If you’ve ever played the highly popularized game of “Among Us,” you’ve felt the thrill of being named “impostor” alongside the fear of being caught and ejected from the ship.
In real life, however, thinking you’re an impostor is no fun ordeal. There is only ever the fear of being outed — certainly no excitement to accompany it.
Impostor syndrome is duly named for a persistent self-doubt and anxiety that makes you discredit your achievements and, in turn, feel as if you don’t belong or are “fooling” everyone.
Ironically, the phenomenon — which was first discovered in the 1970s by psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance — typically appears in those who are high-achieving.
But the impostor syndrome isn’t solely intellectual. It can show up in any or every aspect of your life: cultural, social, professional or academic. There can be a disconnect between how you present and how you identify with your class, race, ethnicity, culture, skill, ability and knowledge.
At least 20 percent of college students suffer from impostor syndrome during their education, according to a 2019 Journal of Vocational Behavior study. Researchers believe this number may actually be much higher.
If you catch yourself saying “I’m not sure about this,” “This could be wrong” or “Take what I say with a grain of salt,” when speaking up in the classroom, you may be having some of these imposter syndrome feelings.
Unfortunately, the syndrome disproportionately affects certain demographics.
When first discovered, the syndrome was a trend among working women specifically. In a society that values men’s opinions and expertise over women’s, this comes as no surprise. Working or undergraduate women in science, technology, engineering and math fields — who may have to prove themselves constantly — are especially susceptible to lower levels of self-confidence.
First-generation and minority students are also more likely to have impostor syndrome. A side effect of affirmative action is an unhealthy and unfair narrative that these students got accepted into universities solely because of their identities or backgrounds rather than their merit and accomplishments.
In 2019, people of color reported higher prevalence rates of imposter syndrome than those not in ethnic minority groups, according to a Journal of General Internal Medicine study.
Another study published the same year in the Social Psychological and Personality Science journal also found first-generation college students are at higher risk for imposter syndrome, especially in competitive classes. Impostor syndrome in this case leads to a performance gap that disappears when the class doesn’t encourage comparison between students.
In general, competition increases feelings of impostorism and is detrimental to students’ learning, engagement and performance.
We are raised to compare ourselves to others. Many of us have to live up to societal, parental and self-imposed expectations.
American culture glorifies overworking and the “work now, rest later” mentality. Early on in our education, we are taught to prioritize being busy for the sake of being busy and having the highest grades over simply learning and doing.
Sometimes in school, it can become a competition of who has the most stress and workload, which is even more counterproductive and unhealthy.
In such an ambitious world, it’s easy to feel fake and burn out. We are always reaching for the next prestigious achievement and looking to the next project or assignment. We treat time as if it’s material and can be “wasted” by not using it to further your career.
But taking care of yourself and taking a break is never a waste. When we don’t stop to rest, contextualize our actions and acknowledge what we’ve already accomplished, we open ourselves up to impostorism.
It’s also easy to internalize your faults and weaknesses. If you’re a perfectionist, you probably have internalized a double standard: Others can make mistakes, but you can’t.
This mindset is further reinforced and compounded by social media. LinkedIn and Instagram in particular serve as the perfect platforms for self-comparison. We often forget that social media is not reflective of reality. Although everyone you follow might seem put-together, well-rested and hard-working, despite juggling classes and extracurriculars, that often isn’t the case.
With remote learning and work, impostorism is more prevalent than ever. It’s a whole new situation and environment that none of us are used to. Asynchronous classes mean it’s easier to multitask and harder to compartmentalize. Juggling your work and responsibilities can seem more difficult than before, which contributes to feelings of self doubt.
We need to work on mitigating this mindset within ourselves and be careful about perpetuating it as a society. Imposter syndrome is often correlated with anxiety and depression as well — so although it’s not an official diagnosis, it is just as much of a health risk.
To start, we can redefine self-care because it’s not just slapping on a face mask. It’s constantly prioritizing yourself, making sure you fulfill your basic needs such as sleep and hygiene as well and taking care of your psychological and social well-being.
This way, we can be ambitious in a sustainable manner — without burning out.
It can also help to talk to other people. Though the 2019 impostor syndrome study found that talking to peers within your field was not as effective as talking to friends and family with an outside perspective, opening up and getting your feelings off your chest can always help you feel better.
In terms of societal change, we need to stop fostering such a toxic, competitive environment that places an emphasis on internships over fulfillment. Instead, by opening up and being vulnerable about our own struggles, we can normalize and destigmatize this feeling.
We can help each other see that no one is perfect or always high-functioning, regardless of what social media tells us. And we can finally recognize that we’re all just crewmates, in this together.