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Imposter Syndrome Among College Students: How it Affects our Self Concept

Imposter Syndrome is a psychological experience wherein one believes she is not as competent as she should be (typically) in her profession or studies. Those who experience it often feel as though they’re not qualified to be in the position in question and that they have arrived there out of sheer luck. Also called imposter phenomenon, the syndrome has important implications in mental health, being that it is linked with insecurity, perfectionism, and fear of failure. While it can affect anyone, the experience is particularly derailing in academic environments, especially at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

Imposter syndrome can affect our self-concept, an integral component of the personality theory developed by humanistic psychologist, Carl Rogers. (The term “imposter syndrome” was coined by psychologists Dr. Pauline Rose Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes in the 1970s.) Rogers defined self-concept as comprising three parts of an individual's self-knowledge: self-image, self-esteem, and the ideal self. One’s self-concept adapts to thoughts or feelings about herself and external social factors. Keeping this framework in mind, the main factors involved in students’ susceptibility to imposter syndrome are personality, societal pressures, and perfectionism. Personality type and the way students view themselves can negatively affect their self concept, societal pressures and expectations add on to a student’s psychological stress, and perfectionism induces a fear of failure in which students try their best to avoid by overworking themselves.

Feelings of insecurity and self-doubt due to imposter phenomenon can take a toll on a student’s academic performance. “Students who perceived themselves as impostors presented high levels of psychological distress and procrastination” (Maftei et al., 2021). They also found that imposters feel more anxious and depressed. It’s a repeating cycle of self sabotaging behaviors that may cause students to feel stuck in. Their uncertainty regarding their own capabilities in both current academics as well as future professions causes them to worry and feel unmotivated to begin assignments or tasks earlier. Not believing that they will be good at their profession, their productivity rate is more likely to decrease. Also, imposters tend to mask their negative feelings in order to avoid looking like a fraud (Maftei et al., 2021). Rogers’ theory of self concept connects to how we value ourselves (self esteem). Students with a negative self esteem tend to believe that they are less capable which in turn causes them to limit themselves on what they can do.

Society puts a lot of pressure on college students to do well and achieve high goals since people who have a degree in higher education are treated differently than those without. With those pressures however, come expectations. As students, we often find ourselves comparing our failures to other people’s successes. But we fail to realize that intersectionality and stereotype threat affect some people’s ability to succeed. In 1995, Dr. Claude M. Steele and Dr. Joshua Aronson coined another psychological phenomenon called stereotype threat. This describes the feeling of being at risk of conforming to a negative stereotype about one’s social group. They tested this using two racial groups and standardized test scores. Steele and Aronson found that the awareness of negative stereotypes pertaining to the group of Black people decreased their standardized test score compared to white people. They also found that making an effort to alleviate that same awareness, scores improved. This is where intersectionality plays in because of the difference in their scores based on their racial backgrounds.

First generation college students feel these pressures the most since it is not only coming from society but within their own homes. Immigrant parents and family members expect the most out of their U.S. born children because of the fact that they want to give their child every opportunity to succeed. A lot of the time, immigrant parents have high expectations because of their own struggles so they want to live it out through their children and make sure they don’t suffer how their parents did. There is also a lack of understanding from the family. Since they have never received higher education they don’t know what it feels like for their children to be going through on a daily basis. This leads to the lack of emotional support from family. With this combination, first generation college students tend to keep to themselves or seek outside support systems with people who can actually empathize with their experience, although it can feel isolating and hard to fit in. They feel like outsiders compared to continuing generation students (Le, 2019). All of these feelings can increase their imposter syndrome and make it more difficult to build confidence in themselves.

Society often judges those depending on their degree or education status. This is because higher degrees are associated with more intelligence, although even then it still may not be enough. Perfectionism is a personality trait that many students who do seek higher degrees may have and makes them more likely to experience imposter syndrome (Wang et al., 2019). There’s an increase of stress to make sure everything is done perfectly or a student’s grades are as high as they possibly can. It can feel like a student is competing with themselves and anything less than perfect is a failure. Thinking this way can hurt confidence levels and one’s overall view of themselves. They’re so focused on their ideal self (what they aspire to be like) and overworking themselves to reach this, that they ultimately end up feeling burnt out and it’s still not fulfilling. Usually those who are more successful feel this pressure to be perfect in order to maintain their status which inevitably reassures them that they deserve to be where they’re at.

It may feel as though imposter syndrome will never go away because of how malleable our self concept is, but there are solutions in how to manage it. First, remember that perfect does not exist and be gentle with yourself. Your mind can be a harsh and negative space if you let it take over. Celebrating your success no matter how big or small, and finding a sense of belonging with peers because going through college/career paths can be emotionally taxing. These are some helpful ways to manage imposter syndrome and strengthen your self concept. There is a high chance you are not alone and others can relate to you, so being able to share that is benefitting. Understand that it’s okay to not know everything, there is always more to learn as you grow in life. As college students, it’s important to be proud of what you do know and remember that you are here to learn that which you don’t know.


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