Ask Sadia: Impostor Syndrome

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Dear lish, 

I have definitely felt (rather intense feelings of) Impostor Syndrome in the past. In particular, when I first started at my sixth form (where literally everybody is very smart) I remember often wanting to speak in class, but being too terrified at times to do so. I would constantly go through a frantic process of editing what I would say in my mind, asking myself, is this even worth saying? They probably already know all this, and more. They’ll think I’m stupid. They’ll scoff at me and find my opinions laughable. Even despite the evidence that suggests that I deserved my place there, and my grades, and to express my thoughts and ideas, I would see myself as an anomaly, as intellectually inadequate. This problem reached its peak when I went on a residential trip to Cambridge for the first time. We had the chance to participate in an introductory seminar on imperial history. I came up with many points (which, in retrospect, were valid and fruitful) and many questions to ask in my head, but there was a giant lump in my throat stopping me from saying anything, for fear of what they – these superior academics – might think.

But over time, this has certainly improved. I feel more confident in myself, and in participating in discussions, projects, and such, and I really hope this follows me into the world of work. I, and you, have the same right as anybody to at least participate. Since that initial university residential trip, I have been on a few others, where I have attended lectures and seminars in which I have managed to successfully remind myself that my perspective, my taking up space, and my words, are just as valuable as anybody else’s. I feel far more confident in classroom discussions too, second-guessing myself considerably less, but still asking myself, is this a useful thing to say? I have noticed that many people simply contribute to discussions in a decorative – and not a substantial – manner. But we tend to trust what they are saying if they speak with self-assurance: a bit of confidence goes a long way, and confidence gives rise to even more confidence. A multiplier effect, if you will (judging by your alias, I am assuming I know who you are, and that you do Economics).

With the exception of narcissists, I am almost certain that everybody experiences this feeling sometimes. Feelings of professional or academic inadequacy are no different to every other type of insecurity we self-impose when we over-analyse and over-criticise ourselves. I find that what helps me overcome such feelings is reminding myself that I am curious, I love learning, and that in learning environments, both my unique perspective and my unique mistakes are equally useful. I can benefit myself and others by speaking my mind, and if I mess up, I can crack a dad joke at my own expense. But I, like those around me, am in the process of learning. They have much to teach me; I have much to teach them.

Last year, when my personal experience of ‘Impostor Syndrome’ reached its peak, I too was worried that I would not progress to where I wanted to be, because of my own anxieties. But we are our own worst critics. If you were to look at yourself from another’s perspective – at your unique way of thinking, shaped by your unique experiences, in addition to your qualifications and other achievements, you would probably be rather proud of yourself. ‘Impostor Syndrome’ is irrational: wherever you are now, your own hard work and capability brought you there. Sheer luck can only help us so much. Also, the people you might compare yourself to – the ones who you think deserve the academic or professional positions they find themselves in – probably experience the very same feelings as you do; the ones at ‘the top’ have been in your position at some point, feeling insecure and inadequate. But to achieve your goals, and to grow into the person you have the potential to become, you must tune out the noise of critics – and that includes the cacophony of the shitty committee in your head.

And besides, as one of my friends frequently points out to me, all you need to get through life and be successful is the self-assurance of a mediocre middle-aged white man. If their overconfidence can be conducive to their (immense levels of) success, your realistic confidence – a trust in yourself and your cerebral abilities – combined with a bit of productive work can get you to anywhere you want to be in life.

You need to do this for yourself. 




Ask me a question (or tell me what’s on your mind) here

Sadia Ahmed, 2019 

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