Imposter Syndrome: Struggles of the Competitive Student

⏱️  7 min read

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August 5, 2020

Have you ever felt like you weren't good enough? Have you ever sensed that everyone else had something special about them, and you were just moving through life without any sign of success as if you were faking it? You may be suffering from what's known as 'imposter syndrome.'

Imposter syndrome is a condition in which one doubts their accomplishments. People with imposter syndrome have a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a "fraud." This is especially prevalent among high schoolers.

More specifically, it persists in uber-competitive students who are constantly vying to earn a spot in the top universities and jobs. Such competitivity can lead to severe imposter syndrome due to a growing thought that everyone is better than oneself. This can spiral into a pit of self-hatred and depression. Thus, everyone, especially competitive students, has to understand how to combat imposter syndrome.

Imposter Syndrome and You

What Makes Imposter Syndrome So Important in High Schoolers?

Imposter syndrome, as I mentioned, is notable among competitive students in high school. As the playing field for universities, internships, and research positions become more and more competitive by the day, the amount of stress placed on teens is at an all-time high. This pushes teenagers to take more AP classes, do more extracurriculars, and push themselves harder than ever before.

This stress to constantly outperform each other is the key reason why so many high school students suffer from imposter syndrome. As opposed to adults with established jobs, high-schoolers are in constant competition with each other for a limited number of college admissions, scholarship awards, leadership positions, and so much more.

Winners and Losers

In this competitive environment, students are pitted against each other and are encouraged to work not together, but rather individually in order to beat the other. This central fact is the ultimate cause of imposter syndrome. When a competitive student sees others succeeding, they may believe that they have in fact LOST something rather than simply not won.

There is an important distinction to be made between losing and not winning. When one doesn't win, they do not, in fact, lose anything. Take, for example, George Washington's strategy in the American Revolution. In his attempts to win the Revolutionary War, Washington had a simple strategy. You don't have to win, just don't lose. This same philosophy can be applied to competition among high-schoolers.

When a student doesn't win, they simply don't gain anything. However, when a student loses, they feel as if something has been taken away from them, thus the word 'lose.' While not winning still deals a blow, losing has a much deeper and more painful impact on one's self-image. It is when students lose that imposter syndrome finally kicks in.

Draining thoughts start to kick in - ideas like: "Am I good enough to win?" and "I never have and never will win. I've been pretending to be successful this whole time." These are the exact thoughts that begin the deep spiral that students with imposter fall into.

Beating Imposter Syndrome

There are 3 key ways to avoid and combat imposter syndrome that I will be discussing in more depth:

    1. Stop Comparing

    2. Stop Competing, Start Collaborating

    3. Be Proud of Your Wins

Stop Comparing!

A major symptom and marking feature of imposter syndrome is comparing yourself to others around you. Whether they are fellow students or just random people, imposter syndrome makes comparing yourself to others infinitely more negative and painful. When comparing yourself to others, you may first think, "oh wow, they're really good at that," but with imposter syndrome, that outward impression becomes an inward loss.

Thoughts including "Oh, wow, that's amazing!" quickly turn to "Of course they're good at that - they're good, and I'm bad." This jealousy-fueled self-hatred is arguably the most destructive and prevalent part of imposter syndrome. In order to combat this, you have to make an effort to stop comparing yourself to people in a negative light. Comparing yourself to others is natural and unavoidable.

The important part is turning that comparing into "I want to be better," not "I'll never be worth anything." By doing this, you can channel your negative thoughts into positive, self-improving thoughts.

Stop Competing, Start Collaborating

I'm going to let you in on a little secret - everyone, no matter how successful they are, has experienced imposter syndrome! I know - crazy right? How could those people you look up to as the ideal doubt their abilities? Simply put, everyone is competing against 2 groups of people. Themselves, and the "rest." When competing against yourself, you are striving to better yourself.

Whether it's trying to beat your personal record in track or playing a complicated song on the guitar, competing against yourself usually brings benefits. Of course, it is difficult, and you will get frustrated and angry. However, through hard work and determination, competing against yourself improves you as a whole. Similarly, competing against others is a greatly beneficial thing. It allows you to healthily motivate yourself to do better.

Of course, no group competition will be strictly you competing against others. When you compete against others in a tournament, for example, you are not only trying to beat your opponent, you are simultaneously fighting against yourself. While it may not be as clear, you are constantly trying to beat your own successes to help you secure victory.

However, when competing against yourself and others collides in an unhealthy way, imposter syndrome grows. If you lose in a competition against someone else, imposter syndrome can quickly take its toll. Individual thoughts such as "I'll never be good enough to win" and "I don't even deserve to compete" are common, especially after a devastating defeat. However, it is important to turn these thoughts on their tail end as quickly as possible.

Flipping The Negative Thoughts

There are 2 major ways I suggest to flip negative thoughts regarding competing. The first is to use your negative thoughts as a fuel for self-improvement. Is there something you could have done better in the competition? Could you have run faster, blocked a goal, or sang softer?

By not letting self-deprecating thoughts take you down, you can channel them into motivation for practicing and honing your specific skills so that the next time you compete, you win. The second way is to, in fact, use the people who made you have imposter-syndrome-esque thoughts in the first place: the winners.

Collaborating and learning from those better than you - as opposed to letting them get you down - can greatly improve your mental outlook on the competition. Of course, these are all easier said than done, and imposter syndrome can make it seem as if you shouldn't even be talking to the winners, but letting yourself learn from those better than you will, in turn, make you better. Think about it this way, Leonard Euler, one of the most famous mathematicians ever, was taught by Johan Bernoulli, another famous mathematician, not by himself. There's no improving without collaboration!

Be Proud of Your Wins

Although you may not see yourself as accomplished, everyone has something to be proud of. Imposter syndrome makes it so that you discount your accomplishments because they "aren't as good." A common thought of someone with imposter syndrome is that their accomplishments do not matter because someone else has achieved more. This is a fundamentally damaging thought.

Instead of thinking "Why should I be proud, someone else could do that easily," think, "wow, I'm getting better!" Of course, this is easier said than done, but changing your thought process to celebrate YOURSELF rather than compare everything to others.

This brings up a key point about imposter syndrome: everyone has a different situation. It's impossible to directly compare two people because simply put, they're different people! They may have different socioeconomic statuses, different opportunities, different anything. This means that when comparing yourself to others, you MUST take into account that you are not them and they are not you.

You will always be better and worse than someone. This is a super important thing to remember with imposter syndrome. While you may feel like the worst in a group, you are the top of another. Feeling insecure because someone else can run a 5-minute mile and you can only run an 8-minute mile? Remember that someone else can only run a mile in 12 minutes. You shouldn't feel bad for feeling insecure, in fact, it's the normal human reaction! However, by remembering that you will always be better and worse than someone, you can balance out your pride and insecurity in a healthy way.

A Note on Hypocrisy

In reading this article, it may seem like I have mastered imposter syndrome forever. However, I'll let you in on a little secret like before... I suffer with imposter syndrome every single day. Whether it's feeling like I don't belong in certain jobs or thinking that I am faking accomplishments, imposter syndrome affects every aspect of my life. In fact, I should probably be taking some of the advice I have given in this blog.

I am telling you this because I want you to know that it's okay to think imposter syndrome thoughts and feel insecure. It does not make you a bad person, and your thoughts are valid. Now get out there, and celebrate your wins!

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