Overcoming impostor syndrome; or how to stop worrying and love uni


Eden Grosz

8/24/20236 min read

Moving to a new environment, adjusting to increased academic demands, and navigating different social dynamics all feed into the unhealthy impostor mentality. Luckily, the impact on your academic performance, wellbeing, and overall uni experience can be minimised.

What is impostor syndrome?

Impostor syndrome is a psychological phenomenon that affects many individuals of all ages, regardless of their achievements or capabilities. It is characterised by persistent feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, and a fear of being exposed as a fraud, despite evidence of competence and success. Outside of university, this phenomenon can have a profound impact on one's self-esteem, mental health, and overall well-being.

Impostor syndrome often manifests in high-achieving individuals who believe that their accomplishments are the result of luck or coincidence rather than their own skills and abilities. They often attribute their successes to external factors, such as timing or the assistance of others, rather than acknowledging their own competence. This distorted perception creates a constant fear of being unmasked as a fraud, which can lead to chronic stress, anxiety, and a persistent sense of self-doubt.

When does impostor syndrome occur?

Many university students experience impostor syndrome as they navigate the transition from high school to a new and unfamiliar environment. They may question whether they truly belong or if they were admitted by mistake. This feeling of being an impostor can make it difficult to adjust and fully engage in uni life. There are several factors that contribute to the development of impostor syndrome, especially in university students, and even more so for students at universities that are known to be academically rigorous.

University students often face rigorous academic demands and may find themselves surrounded by high-achieving peers. The pressure to excel academically can trigger the impostor mentality, as students may doubt their abilities and feel undeserving of their admission or grades.

Furthermore, universities are often filled with bright students from all over the world. While students may have been at the tops of their classes in secondary school, they may suddenly find themselves amongst peers who were all also at the tops of their respective classes. In such an environment, students might feel themselves adrift, or feel that they perhaps do not belong amongst this group of people. When students compare themselves to their seemingly accomplished peers, they may perceive themselves as inferior and develop impostor syndrome. The fear of not measuring up to others' achievements can lead to self-doubt and undermine their confidence.

Image: In competitive academic environments, impostor syndrome often manifests as an unrealistic understanding of how much others know relative to you. This is caused in part by the small overlap between your knowledge and theirs. Source: Plexus

Who is most likely to develop impostor syndrome?

Impostor syndrome often coexists with perfectionism. Individuals may set impossibly high standards for themselves and feel immense pressure to meet or even exceed those standards. This could be driven by a feeling that they need to prove that they can measure up, or that they truly did earn their place. They may fear making mistakes, disappointing others, or being exposed as less competent than they appear, leading to self-criticism and constant self-doubt. They often engage in self-criticism and self-sabotage, dismissing their achievements as insignificant or attributing them to external factors. Additionally, a fear of failure and a need for external validation can also fuel impostor syndrome, as individuals constantly seek affirmation from others to validate their worth.

“The fundamental cause of trouble in the world today is that the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” —Bertrand Russell

With impostor syndrome, even the process of making friends becomes challenging. The fear of being exposed as a fraud hinders social interactions. Feeling as if you are inferior to those around you can further complicate the process, as it often leads to the (usually incorrect) idea that people are only being friends with you out of pity, or that you are a burden on a friendship because of your lack of competence. However, there are strategies that can help uni students with impostor syndrome build meaningful relationships and overcome social barriers.

Image: A diagram explaining the 5 "imposter archetypes" [sic]. Impostor syndrome is often compounded by issues such as a fixation on knowledge, perfection, or natural talent, reluctance to rely on others, or a people-pleasing mentality.

How do I tackle impostor syndrome?

Challenge your negative thoughts

Impostor syndrome often involves negative self-talk and a distorted perception of oneself. When negative thoughts arise, students can proactively challenge them by examining the evidence that supports their competence and worthiness. This can help build confidence and counteract the self-doubt that may hinder social interactions. Remember that impostor syndrome is a common experience, and many uni students struggle with similar feelings.

Share your feelings

Knowing that others may also be dealing with self-doubt can help alleviate the sense of isolation. Engaging in activities and joining clubs or organisations may also help alleviate the feelings of impostor syndrome, as students may get to know a more diverse group of people. Shared hobbies and pursuits can serve as a foundation for building connections and provide a sense of belonging. Participating in group activities can also alleviate some of the pressure to prove oneself, as the focus shifts from individual performance to shared experiences.

Look for helpful university resources

Seeking support from others is an essential social component of overcoming impostor syndrome. Students can take advantage of the resources offered on their university campuses. Many institutions offer counselling services, peer support groups, or mentorship programmes that can provide guidance and help you navigate impostor syndrome while building social connections. These support systems can offer valuable insights and strategies to overcome social barriers and foster meaningful relationships. Talking to trusted friends, family members, or mentors can also provide perspective and reassurance. Sharing experiences and realising that many high-achieving individuals struggle with similar feelings can help individuals feel less alone in their struggles. Additionally, seeking professional help, such as therapy or coaching, can provide individuals with the tools and strategies to address impostor syndrome effectively.

Overcoming impostor syndrome requires a multifaceted approach that combines self-reflection, challenging negative thoughts, and seeking support. One important step is recognising and acknowledging feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy. By acknowledging these emotions, individuals can begin to challenge the negative beliefs that underlie impostor syndrome. It is crucial to remind oneself of past achievements, skills, and positive feedback received from others to counteract the negative self-talk.

Image: A grid showing 9 tactics to tackling impostor syndrome. Impostor syndrome is an entirely psychological phenomenon, so the ways to tackle it are similar to how you would proactively tackle other psychological issues.

Love yourself!

Developing a healthy sense of self-compassion is an aspect of overcoming impostor syndrome. Treating oneself with kindness and understanding, as one would treat a friend, can help individuals build resilience and develop a more realistic perception of their capabilities. Embracing failures as learning opportunities and reframing setbacks as normal parts of the growth process can also help individuals overcome the fear of failure and reduce the impact of impostor syndrome.

The onus isn’t always on you

It is crucial for colleges and universities to create a supportive environment that acknowledges and addresses impostor syndrome. Providing resources such as counselling services, mentorship programmes, and workshops on self-compassion and self-esteem can help students navigate impostor syndrome and develop emotional resilience. Encouraging open discussions about impostor syndrome, promoting a growth mindset, and highlighting the learning value of setbacks can also help combat its negative effects.

Conclusion: Impostor syndrome is common but preventable

Ultimately, university students need to understand that impostor syndrome is a common experience and that their feelings of self-doubt are not indicative of their true abilities. By recognising and addressing self-doubt, students can cultivate a healthier mindset, embrace their strengths, and fully engage in their uni journey with both confidence and self-assurance.