Self-doubt, comparison, imposter syndrome and how you can overcome the 'big three'
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Coming to University, I didn’t really know what to expect. I had watched my fair share of university storytimes, exchanged a couple of cordial words in Facebook subject and society group chats, and had the typical TSR freshers stalk. But 2 years on, I don’t think anything could have ever adequately prepared me for the realities of university living and stepping into my identity in this new era of adulthood.
University has opened my eyes to the real world when it comes to money, priorities, time management, and even relationships. But most importantly, it has taught me a lot about me. 18-year-old Mary-Hannah would have told you that I had a pretty solid idea of who I was and was relatively secure in my identity. Present-day 20-year-old Mary-Hannah somewhat agrees, but I add the caveat that I have become much more self-aware. Starting university and being thrown into an academically rigorous environment where everyone is used to being the top achiever or ‘star student’ coupled with often tense gender and racial contexts, definitely took a toll on my mental health.
Imposter syndrome? We’re good friends.
Self-doubt? We go way back.
Comparison? Been there and done that a dozen times.
Imposter syndrome is defined by the Merriam Webster Dictionary as a ‘false and sometimes crippling belief that one’s successes are the product of luck rather than skill’, while self-doubt is ‘a lack of faith in oneself, one’s abilities or actions’, and comparison is simply ‘an examination of two or more items to establish similarities, dissimilarities’ and I would add, often creating a sense of superiority or inferiority. I think we have all probably found ourselves in similar situations whether at university, in the working world or even less formal social contexts. But amidst these questions and crises, in these 2 of 4 years that I have been at university I have learned a number of mechanisms that help me manage these often drownings waves of emotion.
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1. Identify where you falter.
I am the biggest advocate for honesty—not that brutal, empathy-less type of honesty, but instead a kind transparency that gives room for faults while offering the opportunity for growth. One of the things I realised about myself within my new university environment was that I compared myself to everything and everyone. I compared when it came to essay marks, extra-curriculars, wider academic accolades, socioeconomic backgrounds—I compared myself on every level. As I began to dwell more on my relationship within comparison, it became evident that it was grounded in imposter syndrome.
When talking about imposter syndrome, self-doubt and even comparison, it’s common to try and bolster oneself with a slew of self-help messages and clichés. But those tend to wear off after your 3rd cry of the day, or you’re 5th impulse takeaway order of the week. What really helps, in my opinion, is recognising where your weaknesses lie, questioning where they stem from, and allowing yourself to be frank about what needs to be changed to save yourself from plummeting into further depressive and self-denigrating episodes.
I’m not really a ‘pick yourself up by your own bootstraps’ type of gal, but as I have said and will continue to reiterate, there is power in transparency, especially when it is introspective. For me, this meant recognising the areas of my life where I compared myself to others the most dangerously, whether it was in a specific class or in certain social environments. I didn’t run away from everything that challenged me, but I began to find the boundary between challenging myself and comparing myself. So, don’t be afraid to examine your emotions. Recognising where you falter and the triggers that may lead you down an injurious mental health path are essential steps in ultimately finding out more about who you are and how you can become the best you.
2. Play to your strengths.
One thing about comparison, imposter syndrome, and self-doubt is that while they generally make you feel devalued, they can also push you to take on a lot of things that perhaps you are not passionate about or have no real interest in, just to legitimise your social standing in a specific environment. Cut-throat graduate schemes, six-figure salaries and luxury city-living are all the rage in today’s professional climate and although these aspirations can be admirable, it is easy to synonymise them with success. But, one thing I have learned is that I cannot compare nor should I equate my success with the ambitions and successes of others.
This last tip is a bit controversial depending on the way that you look at it. However, what I'm getting at is that these phenomena of imposter syndrome, self-doubt and comparison are often sentiment-driven. This is not to say that clinical mental health diagnoses cannot rise from them or that they should not be taken seriously. However, I am becoming more assured in the fact that how I feel in a moment or even a series of moments is not the ultimate indicator of I a I am. This truth has greatly helped in combatting the negative thought patterns that emerge from imposter syndrome, self-doubt, and comparison.
Of course, it is not always possible to choose or prioritise that which you are most interested in. There are a range of factors that inform one’s personal and professional decisions outside of simply where their passions lie. But in an age where innovation is everything and opportunity can really be around the corner, it pays (literally and figuratively) to know your strengths and passions and work towards them. You will continue in a vicious cycle of comparison, imposter syndrome, and self-doubt if you invest all of your efforts into becoming someone else’s version of success instead of excelling in your own.
3. Remember that how you feel ultimately isn’t all that you are.
This last tip is a bit controversial depending on the way that you look at it. However, what I'm getting at is that these phenomena of imposter syndrome, self-doubt and comparison are often sentiment-driven. This is not to say that clinical mental health diagnoses cannot rise from them or that they should not be taken seriously. However, I am becoming more assured in the fact that how I feel in a moment or even a series of moments is not the ultimate indicator of who I am. This truth has greatly helped in combatting the negative thought patterns that emerge from imposter syndrome, self-doubt, and comparison .
Learning to detach my identity from that which I achieve and the treatment or recognition which I receive continues to be a process. As difficult as it sometimes can be, it has proven to be quite liberating. My one bad day, bad week, or even bad term is not who I am. My disappointment after an under-performing essay or (another) rejection letter is not who I am. Even my best moments and highlights are not all that I am. The same goes for you. You cannot align your entire identity with specific moments, isolated incidences, or even extended periods. Yes, these occasions will definitely inform the way in which we see yourself. But they do not have the final word on who you are. Only you can do that.
2 years of university down, 2 more to go. And a whole world of opportunity, mess-ups and ‘made-it moments’ waiting on the other side of that. Wherever you find yourself now-- at university, in work, unemployed, on-leave-- there is a world of opportunity also available for you. As you take the time to think more about how you see yourself, identifying where you falter and where your strengths lie, remember that how you feel now and even perhaps where you are currently is not your final destination and does not define who you are.
“Life need not make any trivial thing of us when we can make even the smallest marvel of it.”