Helping Our Students Understand and Fight Imposter Syndrome

Sticky notes with words like stress, anxiety, and doubt written on it

What is imposter syndrome?

  • You feel a change in breathing as you enter a classroom.
  • The thought of applying for an internship makes you tense.
  • An envelope comes from a college you have just been accepted to—are they revoking your admission?

The above scenarios can be understood as the impact of imposter syndrome in a variety of settings. Imposter syndrome is a common experience among college students, particularly those students from any group marginalized on campus. Despite it being a common experience, students do not always have the vocabulary to describe the feelings of anxiety and unease that certain settings evoke, and may not have the tools to address these feelings as individuals and as members of a group. Faculty can help students by being more explicit about what imposter syndrome is, helping students understand when they are feeling it and work to eliminate it from their institution.

Researchers have been working on a definition of imposter syndrome for over 40 years. In the original formulation, Clance and Imes completed research on high performing women in the 1970s who were faculty or students at an elite college. They wrote, “despite their earned degrees, scholastic honors, high achievement on standardized tests, praise and professional recognition from colleagues and respected authorities, these women do not experience an internal sense of success. They consider themselves to be ‘impostors’ (Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A, 1979).” Clance and Imes identified family factors, as well as social views of women, as the root causes of imposter syndrome, and looked to therapy, individual and group, to provide treatment. Since then, researchers are less likely to ascribe all of the issues of imposter syndrome to the person, or to their childhood, but also look at the setting they are in, and how representative the current educational context or employment context is in addressing these issues.

How imposter syndrome feels

Imposter syndrome is not an entirely intellectual experience but is also felt in the body. Many people feel symptoms such as the heart beating faster, feeling nervous, feelings of anxiety, an overwhelming sense of dread, difficulty moving past mistakes, rumination over what you did or said in a situation, and silencing yourself or not speaking up at a meeting or other event.

Peoples’ identities make imposter syndrome more acute. Factors such as race, gender, age, and cultural background can all have an impact on how people experience imposter syndrome. The feeling that you need to be perfect in order to deserve opportunities and to prove to people you have the knowledge and abilities to be there, and cultural messages such as, “I have to work 10 times harder in certain spaces,” add to the weight and pressure.

In some cases, the voices of imposter syndrome actually get louder when positive feedback is received. In these cases, the positive remarks generate disbelief, generating a response of discounting the praise. This type of imposter syndrome can also occur when opportunities are offered that one might not feel deserving of.

Representation and imposter syndrome

Lack of representation deepens and confirms imposter syndrome. If one does not see anyone like them, this serves as a confirmation of thoughts—the mind creates a trap,and the environment confirms it. In these situations, it is important to analyze who is allowed in the space, what language is being used, and whether the organization values lived experiences as well as school-based knowledge. These systemic and cultural barriers mean that many people are coming into spaces that were not created for them—leading to a sense of not belonging.

Students identify the lack of students of color and women in their classes as contributing to feelings of discomfort, particularly in STEM fields. One student relayed her experience as follows: “Coming into the STEM field and majoring in computer science, you always hear about how male dominated it is. I found myself to be passive towards this fact and unbothered by it until I personally experienced it. In my STEM orientation group and java class, I began to notice how most of the students were male. When it became my reality, I began to doubt my standing and abilities. I couldn’t find the exact word. Imposter syndrome described my exact feelings and thoughts that I realized were frequently clashing with my confidence.”

What can help fight imposter syndrome for the individual?

  • Build and nurture relationships. Imposter syndrome flourishes from isolation. Building relationships with others in the community can help give an external point of reference for accomplishments.
  • Remember and celebrate achievements and skills. Activities such as working on a resume, keeping a digital or physical folder of wins, or using mantras, reminders, songs, visual reminders, or even stickers on your phone, notebook, planner, or computer.    
  • Connect to other people in your educational institution or workplace about their experiences. Check in with other people who may be having similar thoughts and name it. They may be experiencing imposter syndrome and have heard of it but might not connect it their own feelings.
  • Be willing to share and be vulnerable. One cannot support someone fully without making an effort to speak with them. People need to feel heard, valued, affirmed, and listened to.
  • Practice joy. Activities such as singing, dancing, and writing give you creative outlets to fight imposter syndrome.
  • Working with a therapist can help unpack the origins of the imposter feelings.

What can help fight imposter syndrome at the organizational and structural level?

  • Analyze the environment in which you feel imposter syndrome. Actively work for a transparent organization, review where the organization places value, and work to close the gaps you discover in the process.
  • Institutions can be made more culturally competent. Self-regulation is not enough to combat imposter syndrome—people can be working hard on themselves, but when the work or educational environment will not change, these efforts can feel futile.
  • Help connect people in your organization to resources, such as connecting them to mentors.
  • Analyze the organizational roots of imposter syndrome. If imposter syndrome is indeed a structural problem, then build relationships with others who suffer from it—network and build community.  

We close with some final words of encouragement that can be shared with students when they are facing imposter syndrome:

Be present. Celebrate and be in the actual moment of your achievements no matter how small they may seem at the time. Take a moment to look up and realize where you are and that you are doing it; realize that you are doing what you came here to do.

Dulce Orozco is a therapist and community leader based in Southeast Massachusetts.
Tiana Lawrence is a community educator and college teacher based in Boston, MA.
Quetzali Paz-Mondesi is a computer science major and Pioneer Scholar at Merrimack College in N. Andover, Massachusetts.
Russ Olwell is an associate dean and professor of education at Merrimack College.