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I felt like a fraud in my own body; constantly on the quest to become smarter, prettier, and better. It all snuck up on me when I started college. At first, I attributed the heightened anxiety to my new environment. Still, I knew something was up when it lingered long after I finished classes. My once-encouraging inner voice was no longer telling me to engage in student life or academics. Instead, it became discouraging and patronizing.
When I made mistakes, they felt giant. After I crossed one, there would be yet another hurdle. The times I did succeed felt few and far between. This feeling is commonly known as imposter syndrome (IS). Chances are you've heard of it or experienced it too.
What Is Imposter Syndrome?
Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a New York City-based neuropsychologist, says imposter syndrome is when you doubt yourself, feel like a fraud, and believe your accomplishments are caused by luck. "Believing you don't deserve success, having difficulty accepting praise, self-doubt, and attributing success to external factors are all signs of imposter syndrome," Dr. Hafeez explains. "Extreme lack of self-confidence, negative self-talk, and the inability to recognize your skills are also common signs."
Research shows a link between marginalized groups, specifically women of color, LGBTQ+ people, other minority groups, and imposter syndrome. People belonging to those communities are also subject to negative stereotypes. "We're trying to beat the odds and the stereotypes society has perpetuated," Dr. Hafeez explains. "It surely doesn't help that we experience continuous oppression for the identities we hold." First-year college students are also at a high risk of developing imposter syndrome. Dr.Hafeez says that moving to a new state and experiencing culture shock are all risk factors of developing IS.
Believing you don't deserve success, having difficulty accepting praise, self-doubt, and attributing success to external factors are all signs of imposter syndrome.
Talking to a Therapist
I didn't realize I developed imposter syndrome until my senior year, when I began seeing a therapist at my school's mental health clinic. I tried to go several times beforehand, but my negative self-talk continuously discouraged me. When my anxiety became out of my control—with daily panic attacks and occasional suicidal thoughts—I knew I had to talk to a therapist. "Many people with imposter syndrome go through it secretly because they don't want to be discovered as a fraud," Dr.Hafeez says. "They are more likely to seek mental health treatment due to the consequences of IS when they manifest unmanageable anxiety or depression."
My imposter syndrome didn't suddenly vanish when I began therapy. Instead, it manifested like a virus finding a new host. Suddenly, academic and social achievements weren't my source of fraudulence; my mental health was. As I spoke to my therapist, my inner voice repeatedly badgered me, telling me my anxiety isn't natural and that I am faking it. Initially, I hesitated to tell my therapist these thoughts because, as Dr.Hafeez mentioned, I didn't want to be exposed as a fraud.
Still, the longer I kept it in, the worse my anxiety attacks became. My therapist took notice that the recommended breathing techniques and meditation couldn't soothe my mind. One time, I remember blurting off my frustrations: I feel like I'm a fraud—that I don't have an anxiety disorder or post-traumatic stress. I'm making this up, right?
My therapist's response stuck with me. "Is it rational to believe you don't have anxiety?" she asked me, to which my immediate reaction was "no." Then why do you believe it?" she said. The hard truth was: I was surrounded by irrational fears conceived by my inner-self, all telling me that I created a false mental health crisis. As I confronted these thoughts verbally, I realized how unreasonable I sounded.
While my therapist's words didn't magically cure my imposter syndrome, they did set me on the right path to healing.
While my therapist's words didn't magically cure my imposter syndrome, they did set me on the right path to healing. I am more equipped with tools like setting realistic goals, creating boundaries with social media, and avoiding toxic people to prevent my imposter syndrome from overtaking my life.
If these coping mechanisms don't work for you, there are always alternatives. "Writing down or keeping track of your accomplishments and talking with loved ones about how you feel can also help you overcome imposter syndrome," Dr.Hafeez recommends. "Don't let imposter syndrome prevent you from succeeding or going into certain social or work situations." Ultimately, you are much stronger than your fears no matter what your negative thoughts say.