As I have spoken to people this semester, I have noticed a recurring theme in the conversation: stress, fear, and an uncertainty regarding the future. People are second guessing their majors, their futures, and doubting their abilities - including me. I have found myself wondering how I have reached the achievements I have, and gained the experiences I have, when I feel so incompetent. As I did research, and spoke with others, I found out there was a specific term to explain this: Imposter Syndrome.
Imposter Syndrome is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as:
"the persistent inability to believe that one's success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one's own efforts or skills."
As I examine my own life, I have found this tends to manifest in the constant feeling of the good things in my life are a result of a fluke or an example of luck. I got into the university through luck. I have progressed through research by faking it and fooling people into thinking I actually know what I am talking about. But the thing is, I do. I am intelligent. I did the work, and the research, and the presentations, and I gained knowledge that I didn't have before. Just because I don't know everything there is to know about my field yet does not mean I am not accomplished. It simply means I am still growing. But I need to celebrate the growth I've already undergone.
What came as a great relief was the discovery that I was not alone. Maya Angelou herself was quoted several times expressing fear that one day everyone would see through her and recognize her as the fraud that she was. She wrote her books, and spoke, and developed her own wisdom, but found she felt as if she'd been living a dream. Someone else had done these things and she was merely getting the credit for it.
This doesn't just affect the most successful though. Imposter Syndrome can affect anyone, particularly those who are undergoing rapid changes or periods of growth. It can increase anxiety levels, and impact depression. People lose sleep and experience physiological affects. Overall, there is a sense of dread and fear, and this idea that you will one day lose everything because you did not truly earn it.
However, this was not written to explain all of this and leave it there. That would be depressing and underwhelming. I must note that I am not a therapist (clearly) and I am not yet a professional, so if you feel these things often and at extreme levels, I encourage you to seek a professional's guidance, not just the well meaning but not unbiased blog-writing of a college student. There are ways to help when these feelings come temporarily, or cause just enough doubt to make you think. It will come as no surprise, but some of the best aids are helpful for those who experience anxiety and depression as well (or other mental health issues).
I have found positive affirmations to be the most helpful. As is the case with other intrusive thoughts or unhealthy habits, you must recognize it and then implement a change. I first began noticing the way I spoke to myself. If I messed up it was usual followed by a self aimed insult. If I was considering things I've done it was viewed as if through a lens, like I wasn't the one doing it. There were several forms of unhealthy and unproductive thoughts, and I began to recognize it. I then found there were many things I have done and many accomplishments I have earned, because I did the work. I had gained the knowledge and I had grown. I had been holding onto a perfectionists ideals and felt like I was behind because I was not living up to a standard set in my own head.
So what did I do? What do I continue to do? Challenge the thoughts. Every time I caught myself insulting myself, I would have to think of something positive (be it in regards to my personality, my being, or my achievements). If I found myself questioning my skill I would have to remind myself where I began, and how much progress I have in fact made.
This is not an immediate cure. I am still trying to condition myself, and it takes work and patience. However, a therapist once gave me a reminder that I still find helpful several years later. "It is about progress, not perfection." We are in school to learn. We do research because there are questions we do not have answers to. If we knew everything, we would truly have to ask "what is the point?" Instead we can continue to grow. We can continue to ask questions. It is frustrating, particularly when you have a goal in mind that seems much too far away. However, if you remember where you began, and praise yourself where praise is due, you will find it makes a small but helpful difference in the way you view yourself and your growth.
Find more information about Imposter Syndrome and how to deal with it via this Ted Talk.