“There’s an old Groucho Marx joke,” says Joel West, on the topic of self-esteem. “It goes: ‘I wouldn’t join a club that would have me as a member.’” But to West, it’s no joke: “That, for me, is how I live my life.”
Well, almost. Today, West is very much a member of the club at the University of Toronto, studying semiotics and religion at Victoria College. But back in 1997, struggling with depression and feeling out of place, West felt so strongly that they didn’t deserve a spot at the university (West uses the gender-neutral “they” pronoun) that they dropped out entirely. “I was still getting good marks, pulling off 85s and a 90 or two. But I was miserable,” West says. “And the thing is, nobody understands why you’re miserable, because you’re doing so well. That’s the trap.” West was dealing with a particularly acute form of something that many university students grapple with at some point: Imposter syndrome.
Since the phrase “imposter syndrome” was first coined 40 years ago, its usage has slowly crept into the mainstream. It describes a common trait among high-achieving people: a belief that their successes are flukes, and that they will one day be unmasked as the frauds they feel themselves to be. That they are, in short, imposters.
U of T is known for attracting some of the smartest, most ambitious achievers in the world. New research conducted at the university suggests that imposter syndrome is widespread but rarely discussed here.
“It seems to be quite a common feeling among students: that everyone at this school is doing better than you are,” says Nick Feinig, a PhD candidate in anthropology who worked on a study for the Innovation Hub at U of T’s Student Life. (The project is led by Student Life, which launched the hub last year to investigate students’ needs and propose measures to improve their quality of life.) For this new research, volunteers and staff conducted in-depth interviews with 20 students to uncover the traits that help them overcome obstacles and recover from setbacks. As the project progressed, the interviewers discovered that signs of imposter syndrome cropped up again and again.
“When students are struggling with their grades or do poorly on a test, they always feel like their failure is unique and everybody else at this institution is some kind of superstar,” says Feinig. “I teach a lot of courses and that’s just not the case. But there’s a sense that you’re a unique failure.”
The condition was originally named “imposter phenomenon” in a groundbreaking 1978 research paper by Georgia State University psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. Clance and Imes interviewed more than 150 high-achieving women – PhDs, senior administrators, scholars and experts – and found a troubling pattern: despite their objective measures of achievement, “these women do not experience an internal sense of success.” Many of them believed that they had somehow bluffed or blundered their way into their roles, and that it was only a matter of time before some authority figure unmasked their incompetence.
Isabel Carlin, a work-study student with the Innovation Hub who interviewed many of the study’s subjects, says that while many people experience imposter syndrome at some point, gender still plays a powerful role today. “Imposter syndrome really affects women and minorities,” says Carlin, who graduated from U of T last spring with a BA in Indigenous Studies. Women are more likely to be talked down to, to have things “mansplained” or to get interrupted when they’re speaking. “It happens all the time,” says Carlin. “And when that happens all the time, you start to think, ‘Maybe I really don’t know what I’m talking about.’”
People allow imposter syndrome to stop them from stretching themselves. That can manifest as a more serious mental health issue
“Everyone experiences feelings of inadequacy at some stage,” says Lianne Picot, a leadership coach who is also completing a master’s in education at U of T’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. “Any time we’re stretching ourselves, people have a feeling of ‘maybe I’m not good enough.’” That feeling can even be healthy: it highlights areas where we truly do need to hone our skills, she says. It’s when this feeling becomes chronic self-doubt – even when the person is presented with evidence of their success – that it becomes paralyzing. “People allow imposter syndrome to stop them from stretching themselves. That can manifest as a more serious mental health issue.”
Student Life’s research suggests a number of ways to combat these feelings. Sharing your situation with peers, who can sympathize, commiserate and reassure as needed, is one of the most powerful. “When you’re left to your own devices and it’s all in your head, you typically imagine worst-case scenarios,” says Feinig. “A sense of isolation from your peers really skews your perception of your performance.”
The researchers found that another confidence-builder is to pursue activities outside the classroom. Students who participated in extracurriculars said they felt less anxious about their classroom performance since they had other ways of measuring success. “Work-study research positions in a lab, for example, or volunteer work,” says Feinig. “Basically, anything that wasn’t in a class and wasn’t graded on a letter or a numerical scale did wonders.”
Carlin can vouch for this approach. She spent four years volunteering for U of T’s Sexual Education Centre, including a stint as its executive director. Experiencing different kinds of success outside the classroom helped her keep things in perspective. “I had this self-esteem from other parts of my life, so, if I was having trouble with my academics, I didn’t get too broken up over it.” And best of all, getting more involved in extracurricular activities tends to solve the isolation problem, too. “Because you’re making friends in your work-study position or your volunteer position, you’re getting to know the community,” says Feinig. “It kills two birds with one stone.”
Joel West says this approach is what’s made it possible to finally return to an undergraduate degree after more than 20 years. The first time around, “I was very alone at the university,” West says. “U of T is huge, and it’s very easy to hide if you want to hide.” This time around, encouraged by Victoria College’s registrar’s office, West got involved with U of T’s Accessibility Office. They are now the volunteer co-ordinator with the Innovation Hub.
“What it’s come down to is finding community at the university,” says West, who is on track to graduate in May 2019. “That’s not to say I don’t believe I’m an imposter – because I still do.” But those thoughts aren’t as all-consuming as they once were, and, even on bad days, there are people around who can provide perspective. “I remind myself that I can probably con one person,” says West. “I can probably con three people. But conning an entire university? That’s just not possible. So if that’s true, then I must be as good as they say I am.”