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Feeling Like a Fraud? Welcome to the Club.

Image via Brown University

As you stroll around the Main Green, the daily bells echo across the busy campus—the starting gun to run to your next class. In that moment of rush and confusion, you are struck by a vast realization: You made it. You can officially call yourself a Brown student. As you sprint, you get a notification: The grade of last week’s quiz has been posted. Everyone said it was extremely easy, yet you got a 63/100. While staring at your phone, bathed in shame, a jumble of thoughts comes to mind: Everyone is smarter than you, you shouldn’t be here, someday someone will realize you don’t deserve to be at Brown, and the only perfect thing about you is that your admission was a perfectly set up joke.

What got you into Brown? It could be your hard-working, high-achieving, perfectionist nature, or your willingness to sacrifice a good night’s sleep to fix the tiny details of a presentation you know is already worth an A. Perhaps you got in because you fostered disabled stray animals, taught English to war refugees, learned fourteen languages (currently working towards fifteen and a half), traversed the Himalayas on the back of a deer, spent five months studying ants in a tropical forest, and saved some more blind stray puppies. Or, the simplest explanation, your acceptance letter was a tragic admission officer’s mistake. 

Although it is rarely discussed on campus, many Brown students feel that they can’t succeed or meet other people’s expectations, affecting their academic performance, social life, and passions. This feeling has a name. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) does not recognize Imposter Syndrome as an official disorder, but that doesn’t mean we should discard its presence within our community. Imposter Syndrome can be showcased in many ways, like feeling uncomfortable when receiving praise. This thinking pattern results in ongoing pressure to surpass one’s present abilities to make up for personal inadequacy, commonly affecting students on campus in their academic pursuits, hobbies, and relationships.

Despite its prevalence in the academic field or in work, Imposter Syndrome can make people ashamed of their authentic selves in various situations. It can make interacting with friends feel like pretending to be someone else — an act that draws from doubting the trueness of one’s experiences and successes. When it comes to romantic relationships, Imposter Syndrome may be disguised as persistent worrying that a partner will one day find out that you’re not “as great” as they think you are.

It is natural for Imposter Syndrome to strike at a time of change. Being placed in a new environment sets high expectations in an uncertain setting, but people who experience Imposter Syndrome question their self-worth beyond merely comparing themselves to others. Giving up by accepting worthlessness sounds much easier than proving to themselves that they deserve to be where they are. To investigate the experience and effects of Imposter Syndrome at Brown, I circulated a questionnaire asking undergraduate students about their experience at Brown and to what extent they relate to Imposter Syndrome. According to the results, many students identified with Imposter Syndrome after reading its definition.

Three primary factors influence the onset of Imposter Syndrome at universities. The first is family. In a broad sense, family—and the values individually dominating each family—determines the pressure that will be put on a child. When parents overachieve, their children might feel the need to live up to their expectations in order to prove themselves. Parents who set high expectations for their children, or constantly refer to their kids’ achievements in order to seek validation for themselves, can contribute to Imposter Syndrome. 

The second factor is community, including friends. The ambitions and academic performance of those around a person can greatly influence their expectations for themselves, as well as their future goals. Our friends’ habits and behaviors can unconsciously affect our own, meaning that being close with people who set high standards for themselves could lead to us putting a lot of pressure on ourselves.

The third factor is the stress imposed by the institution. Teachers and, later on, professors, play their part in fostering pressure on already over-achieving students to overachieve more and more—as if their accomplishments cannot already be considered successes. According to the results of the questionnaire, all students who claimed to feel like they do not deserve to be at Brown listed stress from their high school as one—if not the only—factor that led them to feel incapable and undeserving of their admission. Moreover, the majority of students who identify with the definition of Imposter Syndrome said they have been feeling this way since they were 18 years old or attribute this feeling to their arrival at Brown. These results can be interpreted in two ways: The effects of pressure to overachieve spawned by family, community, and high school don’t simply end at adulthood or they develop at Brown. But doesn’t it make sense to feel inadequate when one’s schools—both high school and college—only say to keep aiming higher?

The impacts of Imposter Syndrome distress the students of the Brown community, critically preventing them from having the best possible college experience. Out of the students who answered the questionnaire, few said that Imposter Syndrome has affected the effort they put into classes, hobbies, and relationships. It’s now time to find a solution.

We are awash in the generous advice of “stop comparing yourself to others” as a way to overcome Imposter Syndrome, but social pressures push students and wage-earners to constantly work extra hours. Overachievement isn’t a young people’s disease roaming high schools and college campuses; it is the offspring of Western culture, driven by the capitalist ethic of maximizing of profit by encouraging competition among workers (or future workers, in the case of students). The fear of being discovered as a fraud serves as a fueling incentive to work harder. When a frustrated employee decides to speak up about their experience with Imposter Syndrome, the cause of their distress seems to be themself: their past, their family, their socioeconomic background, their ethnic identity. The blame is on them, and thus, it is their responsibility to fix it because beginning to question whether a culture of competition and comparison is viable in the first place would bring chaos to the structure of modern society.

It would be great to just stop comparing ourselves to others, but Imposter Syndrome is pervasive and doesn’t come with easy solutions. Differences in upbringing, academic experiences, and political perspective on the issue of capitalism makes finding a method to cope with Imposter Syndrome vary from person to person. Based on students’ responses to the shared questionnaire, here are two conclusions: First, admission officers know what they’re doing. Second, remember that you wanted to get into Brown because you are ambitious. Lastly, you don’t need a diagnosed mental health disorder to seek help for the issues you are experiencing. This is the link to Brown Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), and the CAPS telephone number is 401-863-3476.