For many students, these past two weeks have been a bit stressful. It is coined as midterms season—a time of year where exams fall in the same week, or for other lucky students, on the same day. I completely understand the pressure. Last week I had two exams to prepare for, and I didn’t do as well on the first one as I thought I did. It really tore me down and ruined my day. I overthought it immensely and complained to my friends and family about it. I was attributing a lot of my self-worth to this one grade. But after a while, I realized I should be more concerned about myself than one exam grade.
These past few weeks have made me think back to a psychology class that I took last semester, where we discussed something called “Imposter Syndrome”. According to HBR.org, “Imposter syndrome can be defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. ‘Imposters’ suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence.”
Psychologytoday.com states the “term was coined by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978 when they found that despite having adequate external evidence of accomplishments, people with imposter syndrome remained convinced that they don’t deserve the success they have.” It should be emphasized that this isn’t an actual disorder, and isn’t diagnosable.
Unfortunately, I have witnessed my friends engaging in negative thoughts and allowing impostor syndrome to make them feel discouraged. With this month containing first-year students’ first real contact with spring semester exams, and those grades having large consequences, the particular environment most students experience during these weeks seems ripe for experiencing imposter syndrome.
HBR.org also reports “researchers believe it has its roots in the labels parents attach to particular members of the family. For example, one child might be designated the ‘intelligent’ one and the other the ‘sensitive’ one.” I can definitely see the correlation with how parents nurture their children and their self-esteem and/or self-image. For instance, one parent may believe that getting straight A’s is what their children must do to receive praise and validation while another may praise their child for trying their best, even if it means receiving a C+ average.
To learn about how impostor syndrome is affecting other students I spoke with my old professor—Abby Nance, a graduate student in the applied/social/community program.
“People who I think of who are the most capable and competent, inspiring scholars also struggle with impostor syndrome,” Nance said. “I feel like it’s an important thing to normalize or recognize as part of being in a temporary space like school.”
Nance recommended that all students, especially undergraduates, find support in others who allow you to acknowledge impostor syndrome and encourage you to work through it.
“I don’t think you can think your way out of impostor syndrome, I don’t think it’s something that we deal with alone,” Nance said. “I know that at the graduate level we only really have one academic advisor/mentor that we lean really heavily on. It takes a village of mentors, for example, a teacher that you admire, or researcher that you work with, that may be able to speak to impostor syndrome and help you through that, but you may not. So, finding support in peers, teachers and mentors who can help you overcome that and normalize it. Just knowing that it’s part of getting a degree for many many people.”
Sparking that conversation is the first step. As students, we can all work together to end the stigma that surrounds impostor syndrome. I also think it’s important to acknowledge that one bad exam grade isn’t the end of the world.