There are five widely acknowledged ways in which imposter syndrome tends to present. Left to right: the natural genius – belief in self-competence leads to feelings of fraudulence, shame, or embarrassment when something doesn’t come easily; the expert – spends time learning everything there is to know about a certain topic, believes they need to have all the answers; the superhero – needs to succeed in every role they hold, pushes themselves to the limit and loses energy, thinks they can always do more; the rugged individualist – believes they can handle anything alone, asking for help means admitting inadequacy; the perfectionist – demands perfection, criticizes themselves for small mistakes, feels ashamed of failure, avoids trying new things.Olivia Lisle (instagram: @livcollage)

When students arrive at Cambridge, they hear the term “imposter syndrome” tossed around by the administration, and they’re expected to already know exactly what it encompasses. Given both its relevance and prevalence, it’s worth understanding the psychology behind imposter syndrome, why it’s so common among Cambridge students, and what we can do to combat it.

What is imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome, or “perceived fraudulence,” is a multifaceted phenomenon, characterized by feelings of self-doubt, incompetence, burnout, lack of belonging, and/or inadequacy. People who struggle with this syndrome often fear failure, uncertainty, and responsibility, as well as being exposed as a fraud. They blame their achievements on external, uncontrollable factors, such as timing or luck. They may play down their strengths and shy away from compliments.

Those with imposter syndrome tend to focus on the negatives: the things they don’t know, the things they can’t do. Despite evidence to the contrary, they believe they haven’t earned their successes and don’t deserve the opportunities they’ve been granted. For instance, Cambridge students may believe they don’t belong at such an internationally renowned institution or that their admittance was accidental.

“Those with imposter syndrome tend to focus on the negatives: the things they don’t know, the things they can’t do”

Despite being associated with anxiety and depression, imposter syndrome is not a diagnosable mental disorder according to the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition). It can, however, cause many of the symptoms that characterize those clinical conditions, such as feelings of worthlessness or unease. It may also stunt personal growth, thereby defeating the purpose of scholarship.

What causes imposter syndrome, and why are Cambridge students so susceptible?

There are various explanations for why - and instances when - imposter syndrome might occur. Much like any other syndrome, childhood experiences can have an impact. Constant criticism and/or exaggerated praise can lead to both unrealistically high expectations and never feeling good enough to meet them. When parents compare their children to their siblings, pressure them to do well in school, and act overprotective, this can instill internalization and cause unnecessary stress.

Personality traits, such as high neuroticism, high perfectionism, low conscientiousness, and low self-efficacy can also contribute to imposter syndrome. While some degree of apprehension is evolutionarily adaptive (our ancestors needed to worry about threats to survival), these extremes are both unhealthy and unproductive.

Competitive contexts (sound familiar?) play a major role in inducing imposter syndrome. These environments tend to involve intense pressure, something Cambridge students aren’t short of. Similarly, new environments, such as being a Cambridge fresher or starting a new term, can invoke imposterism.

According to Psychology Today, 25 to 30 percent of “high achievers” regularly experience imposterism, while 70 percent experience it at some point in their life. Cambridge students are, on the whole, hard-working, passionate, and - most famously - driven by a determination to succeed. High achievers often hold high standards; one failure can matter more than one hundred successes. Ironically, success can also perpetuate the imposter syndrome cycle. Calling attention to someone’s achievements can further their feelings of being a fake.

Unfortunately, imposter syndrome is most prevalent in groups that may be underrepresented in certain environments, such as women of color, although anyone can be affected. This particular minority group potentially endures gender and/or racial bias, microaggressions, or blatant discrimination. They may face “stereotype threat”, a subconscious push to conform to a negative stereotype about their social group. It’s important to note that experiencing sexism or racism can lead to genuine feelings of inadequacy not synonymous with imposter syndrome; there’s a difference between self-induced and other-induced ostracism.

“While it’s natural to seek success, it’s vital to preserve your mental health in the process”

How can students combat imposter syndrome?

Combatting imposter syndrome involves self-control, but it’s doable if you’re motivated to improve your mental health. Here are four recommendations for feeling better:

  1. Measure your own achievements, and avoid comparing yourself to others. Understanding and emphasizing your strengths can help (to discover your top strengths, head to viacharacter.org). Working harder will probably hurt more than it will help, so make sure to prioritize your endeavors.
  2. Change your mindset. Learn to accept imperfection and embrace mistakes as learning experiences rather than defining moments. Try to foster a “growth mindset” rather than a fixed one; reward your efforts over the outcomes.
  3. Share your feelings with someone outside the imposter syndrome-inducing environment. Talk to family at home, friends at another university, or seek out a mentor, such as a Tutor or Chaplain, who can empathize. Remember you can’t achieve everything alone.
  4. If you’re still struggling, try cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Speaking to a professional can force you to challenge and reframe your negative thoughts. It can also help relieve some of that self-induced demand. The university offers a counselling service (UCS), as well as articles on student wellbeing, such as “make mistakes and learn from failure,” “manage stress,” and “be okay with ‘okay’.”

READ MORE

Mountain View

Demystifying intersexuality

Many people occasionally feel some imposter syndrome, especially at universities as rigorous as Cambridge. While it’s natural to seek success, it’s vital to preserve your mental health in the process. By understanding the sources and symptoms of imposterism, it may become easier to prevent it in the first place. Remember to take a step back from your work once and a while and realize you belong here.