Imposter syndrome hitting high-achieving students: ‘I feel like it was a fluke’

What is imposter syndrome?
WATCH: Have you ever felt like an imposter? Like the reason you got an A on an exam, the raise at work or date with someone was merely by fluke? It's called imposter syndrome and some counsellors are seeing a rise in its harmful affects among Canadian undergrad and grad students. Laurel Gregory explains.

When Sharon Lee started university in 2013, she was accompanied by a sense of unease: a niggling feeling she just couldn’t get rid of. She compares it to the concern you feel when you leave the house and can’t remember if you turned off the stove. You walk through the paces that got you out the door, convinced you switched everything off. And yet, the troublesome feeling persists.

“It’s sort of the same thing here,” Lee says, referring to her experience at university. “I know I worked hard to get into my program and I know the teachers wouldn’t just let me in … I wasn’t lucky to get in and I worked to get where I am.

“But I can’t help but feel like it was a fluke.”

The feeling crept in following high school, where Lee completed the International Baccalaureate program. As she transitioned to university, she lost confidence in her abilities. Seven years on, if she does well on an assignment, she still figures she got lucky that day.

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She also finds herself sizing up her peers and wondering how she landed among so many bright students.

Lee is not alone. That “niggling feeling” is better known as imposter syndrome and it’s affecting enough undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Alberta that counsellors are holding workshops to help them manage it.

READ MORE: Is impostor syndrome holding you back at work?

“I would say imposter syndrome is thoughts and feelings that then lead to behaviors,” mental health consultant Rachel Greenley said.

“It’s not mental illness by any means but it is a collection of symptoms that can really contribute to negative functioning, a decline in people’s abilities to perform.”

Greenley says imposter syndrome can manifest in mood disorders, anxiety and isolation. Numerous factors can contribute to it, including high achievement, comparison and perfectionism.

Is impostor syndrome holding you back at work?
Is impostor syndrome holding you back at work?

“With students I would say the large part of really debilitating symptoms of it come in our graduate student population.

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“For one, they are international students, so quite often you will see that students coming from other countries have a hard time feeling that they belong here, let alone having the high pressures and the ambiguity grad school provides… Not really having a clear sense of what’s expected of you can really be quite earth shattering when you have that loss of confidence in you.”

Uzbekistan grad student Murodbek Akhrorov experienced imposter syndrome when he first moved to Canada a year-and-a-half ago. In spite of being a government-sponsored student in a challenging medical program, he felt like a fraud.

“Self-doubting. I think that’s the best description… I wanted to go home. That’s how scared I was.”

READ MORE: Ellie Goulding shares personal message about her mental health and grandfather’s suicide

Psychologist Jody Carrington says connection is key to overcoming imposter syndrome. It’s even helped her when she’s doubted her abilities as a mother.

“As a mom who is a child psychologist… I got a PhD in how to do this [and] most of the time I don’t have a friggin’ clue what I’m doing! It’s OK.” Carrington said. “I need my best friends to be able to say, ‘Oh, your kids are amazing Jod,’ because most of the time I feel like they should have chosen another mother.”

Carrington says with so many opportunities to identify what we are doing wrong, people suffering from imposter syndrome should lean on friends to highlight their successes.

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Akhororov was able to overcome the feeling by opening up to his professors and connecting with friends. In time, his course marks and professors’ feedback confirmed he deserved to be in the room. Now he’s helping others in the thick of the syndrome.

“I’m just saying: it’s normal. You need to go through it. You’re not alone; it happens to everyone.”