Supporting Students Through Imposter Syndrome
By Venus Israni
Ph.D. Candidate in Higher Education, Boston College
“How did I get into this program?”
“Do I really belong in this college?”
“People here are going to find out that I’m a fraud”
Sadly, countless students carry these thoughts with them throughout the day, every day. This consistent undercurrent of self-doubt is present as they attempt to make their way through college. Students may methodically run through different reasons for why they got into their respective college (while none of these reasons have anything to do with their hard work and qualifications). It can be embarrassing and uncomfortable to talk to peers, friends, faculty, or staff. It’s bad enough that they feel like a fraud, how can they discuss it with other people? As with battling mental health conditions, students suffer silently through imposter syndrome. Although it isn’t an official diagnosis, psychologists recognize that imposter syndrome is a “very real and specific form of intellectual self-doubt”, and further, is accompanied by mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression.
Certain student demographics disproportionately experience this phenomenon and its debilitating effects. For example, first-generation college students are more likely to suffer from imposter syndrome in competitive science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) classroom environments. Feelings of being an imposter were a positive predictor of anxiety and also worsened the impact of perceived discrimination on depression levels among Black students. High impostor feelings predicted both anxiety and depression among Asian American students. It’s important to understand that the ways in which most schools/colleges are structured fundamentally disadvantages students who don’t fit into the white, male, heterosexual profile. Students’ feelings of imposter syndrome may be exacerbated by an unsupportive environment that does not take into consideration students’ needs, values, and backgrounds.
It’s unnerving to think about how we can best support students with imposter syndrome alongside the growing list of concerns that college administrators, counselors, faculty, and staff are facing in the age of COVID-19. I hope that the lists below (adapted to outline steps that students can take) can serve as a starting point during discussions with students.
Talk to your mentors
Encourage students to cultivate mentoring relationships where they can share their feelings with a mentor who can in turn help them realize that their impostor feelings are both normal and irrational.
Recognize your expertise
Don’t just look to those who are more experienced for help, however. Tutoring or working with younger students, for instance, can help students realize how far they’ve come and how much knowledge they have to impart.
Remember what you do well
“Most high achievers are pretty smart people, and many really smart people wish they were geniuses. But most of us aren’t,” she says. “We have areas where we’re quite smart and areas where we’re not so smart.” Have students write down the things they’re truly good at, and the areas that might need work. That can help them recognize where they are doing well, and where there’s legitimate room for improvement.
Realize no one is perfect
Urge students to stop focusing on perfection. “Do a task ‘well enough,'” It’s also important to take time to appreciate the fruits of their hard work. Encourage students to “develop and implement rewards for success — learn to celebrate,” she adds.
Change your thinking
People with impostor feelings have to reframe the way they think about their achievements, says Imes. She helps her clients gradually chip away at the superstitious thinking that fuels the impostor cycle. That’s best done incrementally, she says. For instance, rather than spending 10 hours on an assignment, you might cut yourself off at eight. Or you may let a friend read a draft that you haven’t yet perfectly polished. “Superstitions need to be changed very gradually because they are so strong,” she says.
Talk to someone who can help
For many people with impostor feelings, individual therapy can be extremely helpful. A psychologist or other therapist can give students tools to help them break the cycle of impostor thinking, says Imes.
From Dr. Valerie Young:
- Break the silence. Share how you’re feeling.
- Separate feelings from fact. Just because you feel a certain way doesn’t mean it’s true.
- Recognize when you should feel fraudulent. It’s normal to self-doubt in situations where you’re new to a setting.
- Accentuate the positive. Perfectionism can indicate a healthy drive to excel, but don’t take it to an extreme. Forgive yourself when mistakes happen.
- Develop a new response to failure and mistake making. Learn from your mistakes and move on.
- Right the rules. You have just as much right as everyone else to make a mistake or ask questions.
- Develop a new script. Your script is that automatic mental tape that starts playing in situations that trigger your impostor feelings. When you start a new project, think something positive like, “I may not know all of the answers, but I am smart enough to figure them out.”
- Visualize success. Picture yourself successfully making a presentation or asking a question. It’s much better than the alternative of picturing disaster.
- Reward yourself. Learn to celebrate your achievements.
- Fake it till you make it. Now and then, we all have to fly by the seat of our pants, and courage comes from taking risks. Don’t wait until you feel confident to put yourself out there, or you may never do so.