Giving you the insight into matters directly related to student life is the Pi Comment column, Spotlight: UCL, Universities and Young People, where our team of columnists tackle the issues affecting students today. Here, Cathy Meyer-Funnel discusses the ‘imposter syndrome’ that many students encounter at university and suggests ways to allay this.
I don’t belong here. A feeling that hangs over many of us every time we walk into a lecture theatre crowded with our overachieving peers, or going to a house party filled with those considered to be the height of edgy and cool, or even joining a society to take part in an activity we once loved. We fear not being good enough, as if someone is going to come up to us and unmask us for being an imposter. And while it might make us feel isolated from those around us, the reality is that it is far more common than we may have first thought.
Psychologically, this ‘imposter syndrome’, as it has come to be known, refers to ‘a pattern of behaviour where people doubt their accomplishments and have a persistent, often internalised fear of being exposed as a fraud’. It is not technically viewed as a psychological disorder, yet it can lead to feelings of anxiety, stress, low self-esteem and even in some cases depression. It is thought around 40% of high achievers have experienced it, and despite it being initially believed to affect more women than men, it can actually impact different genders in a similar way. Furthermore, it often causes us to minimise what we have already achieved and urges us on to do more, have more, be more.
Of course, ambition is not necessarily a bad thing. This drive to do well is what motivates us to keep going forward, no matter how difficult things may get. Yet there reaches a point where we begin to feel that we are not enough. Not good enough to be considered equal to those around us. To counteract this, some among us may work extra hard to make sure that we are good enough, such as revising like crazy before an exam, only to then believe we only passed because we put in so much work. This vicious cycle creates a constant anxiety, as the idea that we must constantly be at the top of our game only increases the pressure already being put on us.
There are many external forces expecting us to do well, such as lecturers, parents, the ever-competitive job market. This is precisely why we need to be less hard on ourselves, and permit ourselves to be proud of how far we have come. Easier said than done, especially taking into account how deeply ingrained these feelings of inferiority can become. Achievements are put down to luck rather than genuine skill, reducing their significance in our eyes and leaving us feeling even less able to celebrate our success. In a world where new developments, particularly in technology, have enabled us to accomplish more than ever before, it can be exhausting and even devastating to feel like we aren’t keeping up.
So why has this become such a phenomenon? It seems we have allowed a culture of perfectionism to dominate our lives, made even more prevalent by the rise of social media. People list their professional success on LinkedIn, while posting pictures of their buzzing social lives on Instagram – this affirms feelings of being a fraud by making us believe that, not only do we not belong, we are not worthy of belonging. We can never compete with such talented individuals, so why are we trying to?
In order to tackle this, the first thing we have to accept is that being perfect simply isn’t real. No one has, or can do, or can be, everything. Plus, you never know how another person may measure their own shortcomings. Inside they are probably just as terrified as you are of being ‘discovered’, of letting their own insecurities be revealed. A competitive, high achieving atmosphere leaves no room for failure, which is exactly why we need to talk about this problem. If we can normalise it, we can allow those suffering to feel less alone and dismiss the feeling that we are the only one struggling amongst our peers.
We must also remember that it’s ok to congratulate ourselves sometimes if we have succeeded in attaining something we have worked hard for. It isn’t arrogance to feel pride in ourselves, it is merely reflective of a healthy attitude towards success and failure. For some reason it has become unacceptable in our society to admit to our achievements, especially when, as young people, we are being told we still have so much to work for. It is only by being open with each other about our feelings that we can cure this syndrome.
While conversation about negative mental health is a vital part of coping with and diluting imposter feelings, if you are in crisis or struggling with extreme feelings of isolation or unhappiness please contact the relevant resources on offer at UCL. Transition mentors and personal tutors are available as channels of support and advice. In cases where mental health is beginning to severely impact your everyday life e.g. making work, socialising or taking care of yourself a difficulty then, get in contact with Student Psychological Services (02076791487) who offer short term counselling and phone support free of charge.