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An unwelcome shadow

FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY

An unwelcome shadow

How imposter syndrome impacts U of T students

It’s that special time of the year. The leaves are falling, the air is cold, and everyone is freaking out about the future. What tests are we all taking? What grad schools are we going to? Who passed the LSAT, the MCAT, the GRE, or any of the other acronyms that I don’t know? But the real challenge is going to come later this year, when we watch as our peers are accepted to dream schools and dream jobs, and we realize that, in comparison, we’ve done nothing.

I’m a fourth-year student. Despite having gone through three full years of courses here at U of T, I find myself still in fear that someone will discover the truth: I don’t belong here. I’m not smart enough, I don’t work hard enough, and I don’t deserve it. I’m surrounded by people who are planning extraordinary things, from grad school to enviable jobs, people who can speak multiple languages or balance multiple jobs, all while remaining here and being a good student.

I realize that, logically, this doesn’t make any sense. I did not trick anyone into accepting me, nor did I trick professors and teaching assistants into passing me. I didn’t trick the clubs I’ve been a part of into letting me work with them, and I didn’t trick The Varsity into letting me write for them. But that doesn’t stop me from feeling like everything I have is unearned.

Like a lot of students, I suffer from what’s called imposter syndrome. According to Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Dr. Suzanne A. Imes, who first identified the concept in 1978, the term ‘imposter syndrome’ is used “to designate an internal experience of intellectual phoniness that appears to be particularly prevalent and intense among a select sample of high achieving women.” In other words, despite someone having a record of achievement, they feel like they have not earned any of it properly and that they do not deserve it, which causes them to live with the fear that someone will discover the truth.

It makes sense that this would be especially prevalent among women. Oftentimes, women are taught to earn their accomplishments, while men are taught that success is their birthright. To see evidence of this you do not need to look further than the recent hearing for the US Supreme Court Judge and alleged rapist Brett Kavanaugh. Commenters have noted that his demeanour and the demeanour of the Republican senators trying to put him in office were characteristic of pure entitlement. It was as though he believed that he deserved his spot on the court by virtue of his wealth, race, and gender, as if even questioning his place on the court was tantamount to a partisan witch hunt, an absurd political action undertaken due to desperation. Indeed, the president even apologized to him. To quote comedian John Oliver, “That surly tone [during questioning] was emblematic of Kavanaugh’s demeanour throughout the hearing. Not the tone of a man who hopes to one day have the honour of serving on the Supreme Court, but the tone of someone who feels entitled to be on it.”

In fact, when I asked the people around me if they had ever felt a kind of imposter syndrome, most of the responses came from women, especially queer women and women of colour.

Victoria, for example, thinks that this is related to feelings of not belonging and alienation from traditionally segmented institutions among marginalized people. As she put it, “This also means folks in marginalized social positions likely experience it more and more intensely because there is already limited space for us in all sorts of fields, and we are met more often with suspicion of our ability to accomplish what needs to be done. Even the most confident person will start to experience self-doubt if they feel as if the entire world is pushing back against them all the time.”

CJ* has felt imposter syndrome all their life, but it became heightened upon entering university. They described feeling like everyone around them deserved to have accomplishments, while they did not. But rather than providing a motivation to allow them to work harder, the effect on CJ’s academic life and mental health is destructive: “I tend to worry more than actually work or study a lot, and I feel my productivity could be so much better if I wasn’t so busy worrying that I’m going to mess up and that everyone will figure out I’m not good enough.”

Beth* also described this cycle of feeling inadequate. “The anxiety of it really just makes it impossible to work. It was a vicious cycle. I would feel in over my head, so I’d shut down and fall behind, and then when I’d go to class I’d feel like a phony who didn’t belong. And then it would repeat.”

That cycle is clearly detrimental to confidence and self-worth. Maria described often doubting her own intelligence, certain that her merits shouldn’t have been enough to get her accepted to university. She also worries that she chose an easy major and wouldn’t have been successful otherwise. As a side note, I don’t think there are any easy majors. While some may be perceived as easier, in actual practice, academic struggles are universal to everyone, no matter the program.

Of course, this is all made worse by the pressures of attending U of T. The acceptance letter to U of T lures many of us into believing that we are academically superior in some way, only to have that superiority snatched away from us once we realize that everyone got the same letter. It can be easy to only see the accomplishments of your peers without realizing that they could be struggling as well. And even if they aren’t, even if you lived in a world where everyone around you achieved things that you could only dream of, and succeeded where you failed, exactly how productive would it be to compare yourself to them? Consider the famous lines from Mean Girls, during the mathletes competition filmed in Con Hall, when Cady realizes that “calling someone fat won’t make you any skinnier. Calling someone stupid doesn’t make you any smarter.” The inverse is also true. Recognizing the accomplishments of others does not make you inferior. I know it’s hard to think of that in this hyper-competitive environment, with fewer and fewer jobs and places in grad school, where the expectations placed on us only increase, but at the end of the day, we cannot control any of those external factors.

So what do we do? I suggest we follow the advice of The Chronicle of Higher Education, which recommends that we compare ourselves to our own progress. “Focus on what you have accomplished in and of itself, not as compared to what you had hoped to accomplish… Reframing your narrative as one of concrete accomplishments shifts your focus to the presence of labor and achievement, and away from the absence of ‘more.’ Once you do that, work on the story you tell others about yourself.”

For example, in first year, I felt intimidated by even the smallest amounts of readings and the shortest of essays. Now, I can breeze through them, if not with ease than with more understanding and clarity. Getting a lower-than-expected grade on an assignment would have once easily sent me into a tailspin then. Now, however, I am able to move past that and try to improve.

In fact, it was Beth’s ability to move past her imposter syndrome that allowed her to work more productively and improve her confidence, not to mention that it helped her keep up with her workload. Victoria found that challenging herself in a creative writing course to try to push past her insecurities, along with seeking advice from peers and talking to her professor about mental health, had a great effect and she was able to write “several short stories and some poetry for the first time in years and met most of [her] deadlines.”

Of course, improvement and progress don’t happen overnight, and in order to get to a place where you feel proficient, you have to start somewhere below perfection, which can exacerbate the whole issue. As YouTuber Nathan Zed put it in a 2016 video, “The thing is, the only way you can be amazing at something is if you practice. But I don’t want to be at that first level where I’m trash at it. I just hate feeling like the most unqualified person in the room.” That feeling is all too relatable, but as Zed also points out, the assumption that everyone secretly dislikes you and your work is more an issue of paranoia than anything else.

This is something that Maria has struggled with. She worries that her classmates are all far above her, despite performing consistently well in university. But the certainty of judgment and inadequacy forces Maria to keep quiet in class in the fear that she will be exposed.

None of this is to say that we should all swing in the opposite direction and put ourselves on a pedestal above those around us. What’s easy for you can often be torture for another, and what you’d see as a disappointing grade might be the height of someone else’s academic career. It doesn’t mean that any of us are inherently smarter or work any harder. Maybe we have mental illnesses or physical illnesses preventing us from working, families to care for, or jobs to get through. Or maybe people are just different and work differently. And, as a bonus, if we offer this type of generosity to others, we can more easily offer it to ourselves.

The Chronicle of Higher Education also offers another piece of advice, “Think about how you cede authority.” In other words, consider why you feel unqualified to make certain arguments in papers or in seminars. All revelations and discoveries come from people mulling them over, and all those people were, at one point, wholly ignorant about the topic. When you’re doing work as an undergraduate, nobody expects you to be below or above that level. If someone is asking a question and you think you may have the answer, go with your instinct. Be prepared to find that you could be wrong but don’t hold back and prevent something new from being said. Either way, you’ll be that much closer to learning the answer. This kind of confidence is invaluable, and it rests in knowing that you understand enough to be part of the conversation.

This last piece of advice has been especially relevant to me as I’ve been writing this. What makes me so qualified to tell everyone how to feel about themselves, especially after I’ve just admitted that I don’t always get past the point of comparing myself to others? Well, it’s just that. I can talk about this because I’ve experienced it. And I’ve researched it. And I’ve asked other people about it. So, I probably don’t have all the answers, but I’ve worked hard enough and thought enough about it that I can be a part of the discussion. And so can you.

*Names have been changed at the individual’s request.