Do you struggle with imposter syndrome sometimes in your studies? Do you ever feel like a bit of a fraud that isn’t good enough to be studying this subject at this level?
Imposter syndrome can strike students in different ways. When you get a low grade it can make you believe that this is your limit and you’re not capable of achieving more. When you get a higher grade it can make you feel like you didn’t deserve this success – that you’re a fraud who’s going to be found out to have gotten here by luck not by skill and hard work.
In this post we’re going to break down imposter syndrome to understand it a little more. Then I’m going to share with you three simple strategies you can use to kick imposter syndrome to the curb so that you can study from a more positive place, feel more confident AND ultimately achieve better results that you actually believe you deserve.
This post originated as a podcast episode which you can listen to below or search for episode 145 of the Chloe Made Me Study podcast. Or, if you’re a more of a learn-by-reading student, carry on for the rough-and-ready blog version based on the script.
Right…so what IS imposter syndrome?
Dictionary definition: the persistent inability to believe that your success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of your own efforts or skills.
How might imposter syndrome show up in your studying?
- Doubts about whether you’re good enough to be on your course at all
- Worry that you won’t be able to cope as you progress through your course. Lots of students I’ve worked with have talked about their future studying from a very fearful place. I know that level 2 is going to be so much harder than level 1 and I just don’t think I’m gonna cope…I know that the amount of reading is going to increase so much next year – arghhhh!
- Fear that you’ll be ‘found out’ is a common thread of imposter syndrome.
Imposter syndrome rears its head when you receive your grades
When students receive a low or lower grade…they’re usually upset and a bit disappointed. What I see often is that students see this low grade as a TRUE representation of their abilities – they’ve been found out. They realllllly attach to that bad body. They can tell me exactly why they deserved that grade. Not why the work deserved that grade but why THEY deserved it. When they receive a low grade they believe that it represents the ceiling of their potential academic achievement…or at least close to it.
Now you could argue that if you attach very strongly to your low grades then you would also attach strongly to all grades in general, even high ones.
But often I see that the opposite is true. I often see with students that they realllllly struggle to attach to their higher grades. They are full of reasons why this lucky chance happened. They were just lucky that the essay was about a topic they understood, or they were super lucky the right questions came up on the exam.
I’ve heard students say that their tutor must have felt sorry for them or was just being nice (completely ignoring that universities have moderating guidelines in place specifically to prevent or reduce marks being awarded [high or low] to work that doesn’t align with that quality).
Then, once these students tell me all the reasons why they didn’t actually deserve that grade, they go a step further and tell me how awful it is going to be working towards the next assignment because now they’ve got to study with the pressure of meeting that standard again.
It’s almost like getting high grades is worse than low ones (!) If you have an internal narrative that you are in fact not that great then it’s MUCH easier to accept evidence that backs up this story and much easier to ignore evidence that counters it.This is called confirmation bias and we can all fall into this thinking trap at times. So your subconscious could actually be telling you that striving for high grades is actually worse than achieving low grades – and this my friends is how self-sabotage works!
We fear success or we fear finding out that we aren’t capable of success so we don’t put in as much effort…so we have a ready-made excuse when disappointment arrives.
Imposter syndrome and external and internal judgement
OK…so if we think of grades as an external judgement of your work…although we often can see them as judgements of us too even though they’re not. If this pattern is happening externally…is it also happening internally too?
When you think a good thought about yourself do you brush it off really quickly? If during a study session you get a flutter of ‘oooh yes I can do this!’ or as you’re writing an essay you piece together a great point and go ‘hell yeah I’m pretty good at this!’ Do you let this nice thought attach and sink in or do you immediately brush it off with ‘it won’t last’ or ‘don’t be so ridiculous!’?
Likewise, when you think a negative thought about yourself as you study, do you overly attach to it? Does one negative thought often send you in a spiral where you then start telling yourself that you can’t cope, you’re lazy and you’re not good enough?
It’s times like this when sometimes I think our brains are too complicated! Sometimes I’d rather be a dog and just think about food, sleep, walks and getting belly rubs from my owner.
Life would be simpler!
But…life would also be smaller.
Now, study pal, you’re listening to this podcast, you returned to study in exact defiance of this idea. You’re furthering your education BECAUSE you want more. More opportunities, more job satisfaction, more money – whatever aligns with your goals for your career and life, they’re not going to happen if you stay small and in your comfort zone all the time.
3 key strategies for overcoming imposter syndrome.
1. Tag the imposter syndrome thoughts
Sometimes imposter thoughts are easy to identify. If you find yourself thinking you’re useless or incapable or you’re never going to understand or achieve something…well we can immmmmmediately tag that as an imposter thought.
Because growth mindset has taught us that we CAN become better students, we can become smarter, we can become more organised, we can get better at writing essays, we can get better at sitting exams.
And so rather than run the script of imposter syndrome…
I don’t know what I’m doing, it’s only a matter of time until I’m found out…
…we can run the script of a growth mindset
I don’t know what I’m doing, it’s only a matter of time until I FIGURE it out
We are all great learners. If we weren’t then you wouldn’t have learned to feed yourself as a baby, to walk or to read. You wouldn’t be listening to this podcast because you’d be sat staring at your brand new smartphone in its box having no idea how to turn it on.
Sometimes imposter thoughts can be a little bit sneaky and less obvious. They might sound like rational ideas…they may even make you think you should stop studying altogether. Outside of studying, imposter syndrome may stop you from making that scary phone call or email (even if something amazing could come of it).
It may make you NOT go for that new job because you don’t think you’re qualified (when actually you probably are).
So one way you can pick out imposter thoughts is to notice any of your thoughts that seem to be rooted in moving away from fear and towards comfort…thoughts that if you were to believe them or act on them would keep you small.
Once you notice one of these thoughts you can tag it as an imposter…rather than as the thought of Adult, amazing you who’s gotten themselves to this amazing point in their education journey. You tag it as an imposter which means that, after maybe feeling an initial gut twist of upset…you are able to refuse to attach to the thought and carry it around with you like a lead weight. You can move forward with less fear and anxiety and more positivity and confidence.
So this is the first step, tagging imposters allows you the awareness that YOU are not your thoughts.
2. The highest form of confidence you can develop is the belief in your ability to learn
OK so I mentioned just now that we’re all great learners. We’ve learned hundreds and thousands of skills, strategies and concepts to get us to living our lives today. But we can sometimes forget this and start to believe that we’re NOT great learners.
I get it.
If you’re struggling to stay on track with your course and your grades aren’t where you’d like them to be…you might draw the conclusion that you’re not a great learner and not a great student.
I think this is BS.
If you want to achieve better results in your studies, or in any area of your life, you need to have more confidence in your own abilities to learn and more trust that focusing on learning will get you the results you want.
Here’s a magic quote I saved from a fiction book I read recently, Tress of The Emerald Sea by Brandon Sanderson:
‘She wasn’t alone—nor was it surprising that the more she learned, the less afraid she had become. It is that way with most topics, as fear and knowledge often play on different sides of the net.’
This has always been my viewpoint about study skills. Exam revision, essay writing, referencing, critical thinking – all pretty terrifying things when you don’t feel you have enough knowledge about how to do them properly. But gain some knowledge, learn some new techniques, pick up some tips and tricks and you’ll be surprised how quickly the fear melts away and is replaced by confidence.
Earlier this year I’ve had a great example of this play out in my life. I decided a while ago that to grow my business I need to bring on some team members to allow me to help more students and create more and better trainings.
This has meant I’ve had to do a very scary thing – recruit! Something I’ve never done. I’ve never been a manager, I’ve never sat in on an interview. I’ve only ever been on the other side, being interviewed for jobs.
I felt like an imposter at every stage. Writing the job descriptions, posting them on a job site. Sifting through the candidates. I had a lot of thoughts of ‘who the hell do I think I am?’ and ‘I’m not capable of working out the best people for the role.’
Then it got worse and I had to not only decide who to interview but I had to actually interview them. I ran 10 interviews in 2 days and before the first one I thought I was going to throw up!
Then after the interviews I had to work out who were the best candidates, offer them the positions and then let the remaining 8 know they hadn’t been successful and give them all detailed feedback.
I had such a vulnerability hangover after that week it was unreal. Now if I’d listened to my imposter thoughts I would NEVER have achieved this. I would have kept my business small and forgone my dreams. Or I would have started the process then gave up when it got hard and my brain kept telling me I wasn’t capable. But I leaned into the quote from the book:
‘…the more she learned, the less afraid she had become. It is that way with most topics, as fear and knowledge often play on different sides of the net.’
With every step I took I learned. Once I ran one interview, the second one was easier. I reached out to friends who’d ran interviews before or helped sift candidates and they gave me a few tips. I practiced, I learned, the fear reduced and I made progress.
The problem is, sometimes we expect confidence to come before we’ve done the thing, when that’s not how it works. Confidence comes from doing…from accruing evidence that you can do the thing. From building up a bank of progress that you can use to counter the imposter thoughts when they come – which they will because they’re natural. Sometimes we have to just be patient and wait a little – to learn more, to practice, to gain knowledge…and then the fear will ease and the confidence will come.
3. Trust the wisdom that brought you here
Now I want us to hold multiple truths in mind here. Yes, there are strategies you can learn to build you confidence in your studying…yes, you can focus on strengthening your mindset so you lean into learning and hard things knowing you’ll come out the other end with more confidence…AND it’s important for you to trust the wisdom that brought you here.
Trust that the steps you’ve taken up to this point have made you ready for what’s in front of you. Trust that the universe, fate, your actions have taught you all the lessons you need to face the challenges ahead
If you’ve been feeling a bit imposter-y in your studies…if you feel like you lack confidence, skills or strategies to tackle what’s coming, remind yourself that you did an amazing thing when you decided to return to studying…that takes some serious gumption.
I want you to trust in the part of yourself that knew it was the right time for you to further your education. That part of yourself IS in there…even when you’re feeling a bit downtrodden.
Allll the steps you’ve taken so far will serve you in what’s in front of you.
So there we have it!
- Tag the imposter syndrome thoughts
- The highest form of confidence you can develop is the belief in your ability to learn
- Trust the wisdom that brought you here.
Ways to listen:
- Listen in the player above
- Click to listen on Apple Podcasts.
- Click to listen on Spotify.
- Click to listen on Google Podcasts.
Resources and links:
- Check out my membership, the Kickbutt Students Club.
- Check out my range of study skills trainings.
- Sign up to my awesome email newsletter – Students Who Graduate.
- Grab a copy of my book – The Return to Study Handbook.