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Imposter syndrome

Many college students feel like frauds in their personal achievements, despite contrary evidence. Imposter syndrome, originally coined in 1978, describes the phenomenon where otherwise capable and high-performing people doubt their own intelligence, capability or creativity. Feelings of inadequacy are the backbone of the syndrome, and combating them head-on may lead to getting past our mental blocks.

Although imposter syndrome isn’t an official diagnosis, the American Psychological Association (APA) published a story titled “Feel like a fraud?” discussing the basics of imposter syndrome and how to combat it. Imposter feelings are generally accompanied by depression or anxiety. Feelings of inadequacy or lack of belonging in professional or academic settings are common for graduating seniors and first-year students, who are experiencing large shifts in life. Doubt in their capabilities and their worthiness of success holds students back from seeking opportunities such as job offers or ambitious projects.

On top of this, imposter syndrome and perfectionism often go hand-in-hand. Perfectionists think each task tackled must be completed to perfection, and they rarely ask for help. There are two typical responses to perfectionism, according to the APA. Perfectionists may dedicate too much time to a task and over-prepare. Or, out of fear of not meeting such high standards, perfectionists may procrastinate on the task. Perfectionists obsess over details and go out of their way to do things perfectly, often unsure of the end result despite their hard work.

Perfectionism and the imposter phenomenon share much common ground. They both deal with self-doubt and high standards. The APA recommends reaching out to others and starting conversation as the first step. “Supportive, encouraging supervision” makes the difference in many imposter cases. By sharing their feelings with mentors and peers, students can recognize their ill feelings and experiences as “both normal and irrational.” Individual therapy with a psychologist can also give students the tools necessary to break the cycle of imposter feelings.

If nothing else, students should recognize their own expertise. While it may be tempting to write off our own accomplishments, each of us has something to contribute to the conversation. For older students, working with underclassmen or tutoring may help you realize how far you’ve come. Another option is to make a two-column list of the things you do well, and then the things you could do better. Be sure to highlight the areas in which you are doing well instead of underselling what you’ve worked for. It’s important to focus more on growth than results.

No one is perfect. Many imposters and perfectionists are impossibly high-achievers. Instead of striving toward perfection, do a task well and then take the time to celebrate just that — a job well done.

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