Imposter Syndrome

Camilla Østergaard Kristensen is a third-year International Relations student, who is interested in politics and international law. She is passionate about equality and social mobility, addicted to coffee, and a big fan of g&ts.

If there is one lesson I’ve been trying to teach myself, especially these past few years, it is this: “If we all feel like imposters, none of us are.” I’ve tried to internalise this message, tried to let it sink in and manifest in my brain. So far it has just led to me becoming more aware of how solidified my impostor syndrome actually is. However, what has also become clear to me is that I am not alone in this struggle, which is why I wanted to take this opportunity to explore it.

So what is impostor syndrome? Impostor syndrome is a term first coined by Suzanna Imes and Pauline Clance in 1978. The term refers to believing that you are not as competent as others believe you to be, that you are bound to fail, and that other people will recognise that you don’t deserve to be where you are., It was first used to describe high-achieving women, who had internalised the societal message that they were generally less capable than men and that therefore any of their perceived achievements and successes were just that: perceived. However, the paradox of impostor syndrome is that “those who suffer from it are typically high-achieving individuals by all objective measures.”  

What do Tina Fey, Serena Williams and Albert Einstein have in common? They have all confessed to feeling like impostors at some point in their lives. This raises the question of how common it is. As mentioned before, the term was first used to describe women who felt inadequate despite their qualifications. Since then, it has also been discovered in other groups. In fact, according to an article published by the International Journal of Behavioural Science, an estimate of 70% of people deal with some degree of impostor syndrome at some point in their lives. 

According to the author of the secret thoughts of successful women, Valerie Young, ”impostor syndrome is common among creative people, students and high achievers. It permeates workplaces as well as universities.” Furthermore, according to Brian Daniel Norton, “women, women of colour, especially black women, as well as the LGBTQ community are most at risk,” because they have dealt with different degrees of direct and indirect oppression throughout their lives and are thus more likely to internalise that they are underserving of their successes. Others have pointed to the fact that the lack of representation for marginalised communities similarly makes people feel like they don’t belong in certain environments and elevates the likeliness of them experiencing impostor syndrome. Whilst there is no decisive evidence that discrimination causes impostorism, Dr. Cokley, professor of educational psychology and African diaspora studies has found that “there’s definitely a link between the two.” This lack of diversity has also been reported as a reason people have felt under qualified and in over their heads even after they get a job. So if impostor syndrome is more likely for marginalised communities, the question is, how do we combat it.

On a societal level, the answer would obviously be to increase representation of marginalised groups so their goals seem obtainable and their achievements seem realistic. Furthermore, any solution must focus on fostering a diverse and welcoming environment for all groups within a workplace. However, whilst widespread issues require systematic – not individual – solutions, this doesn’t mean that we cannot do something about it ourselves.

Firstly, one coping strategy is to seek feedback or support from other people. Usually, other people, like friends, classmates or colleagues will be more able to more accurately discuss or access your skills, as well as bring in a less critical perspective. I also find that it is easier to believe other people’s assessments than your own – and whilst the need for outside validation might not be healthy in the long run, perhaps it can lay the groundwork for feeling adequate or good enough. Secondly, acknowledging that it is okay to make mistakes, and that we can learn a whole lot from them is a good lesson to learn. Making mistakes doesn’t make you or anyone else less capable. Thirdly, comparing yourself your successes or schedule to others is rightfully denounced: the fact that other people seem to be doing so much more does not undermine your own achievements. Finally, sharing your feelings and thoughts, as well as recognising that they exist is the first step in moving forward. Through this, you might actually discover that you are not alone in these feelings. 

I am writing this post solely because of this last point: impostor syndrome is something I struggle with myself, something I’ve slowly come to recognise during this past year especially. Feeling like I can’t add something intelligent to the conversation, or like my contributions won’t leave a positive mark on a project. I am one of those people who to an extent have internalised the message that my opinions or feelings don’t deserve recognition and that I am less capable. It is only through these conversations, by my admittance of these feelings that I have started to listen to others who view me as capable or as someone with a story to tell. 

It has been more than 6 months since I first wrote this post – at that point we were more than a year into the pandemic where most, if not all of social interactions, took place online. Reading through this puts me in a very similar headspace as the one I was in during April, but I am happy to say that I struggled a lot more then than I do now. Whilst I still struggle with insecurity, I feel less alone, more comfortable and more confident after returning to in-person teaching and engaging with friends and classmates. Turns out that we all feel lost, like we are falling behind, or like we aren’t doing enough. Just remember: “If we all feel like imposters, none of us are.”


[Image sourced from Vecteezy.]

Leave a Reply