By Oscar Elmon
Prior to arriving at Durham, I saw my university experience as a sort of end goal; the one summit on which all of my hopes, not to mention hours of revision, were pinned. It came as a surprise to me, therefore, that upon starting university, in many ways I questioned whether I had made a mistake.
After the chaotic blur of Freshers’ week had ceased and term was truly under way, any sense of achievement I held having secured my place at Durham was instantly replaced with a burning sense of inadequacy.
As much as I don’t doubt that socially, I’ve had the best year of my life and have made friends I will keep forever, initially I couldn’t help but feel as though every conversation was laced with some underlying sense of competition; even if this was entirely in my head.
It wasn’t until far too long into my struggle to function under this pressure that I recognised these feelings for what they undoubtedly were – Imposter Syndrome. More simply, Imposter Syndrome is a “psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’.” In my experience, these feelings permeated every sense of my university life, and had a significant impact on my mental wellbeing prior to being addressed more rationally.
Be it an academic essay, an audition for a music ensemble, or applications for summer internships, every element of my involvement at university was tainted with this anxiety-inducing notion that someone, somewhere was doing a better job than me. Not only did this feeling mean that I mounted unnecessary pressure on myself, but it meant that I no longer enjoyed the commitments I did participate in, for they became more about proving my worth than they did about enjoying myself, or exploring any genuine interests.
In this sense, one of my biggest mistakes was feeling as though I needed to excel at everything. For example, so many of us try and take on so many extra-curricular activities that at times, it’s easy to forget that we’re here primarily to study.
I found it incredibly difficult to come to terms with the fact that there was no plausible way that I could be good at everything. I saw dropping out of any one of these commitments as an absolute failure on my part.
As simple as it sounds, I have only recently come to the realisation that real maturity comes not from painstakingly juggling all of these commitments, but from recognising your own limits, and allowing yourself the time to excel at a smaller number of tasks, and more importantly, to actually enjoy them instead of viewing them as another ingredient in a warped recipe for social validation.
Of course, there are silver linings to feelings of pressure; in fact, I’m sure many of us wouldn’t be here had we not placed a certain level of pressure on ourselves. Equally, under no circumstances am I trying to rationalise lethargy, but in order to rise above what can be, at times, a toxic and competitive environment, we need to learn to work hard for the right reasons.
To expect this pressure to disappear overnight is in many cases unrealistic, but at the very least I have found it incredibly helpful to channel it into a routine of positive goal-setting. Working hard to achieve a personal goal is fine, but the moment you let this pressure define you instead of drive you, it is easy to become overwhelmed with a detrimental and unjustified sense of inadequacy.
There is no doubting that each and every student at Durham, or any other university for that matter, holds a place on account of their own merit. I would argue that the average Durham student would be considered a ‘high achiever’, and yet despite having accomplished more than most, this pervading feeling of unworthiness still prevails.
The key here is in the word feeling, because Imposter Syndrome is without doubt caused not by our achievements, or lack thereof, but how we feel about them within the context of academia and university life.
I believe there are a number of positive steps that can be taken to help alleviate these feelings. Simply recognising that they are not unusual, and that more people than you realise go through the very same issue, can be liberating in itself. Learning to see yourself in this context and realising that often the egotism of people you meet comes from their own insecurity makes it much easier to accept the validity of your own achievements.
Social media can also exacerbate these pressures; viewing other people and their achievements through the rose-tinted filter of an Instagram feed goes a long way in making even the most cynical of people start to doubt themselves. Cutting down on social media usage, or perhaps considering allocating yourself a certain amount of phone-free time each day can be more rewarding than you’d think.
Finally, recognise your own accomplishments, and remember that other people’s strengths by no means devalue your own by default. If we all strived to the same goals as one another, then our achievements wouldn’t stand out at all, so focus on what makes you unique; these qualities define you far more than the pressure to reach a ‘perfect’ ideal that nobody truly attains.
Photograph: Sodanie Chea via Flickr