One of my initial observations about university was that people spoke differently – people leaned on different words and phrases, and frequently used specific expressions to describe things. While the fact that people in different environments speak differently is not a shocking revelation, there has been one particular phrase that has surprised me: at uni, everybody says they have imposter syndrome. Across a range of disciplines, it is astonishing the number of students that so casually and offhandedly label their experience as one of perpetual alienation.
At first it irritated me. Imposter syndrome, as a term, was originally coined to describe a discrete set of experiences, and to hear so many people use it to describe their discomfort seemed indulgent. I guess it’s important to have some perspective, but when so many people feel out of place, that’s clearly not the issue. The fact that people so irrationally yet routinely feel like outsiders suggests that something about our institutions makes them feel that way.
Neoliberalism makes people feel like their personality and identity is a saleable good – they must push themselves to broadcast their uniqueness to the world and must constantly be doing more to succeed. We are taught to believe that good things must be earned, and that our own individual failure to be productive is the reason we can’t have them. Most imposter syndrome starts here – we expect to be able to differentiate ourselves, but often feel alienated when we try.
The desire to differentiate oneself can be compounded by various forms of internalised discrimination. For example, internalised misogyny often breeds the desire to be ‘not like other girls,’ and internalised racism often breeds the desire to maintain one’s image as a ‘model minority.’ By placing the blame on the individual, oppressive narratives often tell people from minority backgrounds that they can escape discrimination if they’re different – if they can only be smarter, or more hardworking than other people like them. These instances, where people are structurally made to feel like outsiders, are where imposter syndrome can be the most pernicious.
The expectation to differentiate ourselves is felt particularly keenly in academic environments. In our highly individualistic culture, the pursuit of knowledge is framed as an avenue for individual self-improvement, and intelligence is seen as a metric of moral superiority. School systems are often structured in a way that reinforces these beliefs. For example, exams like the HSC and the IB pit students against each other, with their performance measured on their individual success compared to others. When people attach significant moral and personal value to their education beyond their pure enjoyment of it, tackling the myriad of expectations they carry with them to university can often be isolating.
Part of this feeling can be expected. In one sense, spending the formative years of your life in a big, academic environment can make you feel displaced in a way that is totally normal. However, there are parts of our academic institutions that make this feeling worse. The corporatization of universities, which prioritises cost-effectiveness and sees students as a set of money makers to be churned through, has created a particularly atomising experience.
Higher education is structured to tell us that we should be special but preclude us from ever feeling like we are. When attending big tutorials with tutors who are overworked and underpaid, communicating with impersonal and detached student services systems, and wondering whether your classes will be cut, it can be hard to feel like you’re achieving the things you set out to. When the idea that you ought to be special comes face to face with an environment that makes you feel like a number, the result is often feeling like an imposter.
Because of the individualism with which people view education, they often attribute this feeling to their personal failings – they perceive that the experience could have been different if they had been smarter or worked harder. The flip side of imposter syndrome is that when people are successful, they tend to view it as fraudulent or unsatisfying. Part of this stems from the need to feel productive – it is difficult to savour success when you’re constantly pressured to move on to the next thing. Success requires exhausting productivity routines; removing yourself from them to enjoy success, even for a second, often leaves people feeling deeply purposeless. Particularly for women and minorities, there is also a cultural expectation to be modest; to not be too loud or take up too much space with your own self-satisfaction.
The cumulative effect of these factors is a society where people feel the perpetual need to prove themselves and compete against others, but where doing so requires a life of attrition against terrible systems. With this state of affairs, perhaps it’s more surprising that anyone doesn’t feel like an imposter.