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How to Defeat Imposter Syndrome

how to defeat imposter syndrome

A few small life changes will help remind you that you deserve everything you’ve accomplished —and more.

by brianna ruffin

One of the things I remember most vividly about my first semester of college is sitting silently in class, afraid to speak.

I would listen to the other students whose words always seemed to flow elegantly and think, “My opinions must not be important. I don’t have anything to say.” Many of my classmates had traveled around the world, attended nationally ranked private high schools and had parents with professional degrees. They seemed to intuitively understand how to do college, while I struggled with basic tasks such as navigating office hours, managing my time and learning how to address college staff by new titles such as “Dr.” or “Dean.” I was sure I had nothing to contribute in classes; in fact, I believed I had nothing to contribute at all. Because no one I knew voiced similar concerns, I felt completely alone. But there’s a name for this experience: Imposter Syndrome. 

Coined by clinical psychologists Dr. Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978, imposter syndrome refers to a high-achieving person’s fear of failure and lack of faith in their own abilities. In college, this manifests itself as students believing their past achievements mean nothing compared to those of other students. You might look at a classmate who was valedictorian and head of the student council, who also participated in three sports and think to yourself, “I don’t deserve to be here.” This can be especially true for first-generation, low-income and/or racial minority students, but anyone can look at this imaginary high bar and experience imposter syndrome. 

Thankfully, a few small changes to your everyday life can lessen or completely eliminate the syndrome’s chronic effects. Many people deal with this sensitive issue in different ways, but the following steps should help you identify situations where you experience feeling like an imposter and take back control.

1. Recognize That You Deserve To Be Here


Many students suffering from imposter syndrome feel as though the admissions committee made a mistake with their application. They rationalize that they might have been accepted for invalid reasons—maybe there weren’t enough students from the Midwest, or students who like to play Frisbee as a sport—except on the basis of their own academic ability. Recognize that the admissions committee didn’t make a mistake. If you were accepted, it’s because they believe that you have the potential to do very well at your college. The admissions committee believes in you; it’s time you believe in yourself.

2: Take Pride In Your Background

You worked for all of those years to get into college, and now all that hard work has paid off. Everything that you did in high school has led up to now, and you should be proud of all you’ve done. You’re attending the school of your choice. Even if you weren’t the head cheerleader or a Merit Scholar or a chess aficionado, you’ve still accomplished so much. Never downplay your accomplishments to yourself or anyone else. Those same accomplishments helped you get where you are now—and will help keep you on the road to where you’re going.

3: Stop Comparing Yourself To Other People

Everyone has had different advantages in life as well as different hardships. Other students may have had opportunities that were unavailable to you, and vice-versa. It doesn’t make sense to compare yourself to someone who is coming from a completely different background.

In addition, remember that you’re viewing someone from the outside. You have no idea what they’re thinking or feeling. Maybe the smart girl in your biology class feels clueless when she sits in her English literature class and even compares herself to someone else who she thinks understands Shakespeare far better than she does. Maybe one of the people you admire wishes they could do the same things that you do with ease. 

Take ten minutes to write a list of your own accomplishments so that you can objectively think about your own strengths and weaknesses whenever you find yourself making undue comparisons. In addition, when you catch yourself making comparisons, just think, “We both belong here. I belong here just as much as the next person.” Tailor this statement to your own specific situation and use it whenever you feel the urge to compare yourself with one of your peers.

4: Don’t Be Afraid To Ask For Help!

Asking for help has a big stigma attached to it. Whether you need an extension, exam accommodations or an appointment with your school counselor, asking for help is not a sign of weakness; quite the opposite—it’s a sign of strength. If you’re struggling academically, reach out to your professors or other staff members on campus who may be able to help you. If you find that you need counseling, contact your school counseling center for free or reduced services. Being aware of your needs shows that you know your own limits and that you feel comfortable admitting when you feel overwhelmed. That’s a skill that you will need for the rest of your life.

5: Talk About Your Feelings With Your Friends


Many of your friends may be feeling the same sense of inadequacy, but are too afraid to bring it up. Talking about it can help allay feelings that you are “weird,” “wrong” or “abnormal” for feeling as though you don’t belong. It can also be cathartic to sit with other students and discuss the challenges that you’re facing. This may even help you learn new coping methods and create a greater sense of intimacy between you and your friends.

6: Know That You’re Not Alone 

On most campuses, many students feel some degree of imposter syndrome. Even if you don’t know anyone who voices these concerns, you’re not alone. The idea is to acknowledge the feeling, but then combat it with the truth using many of the tools outlined above. 

As you continue to embark on the adventure that is college—taking new classes, meeting new people and figuring out what you want to do with your life—it’s important to use these tools to your advantage so you can truly enjoy your college experience. It’s worth the effort.

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