by Aparajita Bhandari
“Sometimes I wake up in the morning before going off to a shoot, and I think, I can’t do this. I’m a fraud.”— Kate Winslet
It’s a feeling that many people know well. You’re sitting in a class discussion or giving a presentation or even just talking with your friends about midterm grades, and suddenly you feel like a giant fraud and have an overwhelming fear of being “found out”. Imposter syndrome is defined as feelings of inadequacy that continue even in the face of evidence that indicates the exact opposite is true. People with imposter syndrome experience chronic self-doubt, and feelings of intellectual fraudulence. In essence, it’s the feeling that you’re not actually smart, or capable, that you don’t deserve to be here at this school or position or job. I think that imposter syndrome is something that’s really prevalent among university students, especially among high-achieving students in a competitive school like the University of Toronto.
Not sure if you have imposter syndrome? There are three components to these imposter feelings:
1. Feeling like a fraud. This is the belief that you don’t deserve the level of success that you have and that you’ve somehow fooled everyone into getting here. Thoughts such as “I’m good at seeming smarter than I am” and “Everyone knows so much more than me” might feel familiar.
2. Attributing success to luck. Another aspect of the impostor syndrome is the tendency to credit your success to external reasons rather than your own abilities. You tend to say things like, “I only got this research position because I was lucky” or “It was only a one-time thing”.
3. Downplaying success. The third aspect is a tendency to downplay your successes. You might also have a hard time truly accepting compliments. You discount an achievement by saying, “It’s is not a big deal,” or “I did well because it’s an easy class”.
After reading the above, you might be starting to realize that you can relate to some of these feelings. So now what? Should you just go hide under your covers and vow to never do anything again because you’re afraid of failing? Or resign yourself to feeling like a fraud for the rest of your life? Of course not! You deserve what you have, you deserve to feel successful and you deserve to feel free to fail sometimes. Although it may seem easy for me to say these things, I know from experience that it can be difficult to actually believe you are worthy. So here are a few concrete things you can do to try to overcome imposter syndrome:
1. Focus on being better, not the best.
Many people who are very ambitious suffer from imposter syndrome. This, of course, doesn’t mean that ambition is a bad thing but it’s vital to remember that doing your best is different than being the best. Perfection is a ridiculous thing to strive for, so we should stop doing it. Instead of trying to beat everyone else, you should focus on doing a little bit better than you did before and acknowledging your accomplishments along the way. Having realistic goals doesn’t mean that you’re settling but rather means that you aren’t always striving for some unattainable ideal that leaves you feeling inadequate and worthless. Remember to always internalize your successes as well.
2. Stop comparing yourself to other people.
This can be really hard to do when you are in school and so much of the system is based on GPAs and class ranks, course averages and percentiles. Because you are constantly being measured against your peers, that becomes ingrained and seems normal: but, ultimately, none of it actually matters much. I think something that helps with stopping the constant comparing is to understand that many people are struggling with the same things that you are. You wouldn’t look down on your friends or classmates for many of the same mistakes that you may have made, so stop berating yourself for these mistakes. There’s a common saying that I think is really important: “Stop comparing your behind-the-scenes to someone else’s highlight reel”.
3. Accept failure.
Sometimes you’re going to fail. It’s going to happen and it may be really scary to even consider, but at some point in your life you are going to fail at something. It doesn’t have to be school-related. Some of us may fail at keeping a friendship, or at starting a relationship; we may fail at time management or being a good roommate or a good don or at saying our lines in the school play. We could fail at your job or we could fail our family. There are many opportunities for us to fail every day. And sometimes we’re going to take those opportunities and fail. But that’s okay, because failure isn’t the end of the world. Failure is sometimes actually a great place to start again. And just because you fail at something doesn’t mean that you’re a fraud or that you don’t deserve future success. It just means that you’re human, like the rest of us.
4. Examine your fear.
Take a long, hard look at exactly what it is that you’re afraid of. The fear of being found out that comes with imposter syndrome means that people avoid situations where they might fail. So if you find yourself avoiding things out of fear, stop yourself. This fear drives us to settle for less, to accept mediocrity, to live an unfulfilled life. Playing it safe means that you aren’t risking being “exposed”, but it also means that you aren’t ever going to know what you truly are capable of. Leaving your comfort zone is alarming but do you know what the worst thing that could happen is? The worst thing is that by avoiding the possibility of failure, you are also avoiding the possibility of success. Never let your doubts limit you.
Hopefully some of the tips given here will help you acknowledge and deal with any imposter feelings that you have. I know that it can be hard to let go of these feelings, and I feel a little hypocritical in giving this advice because I, too, struggle with some of them at times. But I do want to tell you that you deserve to be here just as much as anyone else, and your successes are also deserved. Every time you fail you should be proud of yourself, because failing means you had enough courage to get out there and try.
Have you ever had these feelings that characterize imposter syndrome? Please feel free to tell me about it in the comments below: I believe it’s important to embrace fallibility and to concentrate on incremental improvement rather than straining for unachievable perfection.
Here are some online resources that address elements of imposter syndrome: