Have you ever found yourself amongst a group of people that immediately make you question everything you thought you knew about yourself?
I have. It happens all the time. The internal dialogue that unfolds goes something like this: Who are these people? Are they real? Is this real? Wait, how old did he say he is? ONLY? What have I done with my life? Why am I here? Who invited me? This is a mistake. They will know that I’m not worthy of being here and I will surely be seen to the door any second.
Appearances are not quite what they seem, and so often we feel as if we’re on the verge of being found out. Impostor Syndrome, to summarise, is the feeling one gets when he or she feels entirely inadequate or incompetent. It’s generally an absolute over-underestimation of oneself and one’s one abilities paired with the feeling that at any moment, someone will approach us and rip off our masks, expose us as the frauds that we are—Aha! The wolf in sheep’s clothing!
Now that I know what Impostor Syndrome actually is, I’ve realised that I’ve felt in my entire life. One of the clearest incidences of Impostor Syndrome occurred when I was 18 years old. I was starting my Spring Quarter at UC Davis and had somehow managed to register for an upper division International Relations course. The course was on US Foreign Policy. I’d always fancied myself a diplomat in the making or a CIA analyst, and lightly put, this class was my jam. On the first day of class, our course instructor asked the class to please raise their hands to indicate what year of study they were in.
“Fourth years?” she asked. A majority of the class raised their hands.
“Third years?” The remainder of the class raised their hands.
“Second years? Dare I ask, first years?” I rather timidly put my hand up, like a World War One soldier frightened to let so much as a pinky out of my trench.
The course instructor snapped her head and looked at me. She smiled and asked how I’d gotten into her course. Immediately, I felt fifty pairs of eyes boring into the depths of my soul. In an instant, I felt so overwhelmed and out of place. I wanted to jump up and say, “Gotcha! Just kidding! It was all a joke. I’m obviously not qualified to be here.”
That entire quarter, I worked doubly hard, terrified that I would be found out. At one crazed juncture around midterms, I convinced myself that I had completely misread the Iran Contra Scandal. Surely something called the “Bay of Pigs” never actually occurred. Maybe I needed to get my eyes checked. When participating in class discussions, I would stare at my notes with laser intensity, afraid that I would make a ludicrous argument or cite an event as the wrong year, under the wrong administration.
At the end of that quarter, I am happy to share that I passed the course with an A. Despite second-guessing myself for a full ten weeks, it turns out I actually knew what I was on about the entire time.
That’s the thing with Impostor Syndrome, right? We second-guess ourselves and our abilities based on the achievements of others around us but I’ll let you in on a secret. We’re all terrified. We all feel like we’re impostors—women generally more so than men. We all feel threatened and inadequate sometimes. And so our natural response is to compensate—perhaps even overcompensate—for what we feel are our shortcomings. Well, I was the figure skating champion of Winnipeg! Yeah? Well, I was a cast member in a feature film and taught children in Uganda how to read. Well, bully for you, I cured XYZ disease. You get my point.
We talk ourselves into frenzy and it is madness. This became crystal clear to me when I began the Masters in Management at the London School of Economics. I remember meeting my peers and thinking, Why am I here? Why have they accepted me for this program? This girl speaks five languages and does volunteer work in the slums of India each summer. This guy started a company in his home country and decided to do a Masters “for fun!”
It was astounding to me what my peers had accomplished in their short twenty-something year long lives. I immediately felt the ominous cloud of Impostor Syndrome. That is until I got to know each person on my course. You know how some people say, the best way to fall out of love with someone is to get to know him (her)? It was like that. I got to know my peers on a personal level. I peeled back the layers of their massive metaphorical onions and suddenly realised I was not alone in my feelings of incompetency.
As I’ve moved forward in my Masters degree and met the incoming class of students, I often feel flabbergasted when I compare myself to these brilliant people. And now that I’m embarking on my CEMS term abroad, I know that I will feel the twinge and pull of Impostor Syndrome pulling me home. But at the end of the day, I’ve decided to hell with it all.
Instead of comparing myself to others and feeling inadequate, I choose to compare my present self to my former self. Why use someone else with a wildly different story than your own as your benchmark? I am not Usain Bolt. I’m not Michael Phelps. I could no sooner run a 200-meter run in 19.78 seconds than I could swim a 200-meter butterfly in 1:51:51. But that’s okay.
Unlike Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt, I’ve read a great deal of classic literature and know a lot about US Foreign Policy. I can speak to people and it’s been said I could charm the socks off the Grinch. We have different strengths and more importantly, we want different things just as my classmates and peers have different strengths and different goals. So while I wait for the wisdom of the passing years to eliminate my Impostor Syndrome, I’ll feel comfortable knowing that we are all running around with fragile self-esteems, trying to impress everyone without realising how very impressive we each are to begin with.
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