Not Alone: Talking Through Impostor Syndrome

While “impostor syndrome” may sound like a disease straight out of a science fiction story, it is actually a prevalent problem in many colleges. Impostor syndrome is the frequent feeling of not deserving one’s success and of being of a failure despite a sustained record of achievements. Highly successful people often experience it throughout their careers, especially when they are members of a group that is underrepresented in their profession. Many prominent women and people of color have spoken out about impostor syndrome and the steps they take to combat it, including Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor in her talk at Pomona College on Oct. 23.

Before Justice Sotomayor’s talk, students were given the opportunity to write in questions they wanted her to answer. Some of these questions were about if she experienced, as a first-generation college student and woman of color, feelings of inadequacy, and how she dealt with them if she did. Sotomayor said that she initially felt out of place, and worried that she would not be able to fit in, but said that she knew she had to work harder and be better than the other students in order to combat these feelings. She confessed that even when beginning to work in the Supreme Court, she worried that she was not good enough, but had to push past these feelings in order to do the best work she could.

Studies show that while many college students struggle with impostor syndrome, levels of feeling like a fraud are especially high among women and students of color, possibly because they feel like they are entering fields that were traditionally less accessible to them, such as higher education. Researchers say that the best way to combat impostor syndrome is for people to hear that they are not the only ones who have felt inadequate, and that other’s have pushed through the same experiences to find success. By this logic, simply hearing about Sotomayor’s experiences with imposter syndrome, as a woman of color and a first-generation college student, can provide support to struggling students.

When students struggling with feelings of inadequacy hear that successful figures had the same problems, and managed to move beyond them to find professional and personal satisfaction, if provides reassurance that there is a way to move past their doubts and prove that they are good enough. According to a 2013 study from the Vermont Connection, the more people who have felt the burden of impostor syndrome, and managed to rise above it to speak out and offer advice to the next generation, the more positive role models students struggling with impostor syndrome have.

Additionally, when these role models speak out about how they found ways to triumph over impostor syndrome, and began to believe that they were good enough for the positions they earned, it can show groups who were traditionally marginalized in that field that people like them do deserve higher positions and can successfully rise through the ranks. When the people who blaze trails in new fields talk about the problems they faced and offer support, it makes progress easier for the next generations.

But this approach to dealing with impostor syndrome does not need to come solely from people in positions of power. Impostor syndrome is made possible because students believe that everyone around them belongs, and that they are the only ones feeling out of place or inferior. But a 2014 study from Texas University estimated that 70% of students in college struggle with feelings of inadequacy, and when students feel comfortable sharing their own fears, this can help to diminish the feeling that someone is alone in feeling they are not good enough. Hearing Sotomayor share her experience may destigmatize sharing these personal apprehensions, and open the door for students to help other students through open dialogue.

Sotomayor's approach to feelings of inadequacy and to worries about not belonging was to work within the system, and try to “play the game” better than her peers would. While some might say that this shifts the impetus for change and progress away from the institutions and onto the student, the fact that Sotomayor is sharing her experiences and approach is beneficial in and of itself. More people sharing their own experiences with impostor syndrome will create a place for a variety of techniques for combating it, allowing students to hear about multiple approaches to this problem. When students hear people in places of power speak about their own insecurities, it normalizes these feelings, and removes the stigma that students may feel surround their experiences with impostor syndrome.

Emily Petillon is a first-year at Scripps College and is planning on majoring in history. 

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