Breaking down the realities of imposter syndrome

We must combat the hidden phenomenon as a collective

Bianca reflects on her experience with imposter syndrome.

I sat in the lecture hall with my laptop and binders on the desk in front of me. All around me, my classmates were busy typing away as the professor spoke. I had no idea what they were writing, but I kept thinking I must have missed something important.

Try harder, I thought to myself. You must prove you belong here.

Since my first day at Queen’s, I’ve felt this way every time I entered a lecture, lab, or tutorial. Despite my academic success, I couldn’t rid myself of the sense of fraudulence that loomed over me. I viewed any achievement as a stroke of luck while perceiving defeat as a reflection of my maximum potential.

Clinical psychologists and scholars have termed this cognitive phenomenon, “imposter syndrome.”

Imposter syndrome is the inability to internalize accomplishments while living in a perpetual state of self-doubt and inadequacy, despite objective success. Often, people experiencing imposter syndrome cannot view their success as a depiction of their own competence, but rather as an outcome of some external factor.

Like a candle void of oxygen, imposter syndrome is a major cause of burnout in students and professionals alike. Even Michelle Obama admitted to feeling imposter syndrome during her time as first lady.  

Prior attempts to analyze the causes behind imposter syndrome have been very individualistic, as if the feeling was some sort of personality trait. This, however, gives the impression that imposter syndrome is an inherent characteristic and fails to address how the social context of an individuals’ life may contribute to its development.

It’s become nearly impossible to unravel what it means to truly be good at something when the quintessential model of being “good” is being perfect.

Success is a culmination of both triumphs and defeats. Though this is a commonly known fact, I’d failed to recognize it whenever I sat in a classroom. I was afraid to make a mistake, because a good student, a perfect student, would never make a mistake.

I started to believe if I made an error, I lacked the competency and skill set to successfully complete the task ahead of me.

I believe the best way to combat imposter syndrome is through honest communication. This means introducing the reality of embarking on difficult expeditions—academically, professionally, and personally—through open dialogue.

Discourse between professors and students, career professionals and students, or even among students themselves, is integral to overcome the hidden presence of imposter syndrome. We must understand even those who are at the top of their field can’t avoid inevitable human errors.

It’s impossible to be an imposter if you’re applying effort and thought daily. Don’t become engulfed by the idea of perfection, but rather aim for progress in whatever you choose.

This new way of thinking has allowed me to enter each lecture with a sense of curiosity and willingness to learn instead of a fear of making mistakes. I’ve realized what defines my ability in academics and in life aren’t my past, present, or even future successes, but how I decide to grow from my failures.

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