When I transferred to UC Berkeley I was among a number of English majors from community colleges who were used to being the top of their class.
In spite of the warnings, I’d heard from transfer orientation, somewhere in the back of my mind my As and A+s were there to remind me of the kind of student I could be. I was ready to crush this.
It wasn’t until I was in the middle of my first few class sessions on Milton that I realized how wrong I was.
Students were rhapsodizing on semicolons, waxing lyrical on word choice and leaving me feeling woefully inadequate in no time flat.
I found myself for the first time in two years sitting in office hours, timidly having the grad student instructor show me how to scan a reading as though I’d never analyzed a poem before — as though I’d not crushed close-reading Chaucer and Shakespeare only a year before.
What had happened to me in that little time?
Imposter syndrome had begun to set in.
What Is Imposter Syndrome, Exactly?
Imposter syndrome is a term that has branched off of the essay on the “imposter phenomenon” by Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Ament Imes in their research in 1978, describing it as a process in which someone (usually a successful woman) begins to doubt their own credibility in any given environment, steeped in doubt, and waiting to be exposed as a fraud.
“This must be some kind of mistake,” someone with imposter syndrome might find themselves thinking at their new internship.
“They chose me by accident,” or “This must be some kind of fluke” you might think when things seem to go your way. “Any day now they’re going to see it and then what am I going to do?”
It’s that dreaded daunted feeling you get when you feel yourself becoming overwhelmed in an environment where it feels as though everyone but you knows what’s going on…where you’re the only one who doesn’t belong. Sure, they may think you’re one of them… but what if you’re not?
Sex and #Adulting
Given the research (and general life experience) it may not come as a surprise to know that imposter syndrome does seem to disproportionately affect women. Girls are more socially conditioned to question their own ability in a way that boys often aren’t.
While young women everywhere are made fun of for their fun-semiserious-quirky #adulting journeys, a lot of this desire to catalog oneself and their own journey of figuring shit out… comes from this need for validation.
“Am I doing this right?” women everywhere wonder. “Am I a functioning adult yet?”
One of the best pieces of advice I got from a badass editor who visited my digital journalism course came when I asked her how I would know when I was ready to start applying for fellowships and internships.
“You know, I only get that question from women,” she said. “Men apply for things they’re not qualified for all the time. Don’t wait.”
The Lies We Believe
If someone were to ask around at their school, office, lab, or wherever they feel like an outsider they would be pretty surprised to find out how many people also suffer from the same imposter syndrome they do. Even if it’s a little different — maybe they’re insecure in a different area, or maybe they were once insecure but are confident now — it’s comforting to realize that no, you are not alone.
There’s that old saying, “Fake it till you make it,” which may sound like a fluffy nonsense phrase, but it does work. Okay, so you’re worried you’re tricking other people into thinking you fit in at this school or this environment… sure.
Now the only thing left is to ‘trick’ yourself.
“I do belong here,” you can say when you get ready for the day. “I am smart, I am talented, I am qualified for this.”
Doing The Damn Thing Anyway
Now, of course, there’s the question: what if you really aren’t qualified in some area? What if you really don’t know what you’re doing?
For that, we can go back to my original story.
After getting less than ideal marks on my first paper or two, I studied my butt off in my Milton class for my final. It’s true that I wasn’t as adept or familiar with some of the formal or technical aspects of studying literature, so I made sure to apply myself to working on those areas.
I remember sitting down to take the test with our one index-card of notes that we were allowed and then promptly being told to put it away because I’d put references on it without knowing that wasn’t allowed. Amazing.
Yet after all of my worrying, after weeks of fretting and doubt, I got a B+ in the course.
I know, it’s laughable in retrospect, but at the time it felt like a huge blow.
I want to say that things changed overnight after that, but my university experience was a series of entering spaces where I felt like an imposter.
It’s only by pushing away those expectations of needing to prove yourself that you can thrive and have a healthy relationship with your work and school.
I’m not saying it’s easy. Hell, I got my lowest grades in two of my absolute favorite classes.
Was that discouraging? Definitely. Did I still enjoy them? Absolutely.
The truth is that nobody else in that room but you think that you’re an imposter. It’s okay if things don’t go perfectly, just do them anyway. Work on your weaknesses, ask for help when you need it, talk to the other people you meet along the way. You’re not alone and you’ve definitely got this.