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What is impostor syndrome?

Quick note from A&W – We questioned whether this article was relevant at the moment, as COVID-19 has so radically shook our worlds. Debra did a great job in creating this snapshot of Imposter Syndrome, and we certainly didn’t want it going to waste. We decided that since Impostor Syndrome is so common, we hope you can find value in this content even in the midst of COVID-19. The added stress of a pandemic is sure to have some of you out there feeling like you’re really not cut out for university study. And that, folks, is Impostor Syndrome. We are #inthistogether, whether that’s during a pandemic or riding out the experience of tertiary study. Both of those things are hard on their own, let alone together. Information about where to seek support can be found at the end of this article.


Written by Debra Warren, Psychologist and Student Support Counsellor at UNE Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS)

 

Impostor (sometimes written imposter) Syndrome is a pervasive level of self-doubt that leads a person to feel like a fraud, incompetent, and fearful of the felt certainty that they will one day be “found out”.

It is more than a lack of self-confidence.  With confidence, a positive experience leads to improvement.  With Impostor Syndrome, positive experiences are discounted.  “I fooled them” or “They just liked me” or “It was just luck”.

Impostor Syndrome is such a commonly experienced phenomenon, and so pervasive in its impact, that it is an area of specialisation for authors, researchers and those working to assist people to manage this experience. It is a common experience for students and can impact on their ability to start, or complete, assessments.

Impostor syndrome is not an officially recognised diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), but it could potentially link in with experiences of diagnoses such as depression or anxiety.

It is ironic that there are two accepted spellings of the word impostor (imposter).  Impostor is the more generally accepted spelling, but it can also be accepted as imposter.  So, is imposter the impostor?

How do you know you have Impostor Syndrome?

Because it is so pervasive and “determined” a view, impostor syndrome is challenging but not impossible to manage or treat.

It often accompanies unrealistic expectations of the self, such as:

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  • Expecting yourself to be perfect.
  • Expecting yourself to know everything as a sign of your competence.
  • Expecting yourself to be completely independent and therefore viewing asking for help or support as a sign of weakness or failure.
  • Expecting yourself to learn a skill immediately with no opportunity to practice over time.
  • Expecting yourself to be able to juggle everything well at all times.

While we are not normally in the business of directing students to ‘.com’ websites, Hugh Kearns, an academic from Flinders University in South Australia, has written a book called The Imposter Syndrome. Universities are full of people who have perfectionist tendencies, who work at the top of their game, but deep down don’t believe that they are achieving; meaning Hugh is a highly sought after speaker in the university context. You may wish to download a free preview of content from Hugh’s book.

How to Combat Impostor Syndrome

To stop feeling like an impostor you need to stop thinking like one.  This involves seeing the illogical nature of the above expectations and challenging them.

Look at changing your ideas about what it is to be good at something, skilled at something, knowledgeable in a field, to more reasonable beliefs. Do you hold others to the same expectations?  A useful question to ask yourself is, why do you have certain rules for others and different ones for yourself?

Do you assume everyone else has this figured out except you?  Not the truth.  Estimates are that 70% of people in the U.S. will experience impostor syndrome at some point in their career.

Often people experience Imposter Syndrome for short periods of time. This is because they can learn from confidence-building experiences that tell them they are not a fraud, rather than explain those experiences away. But some of us experience Imposter Syndrome on a more chronic level; suggesting that there is a continuum of severity for this syndrome.

The challenge for those of us who feel like an imposter more often than not is to know that just because we feel something, this doesn’t make it true. You can ride those imposter feelings out, which then clears the way for us to see the evidence that tells you that you are achieving things, and doing a “good enough” job.

If you think you are a perfectionist or have ‘Impostor Syndrome’, check out some of the UNE CAPS tipsheets here. There is a particularly helpful one about overcoming perfectionism.


UNE students can access free counselling through UNE Student Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS). They are fully qualified and registered psychologists, offering on-campus appointments and phone/video chat sessions for online students. The service is confidential and free for UNE students.

You can contact them Monday- Friday, 9am-4 pm, on (02) 6773 2897.

For more urgent assistance, UNE offers After Hours Support on weekdays from 4.00pm to 9.00am AEST, weekends and public holidays. Phone 1300 661 927 or text 0488 884 169. Alternatively, you can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.

If you have concerns about how stress and mental health are impacting your studies, contact Advocacy & Welfare on (02) 6773 3116 or at advocacy@une.edu.au.