By Lara Wiebecke
When I left a message in a few social media groups to find some students to interview about imposter syndrome, I was expecting zero responses. 20 minutes later I opened my phone to seven replies. As the day went on, the messages didn’t stop coming. This is when I first realised how widespread imposter syndrome at LSE actually is.
People with imposter syndrome doubt their abilities and feel like fraudsters pretending to belong to a group they have no place in. There is a common feeling among affected students that they got lucky in the application process, but actually do not have the talent or skills needed to succeed in higher education. Many of my interview partners explained that these feelings were amplified during seminars. Surrounded by bright students making meaningful contributions to seminar discussions, they felt like they had nothing of value to add to the conversation themselves.
In some cases, imposter syndrome can strongly impact a person’s wellbeing. A postgraduate student shared with me that she would love to pursue a PhD, but her feelings of inadequacy were standing in her way. Her friendships had also been affected, due to her wanting to avoid talking about academics with her friends.
According to Emma Nabavian, a co-manager at LSE’s Student Counselling Service, people affected by imposter syndrome tend to believe that they are the only ones struggling with it. In reality, imposter syndrome is relatively common at university in her experience. The second paradox lies in the fact that “very successful people can have it, even if there is absolutely nothing to indicate that they should feel this way”.
So what can students do to beat imposter syndrome? Emma recommends first to take a step back and reflect. “When you feel like an imposter, you might start creating the narrative that people are judging you, that the university made a mistake when they accepted you and that everybody else around you is very smart. It is important to realise that this is a projection. Feelings aren’t always facts.” Next, it can be helpful to share your struggles with peers or a mentor that you trust. Most students interviewed for this article agreed that talking to others helped them overcome their initial doubts and nervousness. As one student remarked, “Don’t be shy to meet people and initiate a conversation over social media even if it feels a bit awkward. Everyone at university is experiencing the same things.”
Approaching another person can be made difficult by the stigma surrounding imposter syndrome, but according to Emma the “chances are that half of your seminar is having these feelings”. Another obstacle can be the worry that one’s own experience may not be severe enough to really classify as imposter syndrome and that it is consequently not worth talking about. One of my interview partners succinctly summarised this sentiment by explaining that she felt like an imposter while talking about imposter syndrome. Even if feelings of inadequacy may not be overwhelmingly strong, it is worth reflecting on them. Emma explains that self-compassion can feel like a weakness in high-pressure environments when it is actually vital for your wellbeing. In many cases self-care in the form of exercising, connecting to people and getting enough sleep can go a long way. When feelings of self-doubt are accompanied by persistent anxiety or low mood which is having a significant impact, however, students may want to consider taking advantage of the support offered by the Student Wellbeing Service. Apart from that, students can receive academic support from LSE Life, speak to fellow students through LSE’s Peer Support Scheme, and attend workshops about anxiety or self-esteem offered by the Student Counselling Service.
According to Emma, the term “imposter syndrome” can be somewhat problematic, since it “pathologised the individual” instead of looking at broader systemic issues. Sophie, a student at LSE, believes that some of her insecurities stem from her experience back at school: “I was never lauded as smart, because I wasn’t good at maths or science. After starting an arts degree I remember people, particularly men, asking me how I would ever get a job.” This made Sophie question whether she belonged in higher academic institutions. One way of overcoming this kind of uneasiness could be to challenge how society measures ‘intelligence’ and ‘worthiness’. As Emma from Student Counselling remarks, personal traits that are not strictly related to academics such as empathy, kindness, and capacity for deep thinking are also valuable. Placing equal emphasis on academic skills and other personal strengths can help to take some of the pressure off and improve one’s self-esteem.
Other systemic problems, such as class and racial identity, arise when we talk about imposter syndrome. An LSE student called Tina shared with me that “as a woman of colour I used to feel a lot of imposter syndrome”. In her previous workplace, she had sometimes felt like the “token Chinese girl” who could have easily been replaced by another girl from a similar background. Seeing other women of colour speaking out on social media about this issue has helped Tina to feel more empowered. The LSESU also offers additional support for Black and ethnic minority students through their BME Mentoring Scheme that connects students to alumni who can offer support and reassurance.
Finally, LSE students struggling with imposter syndrome should take to heart what Tina’s professor told her: “Everyone here deserves to be here.”