Mini-series: Imposter syndrome at university

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In this Mental Health and Wellbeing mini-series post, Harriet Harris, the University Chaplain and Head of the Chaplaincy Service, discusses how prevalent imposter syndrome is at university, from students to staff, and gives some tips on how to face the imposter demon…

It’s such a common thing at University, to feel that everyone else is here because they deserve to be, and that you have somehow slipped in by mistake.

Sometimes we can’t be dissuaded that we are imposters. PhD students have said to me: ‘We know everyone suffers from Imposter Syndrome, but they just have the syndrome, I am the real imposter’! Even eminent professors fear being exposed as frauds.

So, if achievement doesn’t assuage our fears, what does? I ‘d like to mention three kinds of response, which I hope might serve you when the imposter demon strikes.

First, show up anyway.

Imposter syndrome can stop us from doing things.

A step we can take for ourselves is to recognise how we feel, then turn up anyway. A student who was interviewed by Skype from hospital, believed she was offered her university place because she was unwell, and not because of her academic merit. Thankfully, she came anyway and contributes significantly to her discipline and cohort. Have courage; and dance to this:

Those who teach, recognise that people show up feeling intimidated, and make a virtue of this – vulnerability is a strong place to work from in getting people connected. Dr Marti Balaam at the Medical School does ‘Questions in a hat’. She invites freshers to write their worries on pieces of paper and place them in a hat. She then pulls them out and shares them anonymously with the group: ‘I don’t even know how to boil an egg’, ‘I miss my Mum’, ‘I feel like a fraud’. Marti and I have done similar exercises with groups of 100 – 200 students, using post-it notes to post up the things that stress them out, and the things that make them feel better. Sharing our fears, including fears of being an imposter, helps us to know that others feel like this too!

The great, late Jean Vanier said: ‘sharing our weakness and difficulties is more nourishing to others than sharing our qualities and successes’, which leads nicely to our second step for banishing the imposter demon.

Second, connect and participate

The fear that we are an imposter is not at root driven by a need to achieve (which is why achievement doesn’t solve the problem), but by the very human need to be accepted – the survival need to be part of the tribe. So a good way to address imposter syndrome is to make connections with people.

Belonging is not a fixed state: rather, it is something that we have the biggest power to influence, by whether or not we participate. We are sometimes asked at the Chaplaincy how to make friends or to have conversations. Research shows that treating people as though they like you, helps you to make and retain friends (whereas treating people as though they don’t like you, will drive them away). In the ‘Loneliness, solitude and companionship’ conversations that we hold at the Chaplaincy, one undergraduate said that since she’s been thinking about solitude she has started to ask her fellow students ‘how do you feel being so far from home?’. Such thoughtful and considerate questions deepen our encounters. We can be the ones to put our relationships on a more meaningful level.

Tutors or lecturers who ask students to introduce themselves to one another are hugely appreciated. Some have been nominated for EUSA awards on this basis. A former PhD student of mine would begin his tutorials by asking how the students were finding life at University. We may fear that this sort of ‘chat’ will take up too much time, but in fact it redeems time: if we’ve been able get worries off our minds, we concentrate better; and if we have got used to talking together, we will contribute to class discussions more readily.

Third, be real

Sometimes, we are the least informed person in the room, like when we are new, or when the class discussion is on an area that is not our dissertation topic. There is nothing wrong with that. If we had no sense of what we didn’t know, we would be like the husband in Pam Ayres’ poem!

When we are the most ignorant, then we can be the greatest learner – that’s a powerful thing to be for yourself, and for the effect your need to learn has on others.

But being real also means owning that you have done things that have enabled you to get where you are. If you get an interview, it means you made a good application – not that people are being kind, or have mistaken you for somebody else! You may tell yourself you’re not as good as others because you had a tough start in life; or you’re not as good as others because you had a charmed start in life and had lots of ‘help’. We can always think of reasons for why we’re not good enough! Being real includes being grateful for any support or good fortune that has come your way, but it also means owning your achievements. Know that it is the work you have put in, that gets you where you are.

Teaching contexts that affirm this reality in ways that are fully inclusive and embracing of our differences, enable us to spend emotional, social, and mental energy not on apologising for who we are, but on contributing fully to the collective good.

Compulsory listening and reading

I am what I am, by Gloria Gaynor.

And if you must use the P-word, accept that perfection embraces our imperfections: F**** Perfect, by Pink.

An excellent series of podcasts for coping with life: Don’t tell me the score, by BBC Sounds.

Read more about Imposter Syndrome in graduates in this American Psychological Association article, Feel like a fraud?

For the University Listening Service (1-1 support), and for Mindfulness and Compassion courses, wellbeing practices, and themed conversations, visit our website.

Harriet Harris

Harriet Harris is the University Chaplain and Head of the Chaplaincy Service. She is also a teacher and researcher, an Honorary Fellow of the Divinity School, Co–Director of the University’s Global Compassion Initiative, and Associate Fellow of the Clinical Educator Programme.

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