Katherine Ewing, a sophomore from Lee's Summit, Missouri, says the first time she remembers feeling like an imposter was when she joined the debate team her senior year of high school. Competition after competition, she noticed how she was one of the only girls. She felt like because of her novice level and gender, she didn’t deserve her status or belong on the team.
She says she remembers sitting alone in her hotel room while her peers hung out, consumed by feelings of doubt.
“My mind was going a mile a minute because I was just thinking about how there must be so many other people that deserve this more than I do,” Ewing says.
Imposter syndrome is no joke. Coined in 1978, it’s a term used to describe individuals who engage in self-doubt regarding their skills, and oftentimes attribute their success to luck. Although it isn’t listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5), 70% of adults may experience it at least once in their lifetime.
Krishna Bhadu, a sophomore from Bolivar, Missouri, works as a mental health peer educator at Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). She says that feeling like an imposter is something she has dealt with for years, especially as a woman in STEM. However, she finds hope in KU’s strong community and accessible resources.
“Out of all the colleges that I’ve experienced and after talking to all my family that have been at different colleges, KU probably has one of the better support systems set up to combat it,” Bhadu says.
Alex Barajas-Munoz, a CAPS psychologist, plays a role in KU’s support system and works to help students overcome imposter syndrome. He says that although there isn’t a definitive number, imposter syndrome affects the majority of college students.
“This is understood as a very general phenomenon. Most, if not all people at some point could experience it,” Barajas-Munoz says.
Heightening its prevalence and seriousness, he also says the likelihood of experiencing it is exacerbated in minority groups who often face societal prejudices.
With such a high prevalence on college campuses, he says it’s important to not only recognize but combat the feelings of imposter syndrome. If ignored, he says the negative feelings may be self-deprecating, leading to decreased efficacy and increased symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression.
To overcome feeling like an imposter, he offers three tips:
TALK ABOUT IT
Simply pushing yourself to open up about the thoughts and feelings that are bothering you is a great way to begin overcoming the phenomenon.
“If we don’t talk about it, it’s obviously a way that this continues,” says Barajas-Munoz.
Not only is speaking about your feelings important, but so is finding a suitable listener, he says. He suggests that you be diligent when choosing a confidant, as it isn’t always beneficial when your concerns are immediately met with commentary and advice. If you don’t have anyone in your life you see as an adequate listener, or you’d rather talk to a professional, he says students may also reach out to CAPS for counseling services.
RESHAPE YOUR THINKING
Barajas-Munoz also suggests reshaping your thinking and recognizing the negative thoughts and feelings paired with imposter syndrome for what they are.
“It is real as a feeling and it is real as a thought. Period,” Barajas-Munoz says. “Just because you feel like a fake, that does not make you a fake. Just because you feel like an imposter, does not mean you are one.”
Experiencing certain thoughts or feelings that hint at imposter syndrome doesn’t change who you are, and he says it’s crucial to attack and reshape the negativity. Often, these feelings may result from placing too many responsibilities on yourself. Therefore, he encourages you to challenge your ability to be realistic and truly ask yourself what you are comfortable and capable of achieving.
RECOGNIZE YOUR ACCOMPLISHMENTS
Recognizing your skill sets and accomplishments can be a successful step to overcoming feeling like an imposter. Barajas-Munoz says that you should give yourself leeway and understand that no one is perfect, yet still identify with and be proud of your accomplishments.
One way to do this that, he suggests, is to sit down with a younger student and tutor them in a subject you are apt in. This could help bolster your confidence and prove how much valuable knowledge you’ve acquired.
“Obviously, we don’t get that far in life without having some level of skills,” Barajas-Munoz says.
One of the ways Ewing overcame her imposter syndrome was by reshaping her thinking at the encouragement of her mom. She tried to understand that her status should only make her prouder of herself and how far she’s come.
“We’re inherently critical of ourselves just as human beings, so when you’re in a room and you feel like you don’t deserve to be there, you’re going to think of all the reasons why you don’t deserve to be there,” Ewing says. “So, instead of hyper focusing on that, I would say it’s really helpful to sit down and actually put that same energy into all the reasons you do deserve to be there.”