The impostor phenomenon explained

You may not have heard it called the impostor phenomenon before (also known as the impostor syndrome), but you likely have experienced it. That's because up to 82% of people have felt like an impostor at some point in their lives (Bravata et al., 2020).

The impostor phenomenon is the feeling or belief that you're in a situation you're not qualified for or that you've been acknowledged for an achievement you think you haven't earned. People can feel this way when they're hired for new jobs, when they're praised for an accomplishment, or when they're awarded a scholarship.

Many first-generation college students report feeling like an impostor (Holden et al., 2021), even though they rightfully earned their spot and are fully qualified. Common internal thoughts include, "They must have accepted me by mistake," "I wonder when they're going to find out I don't know what I'm doing," and "Everyone else belongs here but me."

Knowing that the impostor phenomenon exists can help you respond to that internal dialogue when it pops up. For example, if 33% of VCU's first-year students are first-gen (about 1,500), and even just a fraction of them have "impostory" thoughts, then it's safe to say that 1) they weren't accepted by mistake so you weren't either, 2) you can deserve to be here and still have much to learn, and 3) other people believe you belong.

Take a look at this four-minute TED-Ed video, in which Elizabeth Cox explains how common the feeling of fraudulence is and how both Maya Angelou and Albert Einstein grappled with it. Cox also describes pluralistic ignorance, which is the phenomenon that "we each doubt ourselves privately, but believe we are alone in thinking that way, because no one else voices their doubts." Considering a classroom where everyone is simultaneously doubting themselves in comparison to the others shows just how faulty this thinking is.


 How to quiet the impostor phenomenon voice

  • Talk about it. Find a mentor, counselor or first-gen grad and mention your self-doubts when you feel comfortable. Simply saying it out loud can reduce its power, and your confidant is likely to disclose similar feelings.
  • Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is about paying attention in the present moment, on purpose, and without judgment. As humans, our minds naturally wander and we can end up unconsciously worrying about the past or the future. Being mindful means we notice those thoughts, which lets us acknowledge them as just thoughts—not truth. VCU RecWell's Resilience Lab is a great resource to help you with this.
  • Lean into the learning curve. There's much to know about college that's not part of your course curriculum, like how to study, budget money, do laundry, use the library, get a study group together, etc. When you feel frustrated or overwhelmed with how much you feel you don't know, be patient with yourself and know that you will learn—it just takes a little time. You can talk to your academic advisor, an academic coach and You First at VCU for more information on resources that will help you get there faster.
  • Attend You First Presents talks. VCU's first-gen faculty and staff give weekly talks on topics relevant to first-gen college students, and the speakers open up about their own experiences, many of which include feelings of self-doubt or not belonging. You can visit the You First Videos website to catch up on past recordings.
  • Join the You First at VCU student organization. This group of first-gen VCU students is passionate about embracing their first-gen identity and making it part of their narrative. Join through RamsConnect to be notified of general body meetings and social events throughout the year.

Reflections from the peer mentors

I wasn't aware of the impostor phenomenon prior to a discussion I had in college. If I had been aware, I would have had more confidence in high school and understood my emotions better. I remember when applying to VCU, I found it particularly difficult to even submit my application because I thought I'd never be good enough to be accepted. After being accepted, and even after I began my first semester here, I still questioned if I deserved it.

This feeling seemed to be a commonality among my mentees. When I told them of my struggles with impostor phenomenon, I saw a sense of relief wash over their face. I'm sure they thought, "If this seemingly successful junior in college experiences the same feelings I do, then I don't feel so alone."

I know that I will still struggle with impostor phenomenon well into my career pursuits. I know that I will likely experience it when I am taking an exam or completing a rather difficult assignment. I noticed that this impostor phenomenon usually arises when I'm under a great deal of stress academically. What matters, though, is how we handle these feelings, how we process them, and how we convince ourselves of the truth, which is that we deserve our place here and in our respective fields.

-Halle Crider, class of 2023

The first time I heard about the impostor phenomenon was from a recommended video on YouTube at 2 a.m. Curious, I watched it and found myself validated and understanding why I felt the way I did. Did I deserve to be in college? I didn't put in nearly as much effort into school compared to some other people around me, but I was getting the same good grades as they were. Am I smart, or was all my success just a stroke of luck?

Growing up, I had many hobbies and interests, so pinpointing what to study in college was difficult for me. I liked history and reading, but was there a viable career that I could make of it? I was good at writing, but was it good enough to become an author? Chemistry experiments were fun, but could I explain why a reaction occurs the way that it does?

That's where learning about the impostor phenomenon put things into perspective. On the outside, everyone is labeled by their major, giving them direction in life. And here I was, lost and confused. But that was the thing—many people feel lost and confused. Throughout the past three years I've attended VCU, switching majors or changing life trajectories was more common than not. And we shouldn't be afraid to talk about it. At the end of the day, we're trying to find what we want to do for the rest of our life, and I want to impart this more positive thinking to other first-gen students. We shouldn't feel scared to talk about feeling uncertain, because odds are someone else feels the same way.

-Melina Campenilla, class of 2022

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Bravata D.M., Madhusudha, D.K,, Boroff, M., & Cokley, K.O. (2020). Commentary: Prevalence, predictors and treatment of imposter syndrome: A systematic review, Journal of Mental Health Clinical Psychology, 4(3), 12-16.

Holden, C.L., Wright, L.E., Herring, A.M., & Sims, P.L. (2021). Imposter syndrome among first-and continuing-generation college students: The roles of perfectionism and stress. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, 0(0),1-15. DOI: 10.1177/15210251211019379.