3 tips to manage 'imposter syndrome’

8 September 2021

No matter what you achieve, do you still feel like you're not worthy of your success? This feeling known as 'Imposter Syndrome' is all too common, so we've compiled 3 tips to help you manage this.

imposter syndrome

You’re a student at a Russell Group university. The message from academic staff is that you’re generally doing well, and your grades reflect this. But no matter what you’ve achieved, or what praise you’ve heard about yourself, you can't shake the feeling that you are bound to fail, that you don't really deserve to be here, and that it's only a matter of time before the people around you realise this too - if they haven't already.

If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone - you may be experiencing ‘imposter syndrome’. Imposter syndrome is a term used to describe a sense of unworthiness which persists despite external evidence of your achievements and accomplishments. Such feelings may have their root within the family group, within a peer group, or within the wider culture: in all cases messages get through to you - either directly or indirectly - that undermine your confidence in your abilities and your sense of potential. Anyone can experience ‘imposter’ feelings, though it has been suggested that minority groups (due to ethnicity, gender, social class, disability etc.) can be particularly vulnerable to this kind of self-doubt and to feelings that they don't truly belong in some high achieving environments.  

A typical response to such feelings might be to push yourself even harder, or to put even more effort into conforming to the expectations that you think others have of you; at the other end of the spectrum you may have thoughts about dropping out of uni altogether. It’s not uncommon to feel that you have been successful simply because of luck, or to feel that there was an error in the judgement of others which has allowed you to 'slip through the net'. Over time, you'll probably become an expert at giving reasons as to why the external evidence is wrong; at devaluing and undermining your academic and personal achievements. A sense of your own success and competence will be elusive or fleeting. 

If you’re struggling with feelings and thoughts like these, it can help to:

1. Seek feedback from people you trust

Anxiety about being ‘found out’ can lead you to distance yourself from other students and staff. This may reinforce a sense that you don’t belong, and can mean that the self-critical thoughts you might be hiding are not questioned. Remember that the way that you see yourself will not always reflect how others see you. If you let others know about your anxieties where appropriate, they may be able to bring a new perspective, or help you to question the self-critical thoughts that you have. You may even discover that they have or have had the same kind of feelings themselves. 

2. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes

You may worry that if you are seen to make a mistake, or not to know something, this will be proof to those around you that you are an ‘imposter’. Surely if you were a ‘proper’ student you’d always know the ‘proper’ thing to say and do, right? In fact we all get things wrong sometimes, and we can’t know everything. The fear of getting things wrong can lead you to silence yourself, stopping you from communicating the valuable ideas that you have. Sometimes the only way to give yourself a voice in a group is to risk the possibility of making a mistake. You may be surprised to find that others receive your idea very differently to how you expected. 

3. Be yourself 

A common response to ‘imposter’ feelings is to try to conform to how you think other people expect you to be. For example you might feel that in order to be a ‘proper’ student, or in order to get the approval of peers or staff, you have to look a certain way, dress a certain way, hold a certain viewpoint, or talk or write a certain way. It can be helpful to question the assumptions that you are making about what others expect, and to give yourself more room to express yourself in a way that feels more true to yourself. Trying to give others what you think they want can reinforce the feeling that you are ‘pretending’. Instead you have something unique that you can contribute that comes out of your own thinking and life experience.

By Richard Harrison, Psychodynamic Counsellor at Student Psychological Services, UCL Student Support and Wellbeing