Imposter Syndrome: What it is and how it can affect students
23 July 2020
Frances Abbott, Student Support Manager at Unite Students, shares her experience of Imposter Syndrome, what you need to know about it, and how it can impact on students.
As I write this, thoughts rush through my head: ‘Who are you to claim you know about this?’, ‘What makes your input unique or interesting?’ and – even more disturbingly – ‘Will writing this make my colleagues and peers doubt my capabilities?’ That’s Imposter Syndrome talking.
Imposter Syndrome is well-documented. It describes internalised feelings of incompetency, despite evidence to the contrary. As with most things, it is experienced differently from person to person, and varies from a niggling feeling of inadequacy to being a factor in prolonged and debilitating mental health issues.
While reflecting on my own experiences, it occurred to me that many of the students I speak to in a professional capacity report experiences grounded in this very phenomenon. Although we don’t know exactly what causes Imposter Syndrome in the student population, students feel pressures like perfectionism, social comparisons and a fear of failure – all of which have the potential to fester, and eventually swell into crippling anxiety. Certainly, feeling like an imposter can prompt some students to work harder and overcompensate – but it can similarly hamper academic success and life satisfaction due to anxiety, depression, disengagement and feelings of non-belonging.
It’s thought that the transitional nature of this time in a person’s life can make them more vulnerable to feelings of Imposter Syndrome. When identifying which students are most likely to be impacted, gender is considered a consistent predictor. Women, along with communities and groups that include students from minority ethnic backgrounds, those with disabilities, estranged students and care leavers, LGBTQ+ students and those from low-income households, are more likely to report indicators of Imposter Syndrome.
So, why are these groups disproportionately affected? Notwithstanding the leaps to foster a more inclusive and equitable student population, Higher Education’s roots are firmly straight, white and male, and predominantly middle class. Widening access and participation are still relatively new concepts and the embedding of a diverse student community and voice takes time. Feeling you don’t belong can be a direct implication of systemic inequalities, or a lack of representation in your field of study.
So, how can we support students experiencing Imposter Syndrome?
- Talking: Feeling like a fraud or out of place is rooted in secrecy. Doing all you can to maintain the illusion can be exhausting, so talking to trusted family, friends, lecturers or support staff can make all the difference.
- Acknowledging good work: Giving students praise and feedback can positively impact those struggling to control intrusive thoughts. Peer-to-peer appraisal and regular reviews can help quieten the noise that Imposter Syndrome creates.
- Using failure to fuel progress: Learning to accept failure is normal. So support students to learn from their setbacks and to seek comfort in experiencing feedback and reflection, rather than hiding from it. Being able to separate feelings from fact can hugely help students build resilience and measured reactions to shortcomings.
- Signposting: Imposter Syndrome, whilst not classed as a clinical mental disorder, can go hand-in-hand with ill mental health, such as anxiety and depression. A whole university approach is crucial to identifying students who are struggling for a variety of reasons – but in the case of Imposter Syndrome, it manifests entirely in the academic realm.
- Environment: Finding your place in university life can be tough, so every part of the university experience is important. Transitioning from one existence to another can be a huge stress factor. Support with making friends, finding the right accommodation, and getting part-time work, can be just as important as the academics in creating a feeling of belonging.
- Increased diversity and inclusive representation in Higher Education: Universities must continue to challenge and strive to represent the narrative of all students and professional minorities within academic study, at all levels.
Ultimately, what can we say to students who are experiencing Imposter Syndrome? Perhaps simply: “You do belong. You are worthy. It’s okay to feel like an imposter – many of us do.”
You can find out our top tips for making students feel like they belong here. Interested in Imposter Syndrome? Frances recommends the following sources as further reading:
Arnett JJ. Emerging adulthood. A theory of development from the late teens through the twenties. Am Psychol. 2000;55(5):469-480.
Caselman, T. D., Self, P. A., & Self, A. L. (2006). Adolescent attributes contributing to the imposter phenomenon. Journal of Adolescence, 29 , 395–405.
Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon among high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy Theory, Research, and Practice, 15, 241–247.
Ferrari JR, Thompson T. Impostor fears: Links with self-presentational concerns and self-handicapping behaviours. Personal Individ Differ 2006;40(2):341-52.
Neal McGregor, L., Gee, D. E., & Posey, K. E. (2008). I feel like a fraud and it depresses me: The relation between the imposter phenomenon and depression. Social Behavior and Personality: An international journal, 36(1), 43-48. Volume 36 Issue 1 | e1683 | Published: February 2008
Lane, Joel. (2015). The Imposter Phenomenon Among Emerging Adults Transitioning Into Professional Life: Developing a Grounded Theory. Adultspan Journal. 14. 10.1002/adsp.12009