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'Everyone loses when bright people play small': how impostor syndrome affects achievement

Imposter Syndrome
Spencer Tackett, sophomore English major, in front of Wilson Library.

When sophomore Melissa Tomczak first came to UNC, she remembers being told every student at UNC had a straight-A average in high school and once they get to UNC, the average became a C. 

“That’s a scary thing to hear, especially first getting into the school,” Tomczak said. “It’s like, is that the first thing you want to hear when you come in? Oh, you got straight A’s your whole life? Now you’re going to get C's, which is like, great, kind of throws you for a loop.”

These types of experiences at UNC create a common affliction in students, one that causes the sense of being an impostor. These students feel their accomplishments aren’t enough, and feelings of being a fraud and a fear of being exposed persist. Sometimes, they question if they even deserve to be at UNC.

There’s a name for this psychological pattern: impostor syndrome. 

Valerie Young, an internationally-known impostor syndrome expert who has spoken at 90 colleges and many major corporations, describes it as the “belief that deep down we’re really not as intelligent or capable or talented as people think we are.”

Sophomore Spencer Tackett first identified her feelings of not feeling as smart as everyone else at UNC after speaking to a friend who attends an Ivy League university who discussed the phenomenon. After coming in as a double major in English and pre-public health and not getting into the Gillings School of Global Public Health, Tackett still compares herself to her friends majoring in STEM fields.

“Because a lot of the majors here are kind of cutthroat, especially when you look at the sciences, like the biology department and the chemistry department, people are fighting for spaces to be in classes, and then there’s this idea that, well, I got the seat in the class over someone who might have needed it more,” Tackett said. “I need to be better. And then if you’re not succeeding in a class that you tried really hard to get into, then it’s 'am I even worthy of being here?'”

Impostor syndrome can be even more pervasive among minorities, who are not often represented in the media or in certain industries as successful professionals, as a study from the University of Texas at Austin suggests. Young said some fields are more likely to foster impostor syndrome in students, such as creative industries, medicine or computer science. Her goal is first to normalize impostor syndrome so students and professionals know what to do when they experience impostor feelings.

“Whenever you belong to a group for whom there are stereotypes about competence or intellect, you’re going to be more susceptible to impostor feelings,” Young said. “But even if students say, 'Of course they feel like an impostor, I’m a student, right? I’m here to learn. I’m supposed to feel stupid.' So if they can normalize the feeling, then the goal is not about ending it forever. It’s more when you’re having normal impostor moments, you have the tools and the insight and the information to talk yourself down faster.”

Tackett worked to overcome impostor syndrome by changing her way of thinking and realizing that people are good at different things, and there are multiple kinds of intelligence, such as the ability to perform well in science and math, the ability to play an instrument well and the ability to write well. Tackett said a certain degree of impostor syndrome can be helpful to be self-aware of how well you are doing in comparison to others, but it can go too far.

“When it gets to a point that you know you have been to office hours, you’ve studied for hours, you’ve done everything that you possibly can and you’re still not feeling better, then I think it starts to be detrimental, because you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t deserve to be here,” Tackett said. “You’re here for a reason, and you don’t need to prove yourself. People are intelligent in other ways, and I think we lose sight of that a lot because we’re so busy comparing ourselves to other people.”

In the season of securing competitive internships, as someone who deals with impostor syndrome, Tomczak has approached applying for positions in a roundabout way. She said she feels there’s no way she will attain specific internships but tells herself there’s no harm in applying. Tomczak said for those who don’t apply because of their impostor syndrome, it can be harmful in the long run.

“If someone thinks that and just doesn’t apply, then it could definitely take away opportunities or keep them from achieving the things they want, just because they think they’re not good enough at it," Tomczak said. "It’s like, you’re never going to get good enough at it if you don’t do these things, and then you’re never going to do these things if you don’t think you’re good enough at it, so it’s just like a cycle." 

Students experiencing impostor syndrome may use these feelings to work harder. But they also may burn out, become workaholics, keep quiet in classes or engage in self-sabotage, constantly changing their majors or abusing alcohol or other substances, Young said. Impostor syndrome that affects students in a negative way can be harmful in the larger scheme of society, as well.

“One thing that can motivate some students, and I think any student who is kind of socially motivated by helping or serving others, it can help them to realize that this is not all about them; that everyone loses when bright people play small,” Young said.

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