Do you ever think that your success is just a result of luck, or you didn’t really earn your achievements? Do you feel like you tricked everyone into thinking that you are smarter than you really are, and it is just a matter of time before someone discovers your secret and exposes you as a fake? Do you believe that your accomplishments aren’t that special because you think “anyone could have done that”? If so, you may be dealing with imposter syndrome, like me.
After I finished my degree in civil engineering, I couldn’t help but think that I was somehow a fraud. Even though I was an ‘A’ student, I felt I wasn’t as knowledgeable as my peers. When I confided these fears to a mentor, he took a small piece of paper, wrote “imposter syndrome” on it and told me to look it up. I was surprised to know that my feelings had a name and also relieved to learn these thoughts of self-doubt are common, especially in high-achieving individuals. Imposter syndrome affects people of all genders, races, age groups and professions. Even Albert Einstein was thought to have struggled with feelings of deception.
Although imposter syndrome is not an official psychiatric diagnosis, it can have serious consequences, especially for students. Feelings of insecurity may prevent students from seeking leadership positions, applying to the dental school of their dreams or speaking about themselves with confidence in interviews. Students may believe that they don’t deserve their spot in a competitive program. Thoughts of being revealed as a “fraud” may cause students to be afraid of asking questions to hide their “incompetence” and cause isolation from their peers. These harmful ideas can also lead to more serious consequences such as increased stress, anxiety or depression.
What can you do to overcome these fears and negative perceptions?
- Realize you are not alone. People more commonly share their successes while downplaying their mistakes, doubts and insecurities. This may make it seem like everyone else is smarter or more successful than you, but everyone faces self-doubt at least once in their life. Confide in a peer or a mentor, and you will be surprised to know that they have similar thoughts, too.
- Reframe the concept of being “smart.” Many high achievers who struggle with imposter syndrome feel like they need to know the answer to every question or never make a mistake, otherwise people will think they are not smart. Intelligence is not an all-or-nothing characteristic. It is OK to ask for help or to admit that you made a mistake. Your professors will not classify you as being “unintelligent” if you ask a question. Your mentor will not think you are incompetent if you need them to demonstrate their technique for taking impressions a second or third time. Instead of trying to maintain the illusion that you know what you’re doing when you don’t, ask for help. Seeking clarification will allow you to better learn a concept or skill.
- Set realistic expectations. It is important to have realistic expectations of yourself for whatever stage of life you are in. Your clinical skills may not be as fine-tuned as your peer who had years of experience working in a dental laboratory. Avoid comparing yourself to others and focus on the benchmarks you need to meet. If you are uncertain, sit with your professors and ask them what expectations they have of you, and you might realize they are far from the lofty expectations that you may have for yourself.
- Recognize your value. You’ve accomplished more than you realize! Write down a list of your achievements and refer to it when self-doubt starts creeping up on you. Additionally, it is important to share your feelings with others, as this allows them to help you realize that your fears are unfounded. If I hadn’t reached out to my mentor, I would still be hiding my feelings in shame. Positive reinforcement from friends, advisers and family can help remind you of your value.
The next time you feel like an imposter, remember that you are not. You worked hard to get to where you are right now. The success you earned is a result of your efforts, not luck or deception. Luck can only carry someone so far, so if you’ve made it this far, it’s because you deserve it.
~ Alwilleed Kalout, Cleveland State University ’18, Predental