It is that feeling of constantly being inadequate, that you are not enough compared to those around you; you always must do more and be more; any success that you have achieved is due to luck or chance, not your abilities or skill—this is a feeling that many students and adults face, whether it be at work, school, or just spending time with friends. I’ve faced imposter syndrome for most of my life, but it has recently become even more pronounced in the past year, as I have been dealing with the mental toll of the coronavirus pandemic while also entering college, surrounded by high-achieving and accomplished students.
Imposter syndrome refers to when people question their own accomplishments and abilities and are constantly worried about being exposed as a fraud (Mullangi et al 2019). Calling into question one’s own skills is followed by the belief that your reason for achieving success was luck or chance. Imposter syndrome can lead to a lower quality of life, with depression, anxiety, and self-doubt, thus limiting one’s career potential (Wang et al 2019). Our society has evolved in recent years to become much more compressed in both time and space—the increased scope and use of technology, exacerbated by the coronavirus, has made us more aware of what others are achieving, fanning the flames of impostor syndrome.
Yet it is not this alone that creates the petri-dish like ecosystem that allows imposter syndrome to fester. The constant emphasis on goal-setting and achievement leads these factors to be inextricably tied to self-worth. While it is important to have motivation and a desire to work and contribute to the world, we have changed our viewpoint on the meaning of life from “working to live” to “living to work”. How is it sustainable to constantly set new expectations of work and achievement without time to breathe or take a break?
In college, I see the hunger we all have to accomplish our own perceived level of “success.” We work ceaselessly, are constantly scouting for the next internship or leadership position, and are engrossed in a non-stop competition with ourselves to do more after we engage in negative social comparison with those around us. This creates a breeding ground for imposter syndrome to grow.
Yet not everyone experiences imposter syndrome to the same extent. One possible explanation for the varying gradations of imposter syndrome is the extent to which someone is a perfectionist and as a result undergoes psychological distress (Wang et al 2019). The link between perfectionism and imposter syndrome lies in the form of what Kenneth Wang calls “maladaptive perfectionistic tendencies” that results in people dialing in on their inadequacies, prompting a feeling of fraudulence. However these maladaptive tendencies are only linked to depressive symptoms when a person falls into an “imposter mindset” (Wang et al 2019). Thus, to decrease the prevalence of perfectionists falling into this pit of despair, we should try not to focus on potential inadequacies within ourselves and instead look to our positive attributes that led to our level of success.
While it is important to be goal-oriented and want to contribute to the world, our intense emphasis on the need to ceaselessly work, is detrimental to mental health and can contribute to feelings resulting in imposter syndrome. We think that work and accomplishments will be the main avenues through which we will feel self-fulfillment—but learning to enjoy all the victories, both big and small, and recognizing the vicious cycle of always looking for the next level internship or job instead of living in the present, are important steps toward moving past imposter syndrome to a more satisfying life.
Mullangi, S., & Jagsi, R. (2019). Imposter syndrome: treat the cause, not the symptom. Jama, 322(5), 403-404.
Wang, K. T., Sheveleva, M. S., & Permyakova, T. M. (2019). Imposter syndrome among Russian students: The link between perfectionism and psychological distress. Personality and Individual Differences, 143, 1-6.