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A myriad of masks: the weight of U of T’s imposter syndrome

Feeling like a nobody in a big place
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YOON-JI KWEON/THE VARSITY
YOON-JI KWEON/THE VARSITY

As students at the University of Toronto, we have each earned our place here. With our unique backgrounds, stories, and experiences, we all unite in having had our hard work validated and rewarded with an acceptance letter to the top university in Canada, and one of the top public universities in the world.

So why do so many of us feel alone and out of place here?

Imposter syndrome, the feeling that you’re inadequate and do not belong or deserve to be somewhere, is numbing. It is a phenomenon that plagues our minds and leads us to not only question our abilities and achievements, but our worth. I believe that much of the imposter syndrome felt by students, myself included, stems from the academic environment and standards cultivated and enforced by the university.

Being accepted into this school warrants a certain level of high academic achievement and many of us who were accustomed to such scholastic success during our days in secondary school have experienced a shock when coming here.

Furthermore, this sense of imposter syndrome has been compounded by the general reluctance of students to speak out about their mental health struggles.

I want to help dismantle this stigma however I can, and I believe that this process begins with sharing my own personal and emotional story. After all, my story is one chapter of many.

A personal story of vulnerability

I never for a moment thought that I would experience imposter syndrome, but this assumption was completely shattered during my first semester at U of T in the fall of 2018. That isn’t to say that I didn’t expect the transition into university to be somewhat challenging — I did, but only to a certain degree.

I knew that transitioning from a small town on the west coast to the concrete jungle of Toronto would be like night and day. High school teachers had warned me to expect a somewhat dramatic dip in grades.

What I failed to prepare for, however, was the realization that I was wholly unhappy with the subject I was studying.

Rather than listen to my instincts, which were telling me to change my program, I began to live a lie. I desperately tried to convince myself that I enjoyed the material in life sciences. In reality, I felt suffocated and lost; the idea of following this program and eventual career path made the future look dreary, and this same outlook eventually began to seep into my daily life.

Nonetheless, I continued with the classes, labs, and total unhappiness. Unsurprisingly, my lack of passion for the subject resulted in a complete lack of motivation which led to poor grades. My days became a blur of internal struggle, which continued to build with the pressure that I felt to stay in my program and make my family happy. I felt so out of place, and yet had to continue to put on an elaborate performance.

It didn’t help that I lived in a Living Learning Community in residence during my first year which was focused on the program that I had grown to despise. I remember after every big test, everyone would huddle together in the common room or in the hallways and compare how they thought they did, and the process would repeat once grades actually became available. I feared the shame I would feel if my peers in residence found out how poorly I was doing in school.

At the time, I thought that I didn’t deserve to be at U of T. I felt like a failure. I felt like I had left my family back home and came all the way to Toronto just to hate my program and destroy my GPA. Looking back, I realize that this imposter syndrome was so intense not because I didn’t belong at U of T, but because I didn’t belong in that specific program.

At the time, I thought my failures stemmed from stupidity.

I have been no stranger to trauma and adversity in my life, but I can honestly say that my first semester at U of T was the closest I have ever felt to depression. In the past, I would find comfort and healing by centring my sense of self around my accomplishments, both academic and extracurricular. However, at the time I found myself in a place where that coping mechanism was no longer possible.

How could I possibly find healing from reflecting on my accomplishments when suddenly there were none to celebrate? I went from being independent and excited to start leading my own life, to desperately missing my family and any remnants of a time before university.

I began isolating myself from those around me and overthinking what I mistakenly perceived as their secret judgements. I had no motivation to even attend class, as simply looking at the program content was enough to stir my anxiety. Despite being a big advocate for mental health, I didn’t pursue any help for myself. I was too ashamed to turn to peers, too embarrassed to approach residence and campus resources, and too scared to confide in my parents. I smiled, made jokes, and tried to repress the distaste for myself and my situation that was slowly brewing within.

I felt that I was not worthy of calling myself a student at this university. Pair that with my high school friends’ accomplishments in their academic careers at smaller universities and I felt like a shadow to their success. Suddenly, the friends I learned and grew alongside were leaving me in the dust and there was nothing I could do about it — or so I thought.

It took a lot of internal deliberation, but I finally realized that I needed to break free from the imposter syndrome that was slowly consuming my happiness and sense of self. I dropped all of the classes I was lined up to take in second semester and replaced them with classes that actually sounded appealing and interesting to me.

For the first time, I listened to myself and it made all the difference.

I’m now studying geography and planning, with a specialist in human geography and double minors in urban studies and geographic information systems. While the jump to a completely different subject area was admittedly terrifying, I finally began to look forward to class again. I had a renewed sense of hope and felt I had made the first major step toward inner-peace and self-satisfaction.

It has been exactly one year since I made the switch and I have absolutely no regrets. I’ve had the opportunity of making so many wonderful, strong connections with peers, professors, and even myself as a result of being true to who I am and following the path of study that I was meant to be in. I stopped being governed by the fearful voice in my head and instead began listening to the hopefulness in my heart. For this, my life has truly changed.

The internal transformation I’ve experienced has allowed me to increase my capacity for involvement in extracurriculars, and it has helped me find a healthy work-life balance. In fact, I’ve managed to find success in both school and my personal life while managing two jobs, extracurricular projects, and on-and-off-campus leadership positions — and I know others can too.

We’re in this together

A number of students shared their experiences with imposter syndrome on the condition of some form of anonymity. Varun, a second-year student studying computer science, wanted only his first name to be published. Sara, a second-year student studying social sciences, requested an alias be used.

“I just don’t feel comfortable, partly because of imposter syndrome,” Sara wrote to me. “I’ve made myself to be a completely different person in real life and when that’s published with my name [I] don’t have the mental strength to talk about it in person.”

Varun spoke about how his sense of imposter syndrome has begun to invade his life. “I first began to feel imposter syndrome when I started to hear all about the stress and difficulty of U of T computer science. I continuously doubted myself and second guessed every single thing I did because I thought that I clearly didn’t belong in a place as challenging as this university,” he said.

The rigid structure at U of T sometimes felt unforgiving to Sara as well. In terms of personal growth, she felt mired and lost in the large campus — especially when coming from a small high school.

“It felt suffocating, [to be honest.] A constant identity crisis,” she wrote. “No one prepares you for this. There’s already traditions and… expectations in place and on top of trying to figure yourself out and what you want [out of university and your degree,] you also [somehow] have to figure out how you fit in a school that already has identities.”

“[The imposter syndrome] would often really consume my thoughts and I’d barely be able to concentrate, which would make me stop paying attention in class, which only caused more problems,” Varun said.

Counteracting imposter syndrome is no easy feat. However, there are small steps that we can all take — steps that I have taken too — to show ourselves our own sense of self-worth.

Other than being in a program I enjoy, I’ve found that being involved either on or off campus in some capacity has helped me. By contributing to an initiative or community group with goals bigger than just your own, it is easier for you to develop more confidence through a sense of purpose. I believe that a stronger sense of self is absolutely vital for countering imposter syndrome, because the syndrome itself is rooted in feelings of inadequacy. By building self-confidence through means unrelated to academic achievement, resiliency is fostered in a way that can lessen the impact of unexpected personal struggles.

Becoming involved in extracurricular activities has led me to become closer friends with many former acquaintances. Building your personal network on campus is a great way to feel like you have a place amongst your peers and you really belong here.

However, I understand that finding like-minded people, building a friendship, and actually maintaining that bond can be quite difficult on a campus as big as ours, and it can be especially challenging for commuter students, who make up a significant portion of our student population.

“[Imposter syndrome] is built into our culture as U of T students at this point, and the university always has a role to play in making a campus culture that is nurturing, proactive, and supportive,” Varun said. “Work has definitely been done, and there are multiple support networks, but there’s still no feeling of community on campus; all there is is competition, and that needs to be worked on.”

That’s why getting involved in groups that meet regularly — especially those on campus — can be a great opportunity for creating those connections and forming those bonds. It’s about planting our own roots in this seemingly vast and impenetrable institution.

“As weird as it sounds, the only thing that got me out of imposter syndrome was owning it,” Varun said. “I owned the fact that I didn’t feel good enough, and I used that as motivation to work as hard as I possibly could. I can quite confidently say that now I feel like I truly belong here, and that I try [to help] my friends feel the same way too.”

Alternatively, you can also find ways to build confidence by pursuing professional opportunities — whether that’s by finding employment, connecting with a mentor in your desired industry, or attending events and conferences on campus and in the city more generally. It can be so easy to get caught up in academics and student life without realizing that there is a whole other aspect to life.

“[Imposter syndrome is] definitely something [I’m] still dealing with, but what helped me was not letting it consume me,” Sara wrote. “That sounds easy but it really [wasn’t;] it took at least a year. I finally slowly put myself out there… [and] joined events such as Frosh to see if there were other people who shared my views and had similar interests. And to my surprise, there were.”

I know so many people, especially those in programs such as computer science or engineering, who become completely engulfed in their degrees to the point where it becomes unhealthy and mentally damaging. Many students feel as though their time at U of T is “all or nothing,” and that these years will either make or break their futures.

But that’s not the case. Although you’ve definitely heard this before, let me just say it one more time so you can remember: failures are an unavoidable part of life. Life goes on. And in the end, we will all be okay.