During my first few weeks at college, I had the same recurring thought: what the hell was I doing there?
I had just started to get settled, but I couldn’t help but feel like a fish out of water. And by that I mean everything, including my intro philosophy class, was way over my head. I could barely comprehend Descartes, let alone philosophize his discourse. Meanwhile, everyone else answered questions using readings from high school by authors whose names I had never even heard. Outside of class wasn’t much better; it seemed everyone had fantastic stories to share from a summer spent travelling overseas. They were well-traveled, well-educated and well-dressed. I was constantly plagued by the sense that I was somewhere I shouldn’t be.
I often thought about senior year of high school–the applications, the acceptances, the anticipation–they had all led to this moment. I put in the work and made it to college. I got the role, but I felt like I was still sitting around nervously tapping my fingers waiting for my audition.
For some reason I felt like my good grades and extracurricular activities in high school hadn’t earned me the right to be at Vassar. Suddenly, things like a good paper about short story writer Jorge Luis Borges and years on the honor roll didn’t matter as much. Everywhere I turned, there was always someone with more insight, more experience and more motivation.
I grew increasingly sure that college was out of my league. I thought I must’ve just gotten lucky; it was like I had slipped into the Soul Train line and it was only a matter of time before people found out I couldn’t dance.
My worries got to the best of me. As teachers waited at the front of the room, I doodled in my notebook, scared to raise my hand. I worried I wasn’t on par with my classmates. Did I understand the work as they did? Did I actually have something to contribute in my classes? Was I really inadequate or just insecure?
I couldn’t tell if how I felt was normal or if I really didn’t belong. My anxieties led me to Google– just like times when I couldn’t tell if I had a common cold or the flu. However, this time my search actually led to me an answer. On every search page the same two words kept reappearing: impostor syndrome.
Impostor syndrome: feeling inadequate and undeserving of the success you encounter, coupled with a constant fear of being revealed as a “fraud.” The burden of imperfection along with the fear of impending failure often rests in the back of your mind like the textbook you pushed to the back of your shelf until Sunday evening. This stress makes it difficult to take pride in your accomplishments and recognize your worth.
And there it was, everything I experienced in the last few weeks described by a simple phrase. As it turns out, impostor syndrome is extremely common–especially among college students. After this realization and a bit of soul searching, I began to put things into perspective.
Sure, I may not always be the most intelligent person in a room, but that doesn’t mean I should let imposter syndrome get the best of me. Developing an argument about Borges’ exploration of fact and fiction and years on the honor roll were a result of my diligence and hard work. Not to mention, if everyone felt they had to be perfect to show up to college, there probably wouldn’t be too many people in the room to begin with.
I also realized I need to acknowledge my own strengths instead of always comparing them to those of others. My perseverance and determination got me accepted into college, and those are the same qualities that keep me going – particularly when I’ve been mulling over theories of moral ethics for a few hours. I also have to recognize that no one expects me to be perfect at everything all the time, so I shouldn’t expect it from myself.
Most importantly, I give myself both a chance to succeed and a chance to fail, keeping in mind that neither defines my worth as a person. While these reminders have helped to put me at ease, it would be a lie to say that I haven’t continued to struggle with feelings of inadequacy. But when that voice of doubt becomes a little too loud, I tune it out with a little self-love and self-recognition.
Instead of spending time sulking and mulling over my fears, I make time to reward myself for the good I’ve accomplished. A long shower is the perfect time to think over my achievements for the week: speaking up in class, passing an exam or finishing that impossible paper on time. Recognizing my successes–regardless of how small–helps me center myself. It helps me remember that I’m not an impostor. I’m just still learning.