‘I don’t belong’ — impostor syndrome affects BYU students

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Impostor syndrome, a phenomenon that causes feelings of being a fake or a fraud despite being qualified, can affect both students and employees. (Photo illustration by Hannah Miner)

Jenna Lindsey had always been a good student — school came easy to her. But when she came to BYU for the first time, she realized it was much more challenging than high school.

She remembers sitting in a BYU economics class and looking around at all the students who seemed to be so much smarter and more capable than her.

“That was the first experience where I felt like I don’t belong at BYU,” she said.

Lindsey, a sophomore in the BYU accounting program, is one of many who has experienced “impostor syndrome,” a phenomenon that an estimated 70% of people experience at one point in their lives, according to The International Journal of Behavioral Science.

Lindsey said she only recently came across the term in a book. “I think a lot of people suffer from it and they don’t even know what it is.”

Lindsey said since she’s a minority in her major — only 32% are women — she sometimes feels incompetent.

“As human beings, I feel like we have this natural reaction to compare ourselves to other people. And the more competitive sphere that we are in, I think the more likely it is to happen,” she said.

BYU management professor Jeffrey Bednar co-authored a study on impostor syndrome with BYU alumnus and University of Nevada, Las Vegas professor Richard Gardner, BYU accounting professor Bryan Stewart, BYU management professor James Oldroyd and Stanford Ph.D. student Joseph Moore.

Bednar said they interviewed students in the BYU Master of Accountancy program to find out what triggered feelings of impostorism for and how they coped with it.

“Sometimes the pressure to be smart and capable causes some students to feel like they are frauds or fakes,” Bednar said.

He also noted part of this study was sparked by his own personal experiences — specifically when he started as a new Ph.D. student at the University of Michigan with several other qualified students.

“It really made me question myself and whether I had what it took to be successful despite evidence from external sources that I belonged, that I could be successful,” he said. “I had a really hard time believing in myself.”

But when Bednar started to learn about impostor syndrome, something clicked.

“Hearing that word and learning more about it helped me realize that what I’d been experiencing as a doctoral student wasn’t just me, but it was something that happens to other people too,” he said.

BYU management professor Jeffrey Bednar discusses the definition of impostor syndrome and how it can affect someone in a work or school environment.

Impostor syndrome is often explained as feeling like “a small fish in a big pond.” Bednar said some factors that can contribute to feelings of impostorism are being in a minority group or being in a situation with set expectations for behavior or knowledge.

“In academia, there’s an expectation that professors should be smart and that when they speak they should sound like they know something important,” Bednar said. “The same thing happens in fields like medicine, where we assume that doctors know everything they need to know to diagnose any kind of medical problem.”

“We all have a feedback loop that goes from our performance to our sense of self-confidence. When we perform well, in general, that increases our sense of confidence in ourselves. But for people that are struggling with impostorism, that feedback loop is damaged,” he said.

Bednar added that those struggling with impostor syndrome often attribute success to “luck or circumstance” rather than their efforts, and they feel like it’s only a matter of time before someone finds out they’re a fraud.

“Students look around and see so many other qualified, capable, successful students and then they look at themselves and wonder, ‘Do I have what it really takes to be successful here?’ and maybe feel like they slipped through the admissions cracks,” Bednar said.

BYU counseling center psychologist Klint Hobbs said he often encounters BYU students who feel like they just got “lucky” in the admissions process.

“When you’re admitted to BYU, you’re admitted because you were qualified; BYU doesn’t admit people that they know would be destined to fail,” Hobbs said. “But these people think that either they were filling a quota for BYU or they just got lucky, and so their impostor syndrome plays out in the fact that they feel like they really didn’t deserve to be here and they weren’t good enough to be here.”

Hobbs said these students may have been used to being at the top of their class, like Lindsey, but upon entering BYU they realize they are just one in a big crowd of smart and capable students.

Hobbs added he also sees impostor syndrome play out for graduate students who are in a competitive environment surrounded by other intelligent people.

“It’s pretty easy to feel like you’re the weak link- like you’re an impostor, and maybe you don’t belong there,” he said.

Shortly after the release of Bednar’s study, BYU conducted a non-scientific Twitter poll, in which 88% of participants responded ‘yes’ to feelings of impostor syndrome.

Though statistics show impostorism has a considerable effect on people, it is manageable. Bednar and his co-authors found from their study that the best way to cope with impostor syndrome is to reach out to those outside one’s “immediate context.”

“The key finding from our research was that it really matters who you go to for support when you are feeling like an impostor,” Bednar said. “When the students in our sample sought help from peers within their program, on average, it made things worse. When they had people outside the program they could rely on for support, on average it made things better.” 

He said outlets like work or other hobbies can be helpful in coping with impostorism when done in moderation.

“It’s when people invest in those types of activities at extreme levels that it actually detracts from their ability to perform academically and undermines their ability to be successful,” Bednar said.

Students who experience impostor syndrome will often use phrases like “Everyone else understands but me” or “Everyone in the class is doing well but me.” Bednar also said people may struggle with feelings of impostorism because they feel if they open up to others, people will judge or treat them differently.

“If you can read about it and learn about it and can find other people outside your immediate context to be vulnerable with and open up with about how you’re feeling, you’ll often find that people are very supportive and can help you put your feelings of impostorism into context and help you to see yourself more holistically,” he said.

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