Navigation Toggle Icon

A fraud amongst us: How Imposter Syndrome can impact university students

As I write this,  thoughts begin to rush through my head: ‘Who are you to claim you know about this?’, ‘what makes your input unique or interesting?' and even more disturbing, 'will writing this make my colleagues and peers doubt my capabilities?'
 

Imposter Syndrome (IP)is well documented. It describes the internalised feelings of incompetency, despite evidence to the contrary. As with most things, IP is experienced differently from person to person. From a niggling feeling of inadequacy, to a factor in prolonged and debilitating mental health issues.

While reflecting on my own experiences, it occurred to me that many of the students I speak to in a professional capacity report experiences grounded in this very phenomenon. While I’m careful not to conflate the two, many characteristics of students align with those most likely to experience feelings of IP. Although we don’t know exactly what causes IP in this group, we can hazard a guess that students feel the pressures of perfectionism, social comparisons and a fear of failure. All of these factors have the potential to ruminate and swell, into crippling anxiety, lack of academic achievement and even non-participation in the first place.

Certainly, imposter feelings can prompt some students to work harder and over compensate, but it can similarly hamper academic success and life satisfaction due to anxiety, depression, disengagement and feelings of non-belonging. It’s thought that the transitional nature of this time in a person’s life can make them more vulnerable to feelings of IP. When identifying which students are most likely to be impacted by IP, gender is considered a consistent predictor. Women, along with communities and groups such as students from BAME backgrounds, those with disabilities, estranged students and care leavers, LGBTQ+ students and those from low-income households, are more likely to report indicators of IP.

So, why are these groups disproportionately affected by Imposter Syndrome? Notwithstanding the leaps towards a more inclusive and equitable student population, higher education’s roots are firmly straight, white male and predominantly middle class. Widening access and participation are still a relatively new concepts and the embedding of a diverse student community and voice takes time. Feeling you don’t belong can be a direct implication of systemic inequalities, or a lack of representation in your field of study.

So, how can we support students experiencing Imposter Syndrome?

  • Talking: Feeling like a fraud or out of place is rooted in secrecy. Doing all you can to maintain the illusion can be exhausting, so, talking to trusted family, friends, lecturers or support staff can make all the difference.
  • Acknowledging good work: Giving students praise and feedback can positively impact those struggling to control intrusive thoughts. Peer-to-peer appraisal and regular reviews can help quieten the noise IP creates.
  • Using failure to fuel progress: Learning to accept failure is normal. Supporting students to learn from their setbacks and to seek comfort in experiencing feedback and reflection; rather than hiding from it. Being able to separate feelings from fact, can hugely help students build resilience and measured reactions to shortcomings.
  • Signposting: IP, whilst not classed as a clinical mental disorder, can come hand-in-hand with ill-mental health, such as anxiety and depression. A whole university approach is crucial to identifying students who are struggling for a variety of reasons – but in the case of IP, it manifests entirely in the academic realm.
  • Environment: Finding your place in university life can be tough, so every part of the university experience is important. Transitioning from one existence to another can be a huge stress factor. Support with making friends, finding the right accommodation, and getting part-time work, can be just as important as the academics in creating a feeling of belonging.
  • Increased diversity and inclusive representation in higher education: Universities must continue to challenge and strive to represent the narrative of all students and professional minorities within academic study, at all levels.

As I try to relate this to a world forever changed by Covid-19, I can’t help but find myself thinking of face masks. In a pre-Covid existence, for many who experience IP, their masks were metaphorical. However, as we move into a world where the metaphor is fast becoming a reality, what advice can we give students? Perhaps simply: You do belong,. You are worthy.It’s okay to feel like an imposter – most of us do.

Footnotes & References

Throughout this blog, I referred to the work of many brilliant people. To keep the flow of the blog, I did not reference them throughout, however, if the topic is of particular interest to you, please find some further reading below:

Arnett JJ. Emerging adulthood. A theory of development from the late teens through the twenties. Am Psychol. 2000;55(5):469-480.

Caselman, T. D., Self, P. A., & Self, A. L. (2006). Adolescent attributes contributing to the imposter phenomenon. Journal of Adolescence, 29 , 395–405.https://doi.org/10.1016/j.adolescence.2005.07.003

Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon among high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy Theory, Research, and Practice, 15, 241–247.

Ferrari JR, Thompson T. Impostor fears: Links with self-presentational concerns and self-handicapping behaviours. Personal Individ Differ 2006;40(2):341-52. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2005.07.012

Neal McGregor, L., Gee, D. E., & Posey, K. E. (2008). I feel like a fraud and it depresses me: The relation between the imposter phenomenon and depression. Social Behavior and Personality: An international journal, 36(1), 43-48. Volume 36 Issue 1 | e1683 | Published: February 2008 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.2224/sbp.2008.36.1.4

Lane, Joel. (2015). The Imposter Phenomenon Among Emerging Adults Transitioning Into Professional Life: Developing a Grounded Theory. Adultspan Journal. 14. 10.1002/adsp.12009 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/282404200_The_Imposter_Phenomenon_Among_Emerging_Adults_Transitioning_Into_Professional_Life_Developing_a_Grounded_Theory