You’ve made it to Warwick, a Russell Group university. Congratulations! You’re making friends, getting to early lectures on time and have even had a good first set of grades. So why can’t you shake the feeling that you don’t really deserve to be here, are bound to fail, and that it won’t be long before your course mates and tutors realise this too – if they haven’t already?
Sound familiar? If so, you might have experienced ‘Imposter Syndrome’, along with 70% of men and women. That’s right – those unnerving feelings are very common. Anyone can experience ‘imposter’ feelings – your professors, musicians, authors, school children. First identified 40 years ago by two American psychologists, ‘imposter syndrome’ is a term used to describe a false and crippling belief that your achievements are the product of luck or fraud, instead of skill.
With the amount of pressure and tests that university students face, the request to be self-critical and self-reflective, the constant need to show the best parts of themselves to peers, teachers and future employers, many students experience Imposter Syndrome. It’s not uncommon to feel that there was an admission error that allowed you to ‘slip through the net’ and that it’s just a fluke that you have been successful so far. As a result, some students will push themselves harder, trying to meet the expectations that they assume people around them have of them. If the Imposter feelings become all-consuming, some students might even consider dropping out of university.
Tips to help manage Imposter Syndrome
If you’re struggling with feelings and thoughts like these, it can help to:
Write down your achievements
It’s easy to see others’ achievements – they’re all around us… on TV, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube. Make a list of your own accomplishments. No achievement is too small. Write them all. Write them proudly! Keep the list and update it. Every time you feel doubt, look at your list. This will help you to visualise, train, and remind your mind that your negative thoughts do not define you.
Not be afraid to make mistakes
You may worry that if you make a mistake, or don’t know an answer, this will prove to others that you are an ‘imposter’. If you were a ‘real’ student you’d know the ‘correct’ thing to say and do, right? Wrong! We all get things wrong sometimes. Nobody knows everything. Sometimes the only way to give yourself a voice is to risk making a mistake. You never know, your idea could be accepted differently to how you expect.
Find your ‘group’
Having negative thoughts about yourself can prevent you from taking advantage of the opportunities that university offers. Being part of a ‘group’ helps you have a sense of belonging. Doing things you like, with people who enjoy the same things, gives you a place where you feel free to be yourself, relax and stop overthinking things. It builds your self-confidence. Think of your self-confidence like a mind-muscle. Strengthen your mind-muscle by enjoying your self-confidence, sharing that confidence within your group and then by spreading that confidence to a new place/different people.
Seek feedback from people you trust
Anxiety about being ‘found out’ can lead you to distance yourself from others. This risks reinforcing a sense that you don’t belong. Remember that the way that you see yourself does NOT always reflect how others see you. Try sharing your worry with somebody you trust. You might discover that they have had the same kind of feelings themselves, or can give you a new perspective, or help you question your self-criticism.
Recognise Imposter Syndrome for what it is
To overcome Imposter Syndrome, you first need to recognise it and acknowledge that you are feeling it.
When you next feel self-doubt creeping in:
i) write down what you are worried about
eg I can’t ask that question – everyone will think I’m stupid
ii) why you feel that way
eg Everyone else will know the answer because they’re super smart
iii) then note down a cause and effect of that particular worry
eg But if I don’t ask that question I won’t stop wondering about the answer. Maybe a few others are wondering too?
iv) and finally, flip it to a positive perspective!
eg If I do ask this question, I will stop worrying about it AND I’ll have the answer! I guess we are all here to learn from each other, right?
Remember: Ultimately, Imposter Syndrome is fear. If you have it, recognise it. Once you recognise it, take action, however small or big, to lead into more confident actions. More information and video can be on the University of Warwick’s Well Being site
The writer, Sam Brown, is a senior careers consultant at the University of Warwick