Image from Negative Space

Image from Negative Space

Because you’re reading TP, I’m going to go ahead and make a few assumptions: First, you’re either a college student or college-bound. Second, you’re highly-motivated and ambitious. And finally, you have been or will some day be in a class where you spend every moment thinking, “I’m in over my head, I’m not as smart as anyone else, I’m faking it, and I don’t belong here.”

Feeling Like An Imposter

You’re not alone in feeling so alone, and this feeling has a name: Imposter Syndrome. Cal Tech defines it as “a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist even in face of information that indicates that the opposite is true.”

You get the grades, but you’re sure it’s because you’re lucky. You qualified to take an honors class, but you’re just good at taking tests. Whatever it is, you’re sure you’re the lone idiot in a sea of geniuses, and you’re not supposed to be here.

It tends to affect women more than men, though men are not immune, and it targets high achievers. (Nobody’s feeling inadequate without reaching for a few stars.) In this paper from Georgia State, researchers found that Imposter Syndrome starts early and can stem from achieving more than what society or your family expects. Surpassed expectations? No, no, no, you must be a fraud.

The same paper identifies three behaviors reinforced by Imposter Syndrome: hard work, “intellectual flattery,” and charm. (All in all, it could be worse.) People tend to work harder to “mask” their perceived lack of intelligence. They tend to prize and espouse others’ opinions over their own so that nobody will see their own opinions and “realize” that they aren’t as intelligent as they appear. They tend to seek out mentors and validation (which they reject upon reception because they feel like their mentors like them for different reasons, and if they were really smart, they wouldn’t need validation). The result is that these “imposters,” in trying to mask their “phoniness,” tend to achieve even more highly, which in turn leads them to question how they got there… And it’s a mess.

All right, so you think you’re an imposter in your class. What should you do?

Look at Your Classmates

So you think you’re a fake? The next time you feel like you’re drowning in your own inadequacy, look around you–who’s “real”? Who are you comparing yourself to? More likely than not, the majority of your class is exactly as clueless as you are. You can probably see it in their faces, but even if you can’t rest assured that, really, either all of you belong there or none of you do.

Talk to Your Classmates

Unconvinced by their stone faces? Talk to them–ask if they get what’s happening. I understand that this is scary–you don’t want to “unmask” yourself–but most of the time, if you’re confused, so are they. If they’re not, then even better–they can explain whatever topic it is to you, and you can feel like less of an imposter once you understand it.

Talk to Your Professors

Part of this is attaining the knowledge that you require to feel more genuine and less fake, but part of this is reassurance. Does he/she think you’re understanding this stuff correctly? Are you on the right track? If not, they’ll help you because that’s what they’re there for.

And Survey Says…

You’re not an imposter. You deserve to be where you are. How do I know? Because you got yourself there, because you’re hanging on, and because you’re reading this article about how to deal with it rather than giving up. Part of the trick is convincing yourself that all of this is true–you’re not fake, you’re just as intelligent as your peers, and you worked hard to get here. Make it your mantra: “I deserve to be here.”

And part of the trick is letting go of the fear. Worst case scenario, you are wearing a mask, and you don’t deserve to be here. Stop being afraid, and talk to someone (a friend, a professor, a counselor). What you’ll likely find out is that you’re not a phony, at least not more so than the rest of the students in your classes; you’re Superwoman/Superman.

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the author

Gabrielle Scullard hails from suburban Arizona, where she is a senior at a public high school. She spends most of her life taking AP classes and crying about her future. When she is not stressing out about school, she plays viola (it’s like a violin but better) and signs in an American Sign Language choir (it’s like a vocal choir but better). She wants to be a superhero, but an internship at The Prospect is basically the same thing. She hopes her writing can help someone or, at least, make someone smile. You can find her on her Tumblr or at home, but she would prefer it if you didn't do either of those things.

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