Written by Hector Osegueda.
Graphic by Peyton Cabaniss.
It’s common to find oneself struggling with the persistent and pervasive feeling of being a fraud. Under the impression that any accomplishment is tantamount to sheer luck, and faced with the fear of inevitable exposure of being a phony, many are left to worry that they exist in a place they don’t belong. Allow me to introduce you to imposter syndrome.
Imposter syndrome, also known as imposter phenomenon, impostorism, or fraud experience, stems from one’s inability to internalize success. Imposter syndrome typically affects high-achieving individuals; believing that they’ve tricked those around them, and that their employment, promotion, or admission is a mistake.
Negative rationalizations are the backbone to feeling like an imposter. It is quite common for someone experiencing imposter syndrome to attribute a good test score to over-preparing. They studied all week, so the only reason they received that high grade, in their minds, was through hard work, work that other high-achieving students did not have to complete.
Another belief is that they simply got lucky, that everything they have going for themselves is primarily out of luck, and that a day will come when their luck will run out.
Both of these situations lead to the feeling of being a fraud, and for many, lead to the idea that those around them are eventually going to realize that they don’t belong.
Furthermore, any validation of their abilities or skills will perpetuate this cycle of negative thinking. The more they succeed, the further down they plunge into the mindset of being an imposter, a fake. They dismiss positive feedback.
This phenomenon, experts say, affects a majority of the adult population, as each individual experiences imposter syndrome at different points in their lives. College students appear to be a perennial demographic affected by imposterism, with ethnic minorities and first-generation students among the foremost of those who report experiencing imposter syndrome. Ethnic minorities are particularly at risk on college campuses in the US, a space that historically has not been very welcoming. In the Journal of Counseling Psychology, UT-Austin researchers found that feelings of fraudulence may fuel a negative relationship between perceived discrimination and mental illnesses among ethnic minority college students. I can support this. At night, anxious thoughts fill my head, that maybe I’m only on this campus to fill a Hispanic quota in an effort to be diverse. I know many people back home who are fans of that theory; they tell me that the only reason I am here is because my skin happens to be some shades darker.
Although not a mental illness itself, imposter syndrome has been associated with depression and anxiety. Sophie Adam, a freshman who medically withdrew from UT to take care of her mental health, talks about how she struggled with finding a sense of belonging within her major, or at UT as a whole in part due to imposter syndrome. “I assumed I couldn’t contribute as much as others because I didn’t truly belong on campus. Even though I graduated high school at 16, when comparing myself to some of my other peers at UT, some of which competed at state levels for debate, writing and sports, I couldn’t help but feel like an imposter.” As a victim of imposter syndrome, Adam couldn’t internalize her own successes, “every time someone complimented me based on my past achievements, I just felt worse and worse, like as if they couldn’t see that it was all just luck, and that I didn’t really belong on campus.”
I have also struggled with these same feelings. Walking around campus, I can’t help but think that my presence at UT is a mistake, that someone in the admissions office misplaced a file with my rejection letter and so instead mailed me my acceptance.
I find myself struggling to find my purpose among a crowd of others who I know are intellectually leagues above me. When everyone on campus is either as smart or smarter than me, no high mark on a test or paper seems to alleviate the concern that maybe I don’t belong. I tell myself that the TA’s were grading easy that day.
Imposter syndrome, as stated earlier, isn’t exclusive to college students. Many celebrities and other well-known individuals have reported cases of impostorism, Emma Watson, John Steinbeck, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, and John Green to name a few.
John Steinbeck once said “I am not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people.”
Imposter syndrome is a hard state of mind to escape, its grasp is tight and self-perpetuating. Recognizing imposter syndrome is a step in the right direction to overcome this negative mindset. Be honest with yourself. Put your goals, accomplishments, and ideas in perspective. Practice positive affirmation, reinforce the idea that you belong and that you are worthy. You’re a person, not a tool, an item, or a number. You’re an individual with a home somewhere, you belong where you want, and no one can take that from you.