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What is imposter syndrome?
If you’ve ever felt like a fraud, like you’ve fooled everyone into thinking you’re smart but sooner or later the truth will out, then you’re already familiar with imposter syndrome − even if you didn’t know its name. Imposter syndrome can have many different causes but, at its heart, it revolves around the unshakeable feeling that you don’t belong. You doubt your own achievements. You believe you’re a failure. For some, imposter syndrome is a constant state of being; for others, it comes and goes, or only rears its head in specific circumstances.
Despite its name, imposter syndrome isn’t an illness. In fact, it’s natural and all too common: everyone is bound to experience self-doubt at some point in their lives. This wording can frame imposter syndrome as something we need to fix in the people who experience it, when oftentimes there are underlying issues in their environment or upbringing that plant the seeds. Nonetheless, we talk about the so-called ‘symptoms’ that accompany imposter syndrome. It often comes with an impending sense of dread: the feeling that, any moment, the house of cards will come toppling down. To stave off this doom, you might work harder and push yourself further, possibly to the point of burnout. People experiencing imposter syndrome usually feel anxious, nervous, or restless; they overanalyse their mistakes and set impossibly high standards for themselves. They view their success as a fluke, stroke of luck, or mistake.
What is imposter syndrome not?
Imposter syndrome shouldn’t be confused with discrimination. The term “imposter syndrome” was initially coined to refer to internal beliefs that don’t match with how other people view you. As in, you think you’re a fraud but everyone else knows that you’ve earned your place. Discrimination is the opposite: external, usually deliberate, acts that foster the feeling of being an outsider in their recipient. Some argue that we should move away from imposter syndrome as a buzzword, particularly in response to minority groups feeling unwelcome, because it places the fault on the person with it.
The sad reality is that bias and bigotry do contribute to imposter syndrome. If you look around and don’t see a space for you, then for many the natural conclusion is there’s a good reason for that. This, of course, isn’t the case, but that’s difficult to remember when you’re faced with the opposite. This is why members of marginalised and disadvantaged groups, like women of colour or disabled people, are more likely to experience what many would class as “imposter syndrome”.
Imposter syndrome at school
School is full of triggers for imposter syndrome. There’s the exam stress, of course, and the push for constant improvement in the form of red pen and ‘subject next steps’. But you’ve also got the school politics of changing friend groups and relationships, and the bubbling cauldron of hormones we call puberty. With all of this going on, you might start to feel like you’re not cut out for it. If your teachers and parents expect you to excel, and your peers seem to be doing well without much effort, then is school really easy and you’re the problem?
When we’re asked to advocate for ourselves at school, imposter syndrome often creeps in. We might procrastinate from a piece of coursework. We might be dissuaded from putting ourselves forward for a role in the school play. We might stop ourselves from reaching our true potential, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. All these fears are completely valid but they shouldn’t be listened to. Knowing how our imposter syndrome impacts our decision-making and work allows us to move beyond it.
Imposter syndrome is particularly prominent when making our GCSE, A Level, and post-18 choices. For most of our school life, we haven’t been allowed to think for ourselves. What we want or don’t want to do doesn’t matter: there’s always another homework assignment to complete or another test to revise for. Then we get to 14 and suddenly we’re put in control of what we do for the next stage of our lives. It’s daunting. What is the ‘right’ decision? What if you’re not ‘good enough’ to do this subject? What if you should set your sights lower?
Because school is so stressful and demanding, it’s totally natural that lots of students don’t think they deserve to follow their interests. In moments like these, it’s important to step back, take stock, and make sure you’re making decisions for the right reasons. Don’t let imposter syndrome colour your view of what you’re capable of, and don’t let it sway your decisions. You deserve to do things you enjoy!
How to deal with imposter syndrome
So you’ve identified your imposter syndrome. You know that it’s likely to pop up throughout school and beyond. But what are you meant to do about it?
What we’ve said above can make it sound like imposter syndrome is on the horizon in whichever direction you turn. Don’t be discouraged: while it’s true that imposter syndrome is common and persistent, it’s not here to stay. Below, we’ve provided our best advice on how you personally can cope with it. They don’t just apply to school; they’re long term solutions that you can use throughout your life.
1. Acknowledge what you’re feeling
It’s a common joke that the first step to recovery is admitting you need help, but it’s true! Don’t fight your emotions and don’t beat yourself up for having them. Recognise that they’re a natural, understandable response that lots of people have. You’re not a fraud who’s tricked the world with an intricate web of convoluted lies; you’re a normal person who’s trying their best.
2. Stop comparing yourself to others
This is said a lot but for good reason! When you compare yourself to others, you’re always going to find an area where you come up short. Instead of judging yourself against the standards of others, focus on what you want for yourself. Work to make yourself proud. If you do catch yourself making comparisons, view the situation as an opportunity to learn.
3. Talk about it
This could be with a friend, a teacher, or a counsellor. We can never say enough about how helpful communication is. If you chat about how you’re feeling with others, you’ll almost certainly discover that they’re going through a similar thing. Learning that someone you admire and respect has the same fears as you can really change your perspective. Just knowing that you’re not alone can go a long way.
4. Be kind to yourself
Criticising ourselves and downplaying our achievements easily becomes a bad habit. Pick yourself up on any self-deprecating thoughts you have. If someone was saying the same thing about your friend, would you stand for it? Try to steer clear of self-deprecating jokes because these do have a detrimental impact on your self-esteem and, consciously or not, you’ll start believing them. Learning to advocate for yourself doesn’t come naturally to a lot of people.
5. Reframe your thoughts
The doubts and fears that accompany imposter syndrome won’t disappear immediately – for some, they may never go away entirely – but changing your perspective helps you use them to your advantage. Rather than being disheartened by something not going to plan, use it to empower and motivate you to better yourself. Adopt a growth mindset: by overcoming challenges, you can evolve and grow.
6. It’s okay to ask for help
If you don’t understand something or need to split the load, ask! Being an army of one isn’t sustainable; you’ll work yourself into a burnout, and this amount of pressure is damaging to your health. Knowing your limits and being able to ask for help is a sign of strength and wisdom, not weakness. Remember that everyone starts somewhere, with a team of people to help them on their way – no matter how many Nobel Prizes they may have. No man is an island, and all that jazz.
7. Don’t rely on external validation
For those with imposter syndrome, every compliment they receive is yet more proof that they’re a con artist who has everyone fooled. They don’t believe anything kind said about them, but still they crave the validation of others. This isn’t sustainable! Work on being content with your own validation of your accomplishments: be objective with your assessment and realistic with your goals. This means not putting yourself under immense pressure and being able to actually see when you’ve done something well.
8. Reward yourself
It’s time to pay as much attention to your achievements as you do to your setbacks. Come up with a traditional way to celebrate the small things with your friends, like going to a bakery together for a sweet treat, or taking the evening off schoolwork and revision to watch Netflix. Group activities like this give everyone the chance to feel celebrated. Building time into your routine to bask in your achievements makes it easier to congratulate yourself. It’s not arrogance, it’s pride – and, frankly, you deserve it!
No matter the reason you feel like an outsider, you shouldn’t see it as a personal failure or weakness. Lots of us will experience imposterism in some form or another. Self-doubt and anxiety are natural responses to high pressure situations like secondary school; in some ways they’re good things to have because they show that you’re not entitled or overconfident. But they can only be good in small doses: they shouldn’t overwhelm you.
Where to find help
If you’re experiencing any form of discrimination, abuse, or bullying at school, talk to an adult as soon as possible.
If you need someone to talk to, here are some helplines and messaging services you can use:
For general concerns and crises
- Childline: call 0800 1111 (24/7) or use their 1-2-1 counsellor chat
- Samaritans: call 116 123 (24/7)
- Shout: text SHOUT to 85258 to use their 24/7 confidential text service
- Teenage Helpline: email [email protected]
- The Mix: call 0808 808 4994 (4pm-11pm) or chat with them online
If you want to talk to someone who is LGBTQ+
- Switchboard: call 0300 330 0630 (10am-10pm everyday) or use their webchat
- Galop: call their LGBTQ+ hate crime helpline 0207 704 2040 or email [email protected]
If you want to talk to someone who is part of the BAME community