What's imposter syndrome and how can I overcome it?

Have you ever had a success, no matter how big or small, and thought to yourself “this is definitely a fluke”? Have you ever disregarded successes as products of luck rather than hard work? Have you ever felt underqualified for a job or at uni? Welcome, my friends, to the gloriously messy, tricky, uncomfortable world of Imposter Syndrome. Psychology first started talking about imposter syndrome in the 70s, and since then it has snowballed into one of the most recognised and widespread psychological pattern of today. So, what is Imposter Syndrome? How can you recognise it in yourself? And, most importantly, how can you overcome it?

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“They’re going to think I’m a fraud”

If you’ve ever been offered a job or a place at uni or won an award, you are likely to have felt like this at some point. Picture the scene: you work super hard for an interview, you prepare and practice and you go in and smash it. The next day, you get a call offering you the job. Then you start to panic. “What if they’ve called the wrong person?!” “What if they got me confused with someone else?” “They’re probably going to think they’ve made the wrong decision when I start working…”. These are all classic signs of Imposter Syndrome. It is our natural reaction to disregard our achievements as pot-luck. The difficulty with this one, speaking from my own experience, is that it tends not to be based on rational thoughts and feelings. Deep down you know they’ve called the right person. You can rationalise your reaction and intellectualise the way your feelings but that doesn’t necessarily make it easier to palate.

The way of dealing with these feelings is a bit more of a slog. It takes more time to overcome because it requires you to challenge the way you’re thinking on a fundamental level. You know you’re being irrational. And in a way, that’s kinda ok. It’s ok to be scared at the thought of starting a new job or taking a step in your career. I mean, come on, it would be weird if you weren’t feeling at least a little panicked.


“Everybody here is more qualified than me”

This Imposter syndrome claim can be put to bed seemingly quite easily, because it’s usually based on literal factual inaccuracies. Qualification is usually quite easy to quantify. For example, feeling underqualified to be on a certain course or uni is pretty common. Looking at this example in a more detached and objective way, there are literal qualifications that you need to get on to most courses or unis. Therefore, by default, you’re kinda already there.

However, whilst feeling qualified enough to justify your position somewhere (like being at uni) may be easier to overcome with logic, feeling like you belong to a group is a different matter altogether. This one, I’m afraid, is a lot harder to shake. Belongingess is associated with loads of the good stuff, like self-esteem, confidence, and resilience. However, this means that Imposter Syndrome and belongingness tend to act in a vicious cycle. The more you feel like an imposter, the less deserving you feel to be in the company of others, the less belonging you feel, and so the cycle continues.

Therefore, a helpful way of combating this negative way of thinking is to branch out and chat to other people. You may be surprised at how (pretty much) everyone feels like this at some point in life. I doubt there is a single person who sits there on the first day of university in the lecture hall feeling fully secure, confident, and qualified to be there. Talk to each other. Form allies. Value support networks and value yourself.

“My success must be a fluke”

It is easy to feel like you can’t take full ownership of your successes. As a society we are told that humility is a great strength. We are told that we shouldn’t shout about our successes, we should be modest, we should blush coyly when people remind us of our achievements.

F*ck that. If you don’t shout and scream from the rooftops about how marvellous and amazing you are, who will? If you don’t give yourself a big hug/pat on the back/high-five then who will?

As a general rule, successes don’t happen by fluke. Luck happens by fluke. Remind yourself of what is given, what happens by chance, and what is earned. Your grades don’t happen by fluke. Sporting success isn’t a fluke. Friendships and relationship aren’t flukes. It’s really tempting to pass off your achievements as a result of pot-luck for one (very good) reason: it is easier. It is far easier and far more comfortable to tell people you think your fab essay grade was a happy accident than it is to stick your hand up, ignore societal expectations, and say “Yeah! I worked hard for that and I did it”.

Buy yourself flowers, order a takeaway, run a bath, write yourself a congratulations card. Do whatever you need to do show the world (and yourself) that you are properly and unashamedly proud of everything you have done, are doing, or ever will do. You got this.

You’re smashing it.

“I could’ve done things so much better”

Ah, perfectionism. My old friend. This Imposter Syndrome thought is tricky to combat because (and I say this with a big side of caution), it probably is true. You probably could have found an extra hour from somewhere to revise. You probably could have trained for a bit longer than one evening. Could’ve, would’ve, should’ve. It is really common for people, particularly high-achievers, to think that what they are doing in some way isn’t enough. (side note: I am SO guilty of this). Overcoming this one is about getting one trick down: Know. Your. Limits. Yes, maybe you could’ve stayed up for one hour longer to finish an essay. But that also would’ve meant that you wouldn’t have had time to eat. Or you would’ve missed seeing your friend. Or you would’ve been overtired the next day. Be kind to yourself and remember that you’re only human and you have capacities.

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Imposter Syndrome will affect everyone at some point. It is pretty much a given, particularly at uni. However, it is important to remember that you’re not alone with the horrible, uncomfortable feeling of being a fraud. Repeat after me: I worked for this. I did it. I’m not a fraud. I deserve to be here (repeat until you start to believe it). You got this.

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