Do you ever feel as though you don’t rightly deserve any success or achievements you’ve earned? Perhaps you aren’t really as smart or as organised as your friends say you are. Maybe you just aren’t special, despite what your parents keep telling you – deep down, you’re living a lie. You know it’s only a matter of time before you slip up and make some big mistake – then, everyone will know what a fraud you are.
Sound familiar? Did you know that around 70% of the general public experience this same internal monologue, just like you? I too, make up some of that 70%. It’s called Impostor Syndrome, and it’s definitely a thing. So, odds are, you wouldn’t be alone in thinking these thoughts. Especially if you’re a female in the STEM industry or doing a STEM subject here at Lancaster. Your lecturers probably have thought these same things at one point or another. The chances increase if you’re an ethnic minority too, or if you are a first-generation university student.
The causes behind this phenomenon are varied. It is linked to low self-esteem, depression and anxiety, but you don’t necessarily have to have a mental illness to experience this. A lot of the time, kind words of encouragement from others don’t help in alleviating our own judgment of ourselves and our self-worth. Nevertheless, quick PSA: if you’re reading this, and you are a Lancaster University student, you definitely deserve to be here! You earned your place here, just like anyone else on your course, fair and square. Why would I say it if it wasn’t true?
I remember that my first real experience with Impostor Syndrome can be traced all the way back to Year 12 and starting my A-Levels. In particular, Chemistry. The one thing that comes back to me when I think about those lessons is how I felt as though I definitely didn’t belong there, and that I reached my academic peak at GCSE. Well, I guess I can safely say that I didn’t peak at age 16 – I passed Chemistry with flying colours. Still, there is that nagging voice at the back of my head saying I don’t deserve to be on my course, or even deserve to be at university. Impostor Syndrome can pervade every aspect of your life.
It’s hard enough being a student, let alone studying for a degree in biosciences. Science courses in general are notoriously demanding and challenging. Facing studies at university can feel near impossible when you have to cope with the constant creeping thoughts of doubt and fear of imminent failure on top of that. So, what can you do to make your life a little bit easier?
I’ve found that a good way of coping when I’m in a particularly difficult period is to try and be more open-minded about what success really means. In the long-term, the most obvious answer would be to graduate with a first-class degree, being able to walk straight into a job and eventually retiring at the age of 30, a millionaire. Of course, the likelihood of retiring at 30 in this economic climate is close to nothing – and yet, we set ourselves seemingly impossible tasks which, when we inevitably fail to succeed in, we beat ourselves up about it mercilessly. A useful trick is to break down all of your biggest goals into little, bite sized steps. For example, the first step to graduating with a first-class degree would be to complete that coursework you’ve been putting off for days. Some days, even the smallest tasks feel impossible, so take it down another notch – try writing 100 words, or completing three questions of said coursework. Technically, a success as small as this one is still a success, even if you don’t get it right first try. Tiny successes build up into big ones.
Another tip I’ve learnt throughout my education, and one that is really obvious, is that you need to be kinder to yourself. This is something I think everyone struggles with more than they’d care to admit. It’s so important to recognise the successes and milestones you have achieved so far. On days when you’re sitting in a lecture, and you feel like a fraud just for being there – like I do on many days – try your absolute best to give yourself a little pep talk. If you find even the thought of this repulsive, think about what your mum, dad, auntie, best friend, etc., would say. You may well feel ridiculous doing this, but just trust that it works. When you want to stop feeling like an impostor, stop thinking like one.
Lastly, my final tip would be to just take a step back from your studies, and recognise that there are so many other aspects of your life to be successful in. Just because you didn’t get 80% in that end of module test doesn’t mean you are a complete failure. Academia isn’t everything. You are successful in other ways; for example, maybe you are a talented artist, or you are one of the best singers in Lancaster University. Perhaps you can bake a really great souffle, or everyone is envious of your sewing skills. Even if you don’t have a hidden talent, don’t despair, for there is still time! Just because you haven’t found your ‘thing’ yet, it doesn’t mean that you never will. Definitely take any opportunity to gain a new skill or nurture a new hobby outside of schoolwork. Nowadays, students of our generation put too much pressure on ourselves to not only succeed, but to overachieve academically. Too much of our self-worth is based on how book-smart we are, when in reality, there are other things that are just as, if not more, important.
To conclude, definitely don’t listen to the voice that tells you that you are a fraud, and that you don’t belong to be where you are. Tell yourself you aren’t an impostor, and soon enough, you will begin to believe that. If all else fails, and you still feel like a failure, remind yourself of these wise words: failure is character-building.