Ah, imposter syndrome. A town filled with more than its fair share of self-confessed Oxbridge rejects (and some still deeply in denial about it), the St Andrews student population surely suffers from it more than most. I myself am no stranger to the condition — ask anyone who's had the pleasure of speaking to me for more than about five minutes, and they’ll confirm that I have in fact built my entire personality around being the family disappointment.
Here’s the thing. You apply to a university like St Andrews that is, as we all know, a bubble. It’s far too easy to get wrapped up in comparisons with so-and-so from your tutorial who’s incredibly vocal about the fact that they seemingly got nothing less than straight A’s all the way through school, read the complete works of Shakespeare before the age of 7 and have already completed all the reading for their entire degree. You get a slight sinking feeling because, well, you did fine at school but weren’t necessarily the best at anything. Before you know it, you start to convince yourself that there was a mistake with UCAS and you weren’t meant to get a place.
The term “imposter syndrome” was originally coined by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978 to refer to an individual who feels like they don’t belong and like they’ve somehow blagged their way into a situation without actually deserving to be there. Unsurprisingly, it’s extremely prevalent in high-pressure, sometimes academic, environments like university or, more generally, corporate settings. Characterised by feelings of anxiety and uncertainty, it usually also entails a paralyzing fear that you will be exposed as the fraud that you really are. Fun!
Most people’s initial reaction when you start talking about it tends to be to start correcting and reassuring you that you are in fact generally an all-around good person worthy of your success who deserves to be where you are, who is talented in your own way. Don’t get me wrong, though that positive reinforcement might be touching, it isn’t really going to achieve much. And in some cases, it can actually make things worse because it feeds into your brain’s narrative that you are deceiving everyone into believing you have some natural talent or skill. Anyone who’s spent any time in cognitive behavioural therapy will know what a long and challenging process it is because you sadly can’t change thought patterns overnight. So I present the next best solution: Accept it, start seeing it as a good thing, and eventually (and to a certain extent), learn to live with it.
Now, this doesn’t negate the fact that it’s an absolutely horrible thing to experience, nor does it make it any easier to live with. But reframing it in a positive way and beginning to see it as a unique strength rather than a weakness does make it somewhat easier and, in my experience, pushes you to do and be better in lots of areas. This is perhaps the only good thing about such a deep-rooted insecurity. You become hyperaware of your weaknesses, desperate to be perceived as never having put a foot wrong. Consequently, you are in a much better position to go about changing them and constantly improving — which, particularly in an academic context, is no bad thing.
You’re also more open to criticism, because you’re expecting it most (if not all) of the time, putting you in the best possible position to enact the changes needed. Chances are, you also have a great work ethic, because you’re driven to prove to others that you do, in fact belong. Supposedly, you’re more open minded, too, because an inherent awareness of areas where you lack knowledge drives you to be more curious and ask better questions. Some people even benefit from better decision-making skills, too — sadly I’m not one of those.
The real silver lining, though, is heightened interpersonal skills. Experiencing these feelings of self-doubt and underconfidence increases your capacity for empathy and sympathy for others, as you are more conscious of how others feel and perceive themselves. A study of trainee doctors showed that those suffering from imposter syndrome had better bedside manner — they could acknowledge pain and reassure patients in a more natural and compassionate way, which, if you ask me, seems like a pretty significant set of skills for a doctor to have.
Imposter syndrome is, at its worst, a severe form of self-sabotage that can hold you back. At the other end of the spectrum, you become an egomaniac with a god complex who can do no wrong. But imposter syndrome only affects confidence, not competence, so while it’s by no means comfortable or a fun thing to experience, there are some positives to it that might be worth embracing.
Illustration: Olivia Little