Speaking the Unspoken – Imposter Syndrome at OHS
April 29, 2021
One of the first things that struck me about OHS is how kind, respectful, and welcoming everyone is. At OHS, teachers and students alike make everyone feel supported and welcome to share their thoughts. However, within this welcoming environment, surrounded by high-achieving peers, and under the stress of challenging classes, it’s difficult to avoid feelings of self-doubt.
When I look at my classmates, it’s easy to think they have everything under control. It’s easy to compare myself to them, continuously berating myself for falling short of those things which seemingly come so easy to them. It’s easy to focus on my mistakes, on my flaws, on my failures. It’s easy to feel out-of-place at OHS, even though the community is the kindest and most welcoming I have ever met. It’s too easy to fall into this continuous cycle, and never find the strength to pull yourself out.
These feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt can be defined as imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome, “is characterized by persistent doubt concerning one’s abilities or accomplishments accompanied by the fear of being exposed as a fraud despite evidence of one’s ongoing success.”
As I researched and learned about imposter syndrome, I became curious about how many of my classmates at OHS have also experienced imposter syndrome, but were hiding their feelings of self-doubt and internal criticism. So, at the end of January 2021, I sent out an anonymous survey to determine the extent that OHS students experience imposter syndrome, and have since received 75 responses.
It turns out, those same feelings I had afflicted many of my classmates.
89.3% said they have felt imposter syndrome in their life before.
84% of students said they have felt imposter syndrome at OHS.
While these results saddened me, they were not shocking. I was not surprised that students who struggled with imposter syndrome hid it, resulting in students appearing more confident than they truly are, and this in turn making other students feel insecure about themselves. One student wrote about their experience, as they found out that many of their peers struggled with the same imposter syndrome they had:
However, when I talk to people, they let me know that that’s not the case at all, and they just act like they have everything under control. I think a platform or community-wide understanding that it’s okay to not be okay, and to be struggling would help me a lot.”
When asked what contributed to their feeling of imposter syndrome, 84% of students said that “comparing themselves to others who they think are ‘better’” contributed to their imposter syndrome. “Periods of low success”, and “too much work” were the next most common causes, with 50.7% and 44% choosing them respectively.
90.7% of students, said the most common effect of their imposter syndrome was often comparing themselves to others.
The second most common, at 82.7% of students, was self-doubt.
The third was a feeling of not belonging, with 78.7% of students choosing it.
One student shared, “I feel the effect of imposter syndrome all the time. I have very low self-esteem, and I’m always questioning whether or not I did a good enough job at something and if I’m enough as a person. Trusting peoples’ opinions is very difficult because I always expect someone to say the worst. If they don’t say the “worst,” I think they’re lying to me or sugar-coating the truth. This lack of confidence makes my life hard, especially around making/growing friendships, submitting assignments in school, and knowing if I’m doing enough to achieve my goals.”
As “comparing yourself to others” is the most common cause and effect, it is clear how imposter syndrome can turn into a vicious cycle. Comparing yourself to others can sow feelings of inadequacy and result in imposter syndrome, but imposter syndrome can certainly result in more comparisons as one attempts to justify these feelings of self-doubt.
There are many different healthy ways to cope with imposter syndrome, and even start to overcome those feelings of insecurity. For me personally, talking to friends and family as well as doing various types of artwork (poetry, embroidery, drawing) have been the most effective ways to cope with my imposter syndrome. Whilst I haven’t completely overcome my imposter syndrome, these strategies have helped me gain more control over my mental health.
And while 41.3% of students said nothing so far has helped with their imposter syndrome, 40% agreed that support from friends and classmates has helped, whilst 36% said support from family helped.
Here is a list of the strategies that other students shared which they use to help cope with their imposter syndrome:
- Talking to others
- Writing music, reading
- Listening to music (specifically classical!)
- Working out
- Talking to my friends outside of school so that we are talking about other things than assignments
- Positive affirmations
While there are many resources for mental health at OHS, I never found that imposter syndrome was a topic commonly discussed, though it is now clear that it afflicts many students.
Imposter syndrome can manifest itself in many different types of feelings, from self-doubt to sadness to anger. There are many different causes and effects, and everyone feels imposter syndrome in different ways, but it’s important to shine a light on the topic, to let people know they are not alone. As we share our experiences, as we speak the unspoken, we can help each other become stronger than our imposter syndrome, one step at a time.
As one student said, “I think spreading awareness of imposter syndrome would be really helpful. Before I learned about it, I thought it was only me who felt this way. Knowing other people who I think are smart also feel the way I do has gone a long in making me feel less of the effects. Along those lines, having a group of peers (or even faculty) with whom to share, commiserate, and support would be wonderful. Hearing that you deserve to be where you are from someone outside of your close friend/family circle is sometimes really helpful for learning to actually believe it.”