Varna Kodoth: The dichotomy of the self

Wednesday, January 8, 2020 - 7:52pm

I am happy to have noticed that recently there have been more and more women straying away from the stereotypical definition of what it means to be a "girl” or “woman.” They do this by setting fitness goals, working three campus jobs on top of being a full-time University of Michigan student to achieve financial stability or a level of independence and founding conferences and summits that empower their fellow female executives. It’s interesting to witness how by not conforming, we are in a way actually embracing and harnessing all the power that a woman or young girl encompasses to redefine preconceived notions set by societal standards. As we continue to shed light on gender inequities that exist, like the gender pay gap (particularly the widening pay gap between women of color and their male counterparts), the TIME'S UP campaign has been on a positive mission to highlight successful women. This is exactly the type of advancement we need to support. However, this campaign and similar initiatives are just some examples of representing one demographic and deepening the divide between who we are and how we see ourselves. Another term for this sentiment rampant amid all college students with high-achieving goals is imposter syndrome. It’s easy to compare ourselves to trailblazers and other professionals in our future career fields and wonder: Where do I fit in?

A Harvard Business Review article titled Overcoming Imposter Syndrome defines imposter syndrome best as a term used to describe a collection of feelings of anxiety despite evident success. I’d recommend expanding the definition to apply to all individuals in all stages of life, not only working women or minorities making large-scale strides within their fields. The syndrome can affect anyone whose social identities result in feelings of being an outsider. However, imposter syndrome is typically talked about within the context of the working environment post-graduation. Yet when I look around me, I recognize imposter syndrome to be rampant throughout the University's undergraduate community. Whether or not you want to label it imposter syndrome is entirely a personal choice, but I’m sure feeling like you don’t belong in a certain space is not a foreign concept to most.

A study titledAn Examination of the Impact of Minority Status Stress and Imposter Feelingsconducted by Dr. Kevin Cokley, an ethnic minority professor in his field of educational psychology and African diaspora studies at the University of Texas at Austin, addresses the additional stress that discrimination adds to the minority student experience. The results indicate that while feelings of impostorism further complicate the minority experience, the mechanisms by which we receive and respond to imposter syndrome is specific to the individual. 

Dena Simmons Ted Talk on How Students of Color Confront Impostor Syndrome expands on this concept of imposter syndrome being heterogeneous. Her talk is essentially an in-depth analysis of feeling like a fraud or that you don’t belong in a field or space. Simmons emphasizes that “there is emotional damage done when young people can’t be themselves. When they are forced to edit who they are to be accepted. It’s a kind of violence.” 

Simmons and Dr. Cokley touch base on what we can do to reduce the trauma we induce upon ourselves from imposter syndrome. The strategies proposed by The New York Times in Dealing With Imposter Syndrome When You’re Treated as an Imposter are easily applicable at the University. One strategy is to find a “you” in your chosen field. For example, if you’re a woman of color, find a professor who represents your identities in the classroom. By understanding the challenges that exist in the field, you’ll be better equipped to handle impostorism. While this may be the route less taken, when you experience a situation where you do not feel welcomed in a classroom space, reach out to the GSI or a faculty member and let them know. By far the most important technique is to find a platform to encourage yourself to keep moving forward. Whether this is through journaling or writing a Post-It note with a list of your accomplishments, find a method that allows you to be comfortable with your achievements. 

At the end of the day, the pervasiveness of imposter syndrome is a sign we are conditioned to feel that there is always more to achieve. So let’s make an effort to be kinder to ourselves. In the classroom setting, let’s do our best to create an environment where it’s a safe space, you’re allowed to be wrong, you’re allowed to ask “basic” questions and you’re allowed to explore. Despite social media trends and what we might tell ourselves, self-care isn’t just about taking time out of your day to put on a face mask and watch Netflix or take a break from academia to play Overwatch. It’s about not letting our success pass without celebration and finding areas for growth within the failures. As Dena Simmons asserts, “Every child deserves an education that guarantees the safety to learn in the comfort of one’s own skin.”

Varna Kodoth can be reached at vkodoth@umich.edu.