Imposter syndrome - omnipresent yet rarely discussed in depthMister-E

Imposter syndrome is never a very popular accessory to carry around. It’s an admission of vulnerability, something one never ought to disclose – so, as a general rule, we don’t.

Whilst the term ‘imposter syndrome’ is often shunned in conversation, an overwhelming majority of university students bear the weight of it on a daily basis. Of the 100 people I surveyed this week, 89 said they had experienced imposter syndrome’s symptoms: feelings of self-doubt, of not truly having earned your place at university, of being the least able person in a room of geniuses.

These reactions, though, don’t evidence disparity between you and those you see as the Einsteins. In truth, even the original Albert’s intelligence was not enough to convince Einstein himself of his intellectual worth. Furthermore, increasing numbers of successful individuals have come forward to express feeling like a phoney –amongst them are Kate Winslet, Emma Watson and Maya Angelou. Even Michelle Obama has spoken of her experience of imposter syndrome as something that ‘never goes away’.

If all these figures of success to whom we look for inspiration are telling the same story as applies to us, there cannot be much correlation between feelings of inadequacy and real-life inadequacy. We can’t all be imposters. A fourth-year MML student summed it up perfectly, saying: ‘if everybody’s feeling that way, it annuls the problem, because if everybody feels like they don’t belong, then everybody does belong’.

“No doubt imposter syndrome would creep in for marginalised groups excluded from the canon”

Imposter syndrome is not Cambridge specific, nor university specific. A 2017 survey found a third of millennials to be suffering under its weight, and in my survey of students, 14% of participants were “constantly” affected by imposter syndrome, whilst 38% felt like imposters “fairly regularly”. The reason we don’t think the issue is so prevalent could be due to ‘pluralistic ignorance’: doubting ourselves privately but believing we are alone in our self-doubt.

CEO and founder of Interact, Lou Solomon, who has suffered from imposter syndrome her whole working life, has described the feeling as if you have snuck in through the back door to life’s theatre and are constantly looking over your shoulder for the bouncer who will imminently kick you out. It can seem so obvious that everybody else is progressing more quickly, smoothly and confidently that we forget to acknowledge that it’s impossible to really know how hard other people are working, what they’re compromising on and when they underperformed. Conversation is key, yet over 30% of students I surveyed who felt like imposters “constantly” had never voiced this to anyone else – in the case of those who felt imposter syndrome “fairly regularly”, the percentage rose to 80%.

Is this an issue affecting marginalised groups to a particularly great extent, especially here at Cambridge? Speaking to Emily Claytor, Women’s Officer at Emmanuel College, she expressed her impression that women have a”tendency to assume that what you’re saying doesn’t have value” which is “specifically linked to, as a woman, feeling that you have to really be giving all the time and presenting something that is perfect.” All-male, all-white reading lists can give the impression that “being female is an accessory to the default” – no doubt imposter syndrome would creep in for marginalised groups excluded from the canon when these reading lists only reinforce feelings of not quite being part of the mainstream or belonging.

It’s important to emphasise nonetheless that imposter syndrome is a very pervasive villain – men may be less likely to suffer from imposter syndrome but they are also much less likely to discuss it if they do. In the face of impossibly demanding male stereotypes, requiring confidence and concealing expressions of vulnerability, these realities should not be surprising. Emmanuel’s Women’s Officer expressed regret that a “hyperawareness” of other students’ opinions of you meant telling those students a “scary vulnerable feeling” just “doesn’t correlate” for many students.

“It’s important to emphasise nonetheless that imposter syndrome is a very pervasive villain”

Considering how widespread the problem is, it also begs the question of what the university is doing to help students. Unfortunately, the degree of agency the university can exert can appear discouragingly slim, as remedying imposter syndrome requires the initial brave step of the individual student communicating their feelings to another person. But perhaps knowing that there is a large chance your conversation partner will empathise with what you’re saying and experiencing might make that step a little less daunting.

Even so, universities do hold power over their students, and with this comes responsibility. I asked Cambridge University students what they thought of the scholars’ ballot still employed at Christ’s, Corpus Christi, Gonville and Caius and several other colleges, by which students achieving first-class or high 2.1 exam results are given priority choice for their room allocations. One student commented that “there is so much pressure already to do well in exams from Directors of Studies, family, peers and self motivation that I just don’t feel extra pressure needs to be added on from ridiculous things like accommodation” when “there are definitely other ways to reward people for achieving well”. Another added, “Encouraging elitism within an elite university that already places pressure on students is so alarmingly unhelpful and out of place that it’s a wonder everyone doesn’t have some sort of complete mental break.”


Mountain View

“Take me home, Mill Road”

Overall, however, 42% of students I surveyed did believe that their university had shown awareness of imposter syndrome and made efforts to help students combat it. This is a step in the right direction, but there is more work to be done. For example, the publication of class lists. Some argue that publishing class lists are a healthy incentive for students to perform, but it seems to me that every student who has earned their place here, has not done so without breaking a sweat – they know how to work hard – and so the detrimental impact of an overcompetitive environment on mental health far outweighs any motivational benefits.

More students still feel constantly impacted by imposter syndrome (14%) than students who have never been affected by it (11%), this is a subject that needs to stay within discussion. Every positive step is a cause for celebration, but when feelings of self doubt have become a normality for the overwhelming majority of the student body, it is clearer than ever that if you feel intellectually inferior to your peers, chances are they’re just as intimidated by you as you are by them. Something so relentlessly irrational most definitely doesn’t deserve your worries. But when the rational is hard to reach, someone to talk to might be easier to find. The power of communication cannot be overstated.