There are enough real things in college to be stressed about, no one needs to be stressed over fake things.
And no one needs to be stressed by the LIES they are told in college. There is one very common, very damaging lie that affects too many students. This lie gets to students in colleges in every part of the country—if not the world.
And it’s just NOT TRUE.
It needs to be stopped.
Maybe the biggest reason it’s so hard to stop this particular lie is the authority of the people who tell it.
So, what is this lie? Who’s telling it? And what can we do to stop them?
All of these questions will be answered, but slightly out of order.
Who’s telling the lie?
Students are telling this lie to themselves. And they almost always believe it. To make sure I’m being clear: I’m not talking about one student telling this lie to another student, or a group of students. I’m talking about each individual student telling this lie to him or herself. And, sadly, being a better or smarter student may actually make them more susceptible to this lie.
College’s greatest lie.
This lie that students tell themselves is this: that they are an imposter. Many students, often the best and brightest, tell themselves that they don’t belong in college, or in law school, or wherever else they are. To be sure, this lie affects more than just students, causing unknown stress to professionals and workers of all capacities, disproportionally afflicting those who the rest of the world might see as the most successful, brilliant people.
This lie has been called “imposter syndrome” and usually refers to high-achieving individuals with an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear as being exposed as a fraud.1 This feeling persists despite external evidence of competence, causing many to stay convinced that they are frauds no matter how much success they achieve. Imposter syndrome allows people to dismiss their own success as luck or, often, as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are smarter than they believe themselves to be.
Perhaps the worst part of this lie is that it is more prevalent among the highest of achievers.2 No matter how much they achieve, those dealing with imposter syndrome feel that they will be discovered as “the frauds they really are” any minute.
Along with the sense of being “phony” or a “fraud,” imposter syndrome can cause diligence, avoidance of confidence displays, and discounting and fearing success. Although some of these traits don’t necessarily sound bad, they are not too good. Diligence would normally be thought of as a good trait in anyone, especially in high achievers; but the diligence shown by those who feel like imposters can border on hypervigilence or obsessiveness, and is based in the fear of being “found out.”
And avoiding displays of confidence is more than just refusing to brag about abilities; it is based on a fear of rejection and rooted in thoughts that they don’t really have the abilities—you can’t be confident in luck. This dovetails with discounting success; someone who believes him or herself a fraud takes no pride in success, believing it is not deserved.
Perhaps the most damning trait caused by the imposter syndrome is fear of success. Many fear, consciously or not, that success just brings them closer to being discovered as a fraud; so they toil in positions that are actually far beneath their true abilities and still feel like they don’t even belong there.
It is important to note that imposter syndrome is not an “all or nothing” thing; people may experience it to varying degrees. But it seems almost everyone experiences it at least a little bit during one situation or other in their lives.
How do we stop this lie?
As with many lies, one of the key ways to stop it is by talking about it, and talking about the truth. If everyone dealing with these feelings knew how many others were dealing with the same things, it would go a long way. And talking about it with people who know us can help us get a reality check—if people who really know you tell you you’re not a phony, that you really do deserve your success, and that they sometimes have these same feelings of inadequacy, it goes a long way.
I’ve heard of law school professors starting the first class for first-year students by saying something like, “Look to your left, look to your right, one of you will not be here at the end of the semester.” Ouch. Way to feed my imposter syndrome.
Luckily, this wasn’t my experience. In my first year of law school, one of my professors started the first class with something like this: “If you feel like you don’t belong here, that you’re not smart enough, and that you somehow slipped through the cracks in the admission process; and you’re just sitting there, waiting for the mistake to be discovered, waiting to be found out as a fraud… If you’re feeling that, look around the room. Everyone else is feeling the same thing. The truth is this: you do belong here; you are smart enough; you earned it.”
And that’s how we combat this lie.
By exposing it.
By answering it.
Will people still feel inadequate or like they are phonies and imposters? Sure. But if they know what these feelings are, and know that they are lies no matter how often or how deeply they are felt, they’ll get by.
1Clance, P.R.; Imes, S.A. (1978). “The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: dynamics and therapeutic intervention.” Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice 15 (3): 241-247.
2Langford, P.; Clance, P.R. (1993). “Imposter Phenomenon: Recent Research Findings Regarding Dynamics, Personality and Family Patterns and their Implications for Treatment. Psychotherapy 30 (3): 495-501.