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Reframing Impostor Syndrome

During his commencement speech at the University of Arts in 2012, widely beloved Author Neil
Gaiman reflected on his life’s work, explaining to the very soon-to-be graduates, that “the problems of
failure are hard” but that “the problems of success can be harder because nobody warns you about
them.” This, boys and girls, I’ve learned to be true. I reckon the single most difficult problem
associated with success is the overwhelming and unshakeable feeling that you’re getting away with
something and any minute now everyone is going to find out. The feeling that you’re a fraud and the
rug is always merely seconds away from being pulled out from under you. The feeling that you don’t
own your successes, that they were something afforded to you by connections, luck or something in
the stars. This feeling has a name, we call it impostor syndrome and you more than probably have it.

Welcome to UCC.

First year is an incredibly daunting time, for the first time ever, everything you do has to be self-
motivated and most of you will choose to venture from the comfort zone (be it academically or
socially) at least once or twice. Whether it’s running for class rep or moving up the ranks in a club or
society. Success is inevitably scary, and those impostor feelings can take over. According to the
International Journal of Behavioural Science at least 70 percent of people experience impostor
syndrome at some point in their lives and you’ll be delighted to hear it affects the most talented and
successful among us. Revered American poet, Maya Angelou, once said “I have written eleven
books, but each time I think, uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and
they’re going to find me out.”

It’s no secret that impostor syndrome runs thick in the veins of those making the leap from secondary
school to third-level education. The sheer size of the quad alone is enough to make you feel like
you’re out of place. I felt most like a fraud my first week here at UCC. My leaving cert results were
good but sitting in Kane G19 that first day, I didn’t understand a single word the lecturer said. While
my classmates clicked away on their keyboards at 200 wpm, I gazed down at an empty page. I
wondered how on earth I bluffed myself into that room. My intellect didn’t seem to match that of my
peers, and I didn’t feel worthy of my legal education. Sat in the Boole I felt like a little kid dressed up
as an adult, pretending to study. I doubted everything, wondering if a technical glitch in the CAO
allowed me to be here. I began feeling that little bit more hollow after each lecture, overwhelmed by
readings and tutorial work.

This encounter with impostor syndrome was certainly not an isolated incident. The feelings have
followed me relentlessly throughout my first two years of college. Right up to 2am last week when a
strange concoction of writer’s block and impostor syndrome had me typing “opinion writing prompts”
into the Google search bar, fearing the fraud police would show up and strip me of my ‘Opinion
Editor’ title at any moment. It seems, for me, with every achievement; impostor syndrome isn’t far
behind.

But what if I could see my impostor syndrome for what it was? I wouldn’t feel like an impostor unless
I had accomplished something to begin with, right? Instead of drowning in feelings of inadequacy and
self-doubt what if I dove headfirst into my impostor syndrome? Using it for good instead of evil, as a
tool to empower myself when I needed it most. I believe there’s a bright side to impostor syndrome,
because feeling like an impostor means you have something to feel like an impostor about, that you’re
challenging yourself, gaining experience and ultimately, succeeding.

Hear me out, I’m in no way advocating for crippling self-doubt or constant anxiety. There’s a method
to my madness. Impostor syndrome is often dubbed ‘the mindset of the over-achiever’. Somebody
who feels like their good is never good enough. This mindset can be dangerous, if you’re not careful,
it can paralyse you. If you are careful, though, it can be channelled into actually fuelling your
ambitions. Experiencing impostor thoughts and feelings is a good indicator that you’re challenging
yourself and growing as a person. A quote I see all the time online goes: “The comfort zone is a
beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there.” While slightly irritating, it’s true, you aren’t growing
as a person if you’re hibernating inside the comfort zone. If you have impostor syndrome, odds are
you’re out of your comfort zone, pushing your own boundaries and exceeding your own expectations.
Challenging yourself could be something as simple as doing ‘the big shop’ in Tesco for the first time
on your own or something slightly bigger like volunteering yourself to present in front of the whole
class. In the moment it feels daunting, terrifying even, but you exit the comfort zone with a new skill
learned, newfound confidence in yourself and the knowledge that Tesco is way more expensive than
Lidl so what were you even doing in there anyway? So, if you ever think “Woah I’m way out of my
depth what am I doing?” that thought should be immediately corrected by “I’m challenging myself
and that makes me awesome”. Virtual pat on the back to you!

Experiencing impostor syndrome is also a clear sign that you’re becoming more accomplished at what
you do and that you are being afforded more responsibility in that area. This is great. People who
never become any more accomplished at what they do often give up or are fired. But not you. You’ve
achieved something. The standard of your work is high and has afforded you opportunities, ladders to
greater things. Are you going to take them? Gaiman reckons “the world conspires to stop you doing
the thing that you do, because you are successful.” Impostor syndrome is just one example of this.
When it crops up, it should serve only as a reminder that you’re headed in the right direction.

Boys and girls, success is a fine wine, best paired with enjoyment. I’ve wasted many the hour
worrying about what I was going to do now I’ve achieved xyz instead of sitting back and revelling in
the sweet taste of actually achieving something. The next time the fraud police show up at your door,
see it as a sign of how far you’ve come and use it as a launchpad to get to what’s next. Refuse to
shrink or be squashed by fear, you’ve made it to university, no matter how you got here that’s an
amazing feat, and nobody can take it away from you. Stop for a second, look around and give credit
where credit’s due. Enjoy this. You deserve it.