Imposter Syndrome is Too Real
By: Donna Mack Illustration: Reyna Noriega
Imposter syndrome, as defined by a quick online search, is an inescapable feeling of doubting oneself and one’s accomplishments, and the fear of being exposed as a fraud. You know that feeling when something you’ve been experiencing is put into words? Yeah, that’s me. My entire adult life has been a struggle with imposter syndrome, and I’m only just starting to realize how pervasive it’s been in my life.
I was lucky enough to go to MIT for university. Literally everyone I met during college is one of the smartest people I could ever imagine - some people came to campus having already published academic research, interned for companies like Google, or even started their own companies in high school. These weren’t even the occasional child prodigy you’d see in freshman bio. Having grown up in Montana and being educated in a “normal” public high school, along with being the only person from Montana within a few graduating classes, I continually heard the joke that I only got into MIT because they needed to have a representative from all 50 states for admission statistics. I usually just laughed with them, but secretly wondered if they were right.
The sense I wasn’t meant to be at MIT hit harder when I struggled desperately to keep up academically my first year. I had gone to a public high school with little exposure to physics or calculus, and was tossed into introductory level classes that were designed for those who had taken advanced science and math classes in high school. I couldn’t understand why the admissions team told me I wouldn’t have gotten in if I couldn’t handle the coursework, yet I neared nervous breakdowns every time I had an exam. My new friends were able to balance coursework with clubs and sports and Greek life and who knows what else, because I spent inordinate amounts of time in office hours, studying, and trying to just catch up to where my friends were academically when they walked on campus. Couple this academic stress with crippling homesickness and adjusting to a completely new environment I hadn’t seen before I walked onto campus for orientation, and you have my mental state my first months at MIT.
Eventually I got things together academically, and found my groove. Throughout my time at MIT, I honestly did pretty well. I got decent grades after my first year, got involved in extracurriculars, and found some really cool internship opportunities. I thought I had accepted where I was and what I was capable of. But I’d still feel niggling doubts about my abilities even as I approached graduation - I only got good grades because I had smarter friends who helped me with homework, or I only got internships because I was had the MIT name behind me, and not because of my own merit. I reassured myself that when I was on my own in the job world, I’d be able to prove to myself and the world what I was capable of.
I accepted a job after graduation with a management consulting company, mainly because I wasn’t sure what industry I wanted to join and the company promised I’d get to explore a bit. I did well in my first year, getting good feedback from my managers and helping start an environmentally focused employee group in our office. Everything was telling me I was on the right track, and that I was the major reason why. I worked hard and asked questions and pushed myself. But a part of me wondered if I only got project opportunities because I was a woman in a technical field. Did they just need a token feminine teammate? Was I given good reviews because of my work on its own merit, or because the manager gave everyone on our team good feedback? I found myself carrying an extremely large chip on my shoulder. It was hard to take constructive feedback because I took it as an attack on my credibility as a person and a professional, and not simply an attempt to make me better or to correct mistakes. To this day, I don’t mention where I went to school because I don’t want to have people assume I’m one thing or another because of where my degree is from. I want to be evaluated for my work on its own merit. Yet, part of me is terrified that if I’m actually granted that kind of evaluation, I won’t measure up, that I’ll be exposed as a fraud. It’s a constant battle I’m still figuring out how to fight.
Imposter syndrome is real. My experience is only one example, but I have so many friends from high school, MIT, work, and beyond who feel the same. I’m learning to own my accomplishments and feel proud of them. It’s ok to feel pride in yourself and where you’re at, and at the same time want to aspire to greater goals. You are not where you are by mistake, or merely by luck. You earned your place in this world, and by grace all of us will one day have equal opportunities and chances to grow and learn and make something of ourselves. Own your success, because in taking ownership you open doors for those who will come after you, and prepare yourself to be a stronger ally to those who can’t stand where you have. We are not imposters, we are warriors and champions and deserve to celebrate that struggle.