“It’s easy to feel like you don’t measure up”: Students struggle with Imposter Syndrome

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Devin Allard-Neptune, Staff Writer

“For years of my life at Horace Mann, I genuinely believed that I was dumb,” an anonymous alumna wrote on the Instagram account @hmspeaksout. “My voice shook during presentations, and I avoided my work in an effort to avoid confronting how stupid I thought I was.” 

This alumna is not alone in her self-doubt during her time at the school. Students from all grades have experienced the phenomenon known as imposter syndrome, where they often feel inadequate in regards to their intellectual abilities. 

Psychologists Dr. Suzanne Immes and Dr. Paulina Rose Clance first identified the “imposter phenomenon” in an article published in 1978. Their study focused on 150 academically high-achieving women from universities across the United States, and they demonstrated that the majority of these women doubted their own intelligence and attributed their concrete academic and professional achievements to a temporary or external cause rather than their own abilities. 

Even after receiving praise from peers or respected authority figures, the women who experienced the phenomenon did not internalize a sense of success, according to the study. Throughout the study, many participants described the feeling of having convinced those around them that they were intelligent while they believed that they were not, calling themselves “imposters.” 

Although psychologists have researched and written about imposter syndrome, the phenomenon is not an official psychological or mental disorder according to the American Psychological Association. Because there is no official diagnosis for the phenomenon, there is no set list of symptoms of imposter syndrome. The phenomenon seems to be marked by feelings of self-doubt or inadequacy, school psychologist Dr. Liz Westphal said.

A study conducted by the International Journal of Behavioral Science determined that around 70% of those surveyed had expressed characteristics associated with self-doubt through their academic and professional careers. Although this phenomenon affects the majority of the population, its appearance differs from person to person.

Esha Patel (11) said her feelings of inadequacy at the school are influenced by the atmosphere of the classes she is in. Depending on her preconceived notion of the difficulty of the course in addition to the presumption that her peers are adjusted to the course, Patel sometimes feels as though she does not “level up” to her peers, she said.

When Patel is in class with students who she knows have been in the advanced track of the subject for years, she presumes that those peers are more prepared for the course to be smarter than herself, and she sometimes doubts the quality of her own work, she said. “If someone speaks better in language class than I do, or someone is better at public speaking in general, sometimes it can make me feel inadequate in that class.” Her feelings stem from her desire to keep up in her classes, she said.

These feelings can be intensified by the academic reputation of a class, she said. This year, Patel moved into Precalculus BC Honors after years of taking regular math. For her, the stark difference in the honors and regular curriculums contributes to the feeling that she does not belong, she said. “I had this feeling of not being prepared, which turns into this feeling of inadequacy.” 

Along with changing course difficulty, more dramatic shifts in one’s environment can also contribute to imposter syndrome. Dora Woodruff ‘20 came to the school in ninth grade from a small middle school, and she was apprehensive about taking her first honors math course, she said. “I went into that course worrying that if I said something wrong or if I asked a stupid question, everyone would question why I was in that class and if I deserved to be in honors.”

Throughout her first year, Woodruff worked to prove to herself and others that she belonged in honors geometry. After freshman year, she made friends with students in her class, and as she grew more accustomed to the environment, the feeling of needing to prove herself went away, she said. However, whenever she entered a new math program or summer camp, the feeling would return.

“Part of it just has to do with the competitive nature of academic environments,” Woodruff said. “A lot of the time, people feel like they will only be perceived as smart or hardworking if they’re one of the best in the class. There’s this feeling that if you’re not the best in the class, then you just don’t deserve to be there.”

As a student at Harvard University, Woodruff has noticed that people of color and women encounter additional pressure surrounding their academic achievements and placement. “A lot of the time at Harvard, people will say to minority students or women that they only got into Harvard because they are a woman in math or African-American, or that sort of thing,” she said. “I feel like underrepresented minority students often feel like they have to prove that they earned their spots through their own intelligence and hard work and prove those people wrong.”

This self-doubt felt by students of color is not specific to college admissions. Jah’si Eyre (9) spent his eighth-grade year studying for the standardized test required to apply to New York City private schools, but when he received admission into the school he was unsure of whether or not he earned his spot. “Horace Mann is a high school with a really prestigious reputation, and even though I knew I worked hard to get into the school and when I got in everyone around me was like, ‘Congrats, you got in!’ internally, I was questioning whether I deserved it,” he said.

In addition to the academic reputation of the school, the decrease in the number of students of color impacted Eyre’s confidence when he started in the fall. “I had never been at a school where there’s a marginal percentage of people who look like me,” he said. The dramatic change in environment made Eyre feel out of place and as if he could not adapt to his new surroundings. 

Feeling as though one does not belong can also contribute to a lack of confidence, Westphal said. “If you look around and you see other people that look like you and sound like you, you’re more likely to feel confident in that space.” As a result, Westphal said students who come from backgrounds that are less represented in the school’s community may be more prone to experiencing these negative thoughts.

The academic prestige associated with the school can also cause students to feel inadequate compared to their peers, Westphal said. “Horace Mann is a place that really attracts high performing and functioning, over-achieving people,” she said. “It’s really easy to feel like you don’t measure up — and you will never measure up — to the people around you.” 

During adolescence, it is common for teenagers to compare themselves to those around them, Westphal said. Simply creating comparisons between oneself and others can contribute to feelings associated with imposter syndrome.

Grade comparison is a common occurrence at the school, Dalia Pustilnik (11) said. After receiving graded tests and quizzes, students generally ask how their classmates did to gauge how well they are doing in comparison to their peers. 

A primary characteristic of imposter syndrome is the tendency to overestimate the capabilities of others and underestimate one’s own abilities. By comparing one’s weaknesses to the strengths of others, the “imposter” can convince themselves that they are not qualified to be in their current position, Dr. Clance and Psychologist Dr. Maureen Ann O’Toodle wrote in a 1988 article.

Comparisons can also occur internally, without grades. Jolie Nelsen (12) sometimes feels unsure of herself based on her assumptions of others’ intelligence. “It just psyches me out,” she said. “I’m like, ‘Wait, I’m not that smart. I can’t keep up with them.’”

In a classroom environment, others students’ certainty in their own answers can make Nelsen less confident about her own, she said. “If they are so much more confident than I am, I automatically assume they know what’s going on, even if they don’t.”

However, Nelsen’s personal confidence is relative to those around her. “Horace Mann is a really weird environment,” she said. “Everybody is just trying to project the idea that they’re smart and they deserve to be here,” she said. “So if everyone is constantly overprojecting, then some people are not going to have the self confidence to keep up.”

In her advanced STEM classes, Nelsen has noticed that there is a distinction between the genders in participation, which contributes to her lack of confidence. Nelsen is one of two girls in her AP Physics class out of nine students, which can be intimidating, she said. “The boys are always really confident in their answers, and they really seem to know what’s going on.” 

During Dana Jacoby ‘19’s time at the school, she encountered a disparity between the amount of boys and girls in her STEM classes. In Jacoby’s Physics Honors class, there were twice as many boys than girls, and during one of her years at the school there was an honors math class that was entirely made up of boys. 

In her physics class, Jacoby also observed that the girls participated significantly less than the boys. “Having fewer girls in a class makes you stand out a little bit more,” Jacoby said. “You’re one of the only ones, and that just puts more pressure on you.” 

After leaving, Woodruff noticed similarities between the advanced math courses at the school and her college courses. Namely, her advanced classes at Harvard University were similar to her experiences going into honors math classes at the school, she said. Woodruff is enrolled in a notoriously difficult math class called Math 55, and going into the class, she felt intimidated by the qualified students around her. 

In addition to having the reputation of being a difficult course, Math 55 is also known for having an overwhelming majority of men take the class compared to women, Woodruff said. In her class, only five women are currently enrolled in the course compared to 30 men.

Even though every woman enrolled in the class is qualified, Woodruff has observed that there are underlying uncertainties about whether they belong in the class. When working on problem sets with her female classmates, she has noticed that they make self-deprecating jokes about their abilities in class, Woodruff said. “Even though they’re just jokes, I think it does reveal an attitude of imposter syndrome that is permeated throughout the classroom.”

Jacoby and Woodruffs’ observations surrounding distinctions between the sexes in their STEM classes are based in scientific evidence. In 1990, psychologists Clance and Joe Langford analyzed the findings of scientist James Beard on the ways in which imposter syndrome manifests itself in different genders. “For female imposters, feelings had low correlations with impulsivity and need for change, consistent with the usual description of imposters as cautious and unlikely to engage in risk-taking,” the article stated. “For males, on the other hand, imposter feelings were associated with high impulsivity and a strong need for change, as well as a low need for order.”

Beard said that as opposed to the reserved and withdrawn response of female “imposters,” male “imposters” attempt to combat feelings of inadequacy in a “frenetic manner” in order to prove their self worth and intelligence.

Although Clance and Immes’ original study primarily focused on women, a later paper written by Clance emphasizes that while the sexes may deal with imposter syndrome differently, males have the same likelihood as females to develop characteristics of the syndrome.

Xander Cox (12) is taking Seminar in Literary Studies this year, and he is the only boy in a class with 16 girls. In the first few days of class, Cox felt out of place in the class, he said. “It was me not feeling like I was somewhere I belonged.”

Having the feeling of not belonging in an academic setting is not unique to the distinction between genders. Uddipto Nandi (11) is currently taking Physics Honors, and because of the mathematical nature of the course, his classmates are more focused on studying advanced math than students generally in his science classes, he said. Because Nandi is not as passionate about math, he sometimes feels out of place in his class.

At the beginning of the school year, Nandi said he did not participate in the class for fear of saying the wrong answer. “That’s the most difficult thing about it,” he said. “It becomes a cycle because the less you participate, the less you understand,” he said. In order to avoid feelings of self-doubt, Nandi took extra time outside of class to ensure that he understood the material so he felt comfortable speaking during class.

When Cox encountered feelings of self-doubt, he used his discomfort as motivation to work harder, he said. “I don’t think I’ve experienced it to a point where it discourages me,” he said. “For me, personally, it’s something that motivates me to prove myself.”

While working to combat imposter syndrome, Cox said actively participating in class has always been the most effective strategy for him. “The second a thought comes into my head, I raise my hand, and I try to say it as best as I can even if I can’t come up with the right words.” For Cox, freely releasing his thoughts lets his teacher and those around him know that he is paying attention, he said. “Especially in advanced classes, that’s something that you always need to be doing to feel like you belong.”

When going into advanced classes, students feel as though they have to prove that they are “advanced” students and that they deserve to be in that class, Cox said. “The mentality that students at Horace Mann have is that you constantly have to be excelling, no matter how difficult the class is,” he said. “Students at our school have the mindset that they can never be below anybody else.”

Jacob Schorsch (12) has attended the school since he was in kindergarten, and throughout his time as a student, he has noticed a “competitive atmosphere” surrounding academics. “A lot of classes are achievement-oriented rather than effort-oriented, which is somewhat problematic,” he said. “It fosters a toxic environment where students are trying to be in the most advanced classes and get the best grades instead of learning.”

From his experience, students in Schorsch’s classes ask questions without the intent to actively learn, which creates a toxic environment in advanced classes, he said. “Kids ask a lot of trivial questions to game the system, like, ‘Is this going to be on the test? Is this going to be on a quiz?’”  

Ericka Familia (12), who transferred into an honors math course from her regular geometry class the year before, noticed that the advanced class was more competitive than her previous course, she said. “In honors math, there’s an understanding that the class is challenging for everyone, but it’s very hard to avoid the competitive atmosphere.” 

Math teacher Charles Worrall teaches both regular and honors math classes, and he has had more students experience symptoms of imposter syndrome in his advanced classes, he said. 

At the beginning of the year in many of his classes, Worrall has had students arrange meetings with him to let him know that they will be trying as hard as they can and that they will need to receive additional support in class, he said. In some cases, after looking back on that meeting in the following months, Worrall realizes that it was not necessarily for the reasons the student mentioned. “They implied that they have lesser ability and potential in the subject matter than the average student, and it’s just not true,” he said.

In some of her advanced classes, science teacher Dr. Lisa Rosenblum has had students come to her before a test when they clearly understand the material. “There could be a little bit of a disconnect where they’re an incredibly strong student, and they do really well in class but then they will want to meet to make sure they understand absolutely everything,” she said.

Even at the end of the year, some students in honors classes still have self-doubt after receiving concrete achievement in the form of grades. “I’ve had kids who have gotten A’s all year long, and who even by the end of the year, still seem to seem to perceive some lack of ability in themselves,” Worrall said. “They think that the A’s are just masking it, and they’re lucking out, or earning them in some way that is different from the elect who earn them in the right way.”

Worrall attributes these feelings of inadequacy to the culture at the school surrounding taking honors courses, he said. “Many of the kids at Horace Mann think that being in honors classes brands you as a certain type of person, a better person in a lot of ways, which is false,” he said. 

From his experience, this culture originated from a preconceived idea of honors students and what they are expected to achieve, Worrall said. “The school community is full of really nervous kids and parents who are nervous about falling off of some path that they imagined.”  From infancy to adulthood, both parents and their children create an ideal “path” of advanced courses and high grades that ideally lead to acceptance into a prestigious university and eventually a successful life, he said. 

However at the same time, there is an overarching fear of failure towards achieving these goals, Worrall said. “There is a pervasive sense that if you fall off of that path, you’re just done,  and your life is fundamentally changed for the worst,” he said. “That’s a really difficult cultural story that gets told at our school.”

In order to combat imposter syndrome in his classroom, Worrall looks for students displaying signs throughout the school year. If he notices a student struggling with self-doubt in class, he provides reassurance and support. “If I perceive that they have that implication that they are not worthy and whatever our conversation topic is, I call it out,” Worrall said. “I will say, ‘I know that you don’t think that you’re really smart or potentially really smart, and you’re doing great.’”

If Rosenblum observes that a student feels unsure, she will try to get them to respond to questions related to the topic in class. By answering these questions, she hopes that her students realize that they do understand the material even when they think they do not, she said.

Even after they move on from his classes, Worrall talks to his former students in the hallways and asks how math is going each year. Throughout the school, many teachers are generally aware of the feelings of self-doubt that some students experience, and they try their best to ameliorate them, he said. “Kids come into the Upper Division living and breathing the idea that this path exists, and we have to try to push back on it and reroute it to some extent.”

Through its hired faculty members, Worrall said the school is constantly working to help students who might struggle in their classes. “I think that one of the best things that the school does to help kids is to hire really good people who are trained in good ways, and are also sensitive to as many of the tough things that kids have to go through as possible,” he said.

In addition to hiring teachers that are able to support their students, the school has implemented other strategies aimed to reduce pressure and competition in the classroom. By discouraging students from discussing their grades, not providing class ranks, and not giving students their GPAs until junior year, the school does what it can to stop students from comparing themselves to others, Pustilnik said.

Along with these implementations, some students use other resources at the school to ensure they are qualified to be in advanced courses and that they are understanding the class material. For Nandi, actively participating in class and asking clarifying questions help him understand the material and feel qualified to be in class, he said.

Additionally, meeting with teachers outside of class can help students maintain their confidence. In order for Nelsen to move past her feelings of self-doubt and to make sure she stays on track in her classes, she regularly checks in with her teachers to ensure that she understands the material, she said. 

Even though reaching out to teachers about imposter syndrome can be difficult, the support that they are able to provide can help, she said. In some of her meetings with her teachers, Nelsen did not plan to bring up imposter syndrome, but after she discussed her feelings of inadequacy with her teachers, they were able to provide extra support to help her in class. “After class, even them saying, ‘You did a great job in class’ can be really validating,” she said. “I would suggest talking to your teachers about it if you feel comfortable enough.”

When Pustilnik deals with self doubt, she reminds herself that she is not unique in her struggles in class and that she deserves to be there, she said. “Everyone at the school is here for a reason,” Pustilnik said. “This is not the first time a kid has been stressed out about being in honors math at this school. Teachers have seen students that have the same issues as you, and if they thought there was an issue with your placement, they would do something about it.”