Imposter Phenomenon

In environments full of intelligent people, such as university settings, it’s easy to assume that everyone else is as confident in their abilities as they appear. The truth is that many people are not as self-assured as they seem. Lots of people feel like they are intellectually and professionally incompetent, and that they are bound to be discovered as a fraud at any minute. These beliefs are often unfounded and persist despite achievements suggesting otherwise. This experience of perceived fraudulence is ‘Imposter Syndrome’.

Imposter Syndrome could affect anybody in any situation, but it is commonly triggered during times of transition, such as when enrolling in university or beginning a new job. While students may have been among the best and brightest at their high school or college, moving on to university where stress is greater and the environment is more competitive can cause them to suddenly feel ‘average’ in comparison to their ‘more intelligent’ peers.

Feelings of impostorism have been associated with negative outcomes for personal wellbeing and for academic and professional progression . Those experiencing the imposter phenomenon may experience heightened anxiety, depression, stress, loneliness, and emotional exhaustion. One study suggests that feelings of impostorism can predict course engagement, attendance, grades and dropout intentions for students, making it an important issue to tackle in academia and beyond.

  1. Learn about your own experiences
    Learning about imposter syndrome and how it can affect you can be the first step in helping to overcome it, as it provides the language needed to talk about the issue.
  2. Recount your accomplishments, and your role in achieving them
    Listing your successes and the steps you took to achieve them, not just in academia but in your personal life too (like joining a sports team), can reduce feelings of fraudulence and help to remind you how capable you are and how far you’ve come.
  3. Remember, nobody is perfect
    It’s okay to be a novice and not know what you’re doing! Remembering this point can help to create a fresh perspective that’s important for progression. While you may know you are not as ‘perfect’ as everyone thinks you are, it’s important to remember nobody else is perfect either. Recognising that there are advantages to making mistakes, as they are an inevitable part of learning, can help to lessen your impostorism.
  4. Challenge your thoughts
    Negative thoughts can surface when we’re feeling overwhelmed. Learning to recognise them so that you can practice replacing them with realistic, useful thoughts can help to improve your confidence and self-efficacy and manage feelings of anxiety.
  5. Make time for other passions
    It’s important to make time for other activities that you enjoy – especially when you feel you don’t have time. This can help to provide perspective and remind you that your worth is not based on your productivity
  6. Share your experiences
    Impostorism can be very isolating. An increased sense of belonging and social support, and reaching out to friends, family or your advisor about your impostorism feelings, can help to reduce them. Be mindful not to compare yourself negatively against others if discussing these issues with people on your course. Challenge these thoughts if they arise.

Special thanks to the School of Psychology for this information.

What support do we offer? 

Student Services can help you understand the thoughts, feelings and behaviours around your imposter syndrome. We have a network of mental health coordinators, cognitive behaviour therapists, counsellors, and wellbeing advisors to help you manage this. You can book an appointment to speak to a member of staff or email for advice.

Alternative Internal Support

You can access self-help through various University channels such as:

  • ShelfHelp, which has an eBooks that can help you manage imposter syndrome.
  • SilverCloud, which provides various modules to work through at your own pace to help understand and manage disordered thinking and anxiety that can impact feelings of imposter syndrome.
  • TogetherAll - a safe, online community where people support each other anonymously to improve mental health and wellbeing. This service is available until February 2023. After this time, we recommend that students reach out to SHOUT).

External Support

If you would like to access some self-help materials here are a list of alternative support resources.