Should I be here? Thoughts on Imposter syndrome

I don’t belong here.

A simple, but pervasive thought that each of us has probably experienced over the course of our lifetimes. It’s a bitter concept that creeps in on a regular basis and slowly erodes at the foundations of everything you’ve worked so hard to build.

“Imposter Syndrome”, as this thought process is often referred to, is an extremely common occurrence, and it’s something I have personally grappled with at various stages in my life to differing degrees, but never so acutely as during my time at university.

For several years, I had dedicated my life towards the pursuit of a singular goal: to get into one of the top universities in the country. In all honesty I was very proud of my achievements towards the end of sixth form: my success felt proportional to the work I was putting in, and everything I had achieved seemed directly correlated to my own strengths and weaknesses.

Then I arrived at university.

It wasn’t a thought that occurred on the first day: there was no sudden change in mind-set to believing I didn’t belong. Rather it was a slow and festering process, with thoughts slowly creeping in and nagging at the corners of my mind: “you’re not like the other people here”, “honestly it was such a shock when you got your offer after that rubbish interview – are you sure they didn’t make a mistake?”, “you’re struggling again – maybe you’re just not cut out for this?”. Surrounded by individuals for whom on the surface, understanding and success came so naturally without any hard work was extremely demoralising to someone who had prided themselves on achieving everything through perseverance and dedicated work.

I’d like to say that over the course of the 4 years I spent at university that these thoughts slowly died away, that I managed to convince myself that I did belong, that I had got there on the basis of my own hard work. How hard could that truly be? After all, I used to believe it.

But the truth is even to this day those thoughts still linger, distastefully colouring my memories of my time studying.

Often I try and rationalise it: after all, would I be pushing myself as hard if I didn’t think I needed to prove myself and my worth to others ? While sometimes that assessment is fair, it doesn’t do justice to the mental exhaustion that comes with it – the constant internal monologue that discounts the praise of everyone and anyone around you, the self-doubt that plagues you at every turn, no matter how well you perform.

Yes, I do want to push myself higher and further, but not at the expense of my own notion of self-worth.

The truth that often helps to calm these thoughts is a simple one, and rather clichéd in nature.

You’re not alone. It doesn’t matter what walk of life, what your background was, or what you’ve achieved up till to this point, almost everyone goes through.

In fact, one of the original psychologists who termed the original phrase “impostor syndrome” has since stated “If I could do it all over again, I would call it the impostor experience, because it’s not a syndrome or a complex or a mental illness, it’s something almost everyone experiences.”[1]

Understanding that feeling like this is completely normal is an enormous step in a positive direction but can also a dangerous one. Yes, it is okay to feel like this occasionally, but that does not give you free reign to undermine yourself and your achievements at every turn! After all, we are often our own harshest critics.

Instead recognise that being in an unfamiliar situation is likely an incredible achievement as opposed to being something to question: perhaps this is you getting outside of the comfort zone and bettering yourself through a new experience.

Try to build your base on a combination of pride in your own achievements as well as a drive to better yourself. I might never believe I belonged at my university, but at least I can be proud I gave it everything I had while I was there.

[1] Pauline Clance in “Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges” – Amy Cuddy