doing something that we would like to be, have, or do. We have a choice to make: we can either get down on ourselves because of the gap between where we are and where we would like to be OR, we can ask ourselves, “What can I learn from this other person to help me get to where I would like to go?”

Celebrate achievements big and small

Remember to take time to celebrate your achievements, they didn’t just happen by accident. Each achievement, big or small, is the result of dedication and action on your part. Before moving on to the next milestone, congratulate yourself for getting through the last one. For a smaller achievement, like making it through a one-hour study window without looking at your phone, give yourself a small treat, like a tea from the coffee shop (which will also encourage you to move your body). For a big achievement, like getting into grad school, do something appropriately big to celebrate, like going out to dinner with your friends or family.

Examine your thoughts

Instead of just thinking your thoughts, take time to examine whether or not they are truly helpful. In the case of the thought, “I don’t belong here. The admissions committee clicked the wrong button when I got my acceptance.” Stop yourself after the thought and really take a look at it. When you applied to your program, you probably at a bare minimum met the entrance requirements, and in many cases exceeded them. Consider the idea that everyone at university is there to learn things and that no one person knows everything there is to know in your field. Remember that part of learning and studying is the process of amassing new skills and knowledge.

Connect with your supports

It is okay to share your feelings with your support network, like your friends, family, or a mentor. In most cases, they can help you see the flip side of your imposter thoughts. It can help to set up a regular time to get together to chat about what’s going on in your life. You can both share your accomplishments with each other to help remind yourselves of your achievements along the way. And the next time you are feeling like you don’t belong, or you don’t deserve your achievements, that person can help remind you of the reasons why you actually do.

Connect with a professional

If you can’t seem to shake your imposter feelings, it can help to connect with a professional. Counsellors at Counselling Services can help you examine your thought patterns and help you find more constructive ways to think.

Sources and other resources

University of Waterloo Centre for Teaching Excellence Imposter Syndrome page

UBC Imposter Syndrome in Graduate School article

St Andrews University Imposter Syndrome page

PhD Comics series on Imposter Syndrome

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