The writing of my first university assignment was a traumatic event. It was 1000 words of pure hellish agonising torture, with alternating episodes of dramatic wailing and pitiful sobbing in front of my computer screen.
I was convinced that this assignment would reveal my inability to go any further with the degree, and as a result I would be taken aside and quietly asked to leave. Now I know that that seems a little melodramatic, but there were good reasons that I doubted myself. The last year of high school I completed was year 9. In my favourite high school subject – and incidentally the one that I was now pursuing in uni – I received a final grade of only 17 and a half percent. I applied for uni as a mature-age, full-fee-paying student, and during my application interview I literally begged. They kind of had to let me in. Now that I was in, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I was terrified and completely intimidated by the aloof and relaxed faces of my classmates who seemed in no way daunted by the task ahead.
That short 1000-word essay was one of the most terrifying endeavors I have ever undertaken. When the results were returned, I discovered that I had received a high distinction. I hid in the toilets and cried. First, out of relief, pride, and feelings of sheer luck, and then out of fear that I wouldn’t be able to fluke it again.
The writing of my second university assignment was yet another traumatic event. 2000 words of pure hellish agonizing torture, again with alternating episodes of dramatic wailing, pitiful sobbing, and even a little yelling and swearing in front of my computer screen.
This time I dreaded the eventual embarrassment that would follow the assignment. I feared the look of disappointment on the face of the teacher who had given me that first HD, and the expression of resigned pity from friends and family that surely had known it was a fluke all along. I wished I had been unmasked the first time. This seemed like a lot of work for something that surely was doomed to fail.
The third, fourth, and subsequent essays went more or less the same way, although I did find a few more things to panic about as I went, like: ‘maybe I’m just cheating the system because I put ‘too much’ time and effort into my studies. I bet really smart people do this easily.’ And then, as my results came in: ‘maybe they felt sorry for me’, or: ‘maybe they didn’t even read it and gave everyone the same grade’. As I look back, the idea that the markers weren’t taking their job seriously seems ridiculous, if not a bit offensive.
I finished the year with a perfect GPA. Secretly I felt crap about it. I comforted myself by thinking that even if I had just cheated the system, surely it was proof of at least some level of intelligence as obviously I had been clever enough to crack the secret university code.
The rest of my degree was hard won. I soon lost my perfect score – I handed in an assignment late under the incorrect assumption that I had an extension. Under my faculty’s rule, late assessments get an automatic grade of 0. This will do terrible things to your GPA. I have always wished that I had just handed in what I had by the due date. It would have been incomplete, unedited and ugly but maybe I could have just scraped a low pass out of it. Even a failing grade of 3 would have been better than the big fat zero I ended up receiving. However, to say that I worked hard during my undergraduate degree would be an understatement. Even I am able to recognize that I did in fact put in the effort. Furthermore, over the course of those years, a lot of ‘life’ happened that didn’t make studying any easier. Of most lasting impact was the surprise pregnancy and birth of my third child, after which I went part-time for a while, and pumped breast milk between lectures. It was hard and there were moments when my confidence bottomed out and I genuinely considered leaving. I am pleased I didn’t. Despite all my self-doubt, I made it to the end of my course. And while I may not have finished with a perfect score, the 97.8% that I did manage is undeniably impressive, especially given the circumstances. I received first class honours, a university medal, and an offer of a full scholarship to complete a doctorate. Not bad for a high school dropout.
Reflecting on my achievements, my intense fear and self-doubt seems like a completely melodramatic overreaction. And it is. But apparently it is also quite common. Introducing…. Impostor Syndrome – the feeling that despite your accomplishments, you are actually a fraud.
It appears that not only am I not a complete raving lunatic, I’m also in quite impressive company. Apparently Meryl Streep, Denzel Washington, the amazing Maya Angelou, and a string of other celebrities have all suffered from feelings of fakery. Impostor Syndrome is also rampant with academia, particularly in female academics. The first time I heard of it was when one of my lecturers posted an article on her Facebook. While I feel awful for taking any pleasure in someone else’s discomfort, the idea that this particular lecturer believes herself to be anything other than absolutely amazing, is both absurd and a little comforting. If she can’t always see herself objectively, then surely Impostor Syndrome is a real thing, and so maybe I haven’t been seeing myself completely objectively either.
If you would like to know more about Impostor Syndrome, or Impostor Phenomenon as it is often called, I would recommend Dr. Pauline Clance’s website. It was Clance, along with her colleague Suzanne Imes, that first described Impostor Phenomenon back in 1978. Continuing her work since then, her website includes an extensive reference list from 1978 to present.