The Imposter I’m Not

My case of extreme imposter syndrome has made me feel like I just have one big elaborate mask on


Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, so fucking stupid, I whispered to myself. I cradled my head in my hands as my tears threatened to spill out and flood every corner of my bedroom. I couldn’t see the floor over the mess I had just created. Ripped pieces of paper, textbooks scattered all over the floor. My nails clashed with my teeth as I bit and clenched onto my fingers, though I’m not sure why I did that at all. Perhaps I was hoping that sting would give me the epiphany that would help me realize how I could stop being this dumb — or maybe I just felt that I deserved to be hurt. My fingers moved to my head next, yanking on bunches of hair, pulling, tugging, because the biting wasn’t enough for me.

I was getting the wrong answer on my homework, and I had a meltdown.

Stupid, I whispered again when I finally ran out of tears to spill. Stupid may have well become my name.

For decades, many college students have been facing something that makes them feel less than — it keeps us from thinking we deserve any type of praise. And unfortunately, I recently found out I’m a victim of it.

I had an easy time with school growing up. I would get some of the highest marks in my class on standardized tests, especially in the reading and writing sections, all without much effort, and that gave me a small sense of pride. I’d study the absolute bare minimum and still got high grades. I got into the Gifted and Talented Education program, otherwise known as GATE, in fourth grade, and I was one of only three in my class to do so. I wasn’t a constant straight-A student, but I did know that school came relatively easy for me. This gave me some semblance of confidence. After all, being smart was almost all my parents had praised me for.

But when high school rolled around, things became very different. For once, I actually had to study, after years of just coasting by. Studying? What the hell is that?

I always had a suspicion I wasn’t the best at math or science. In middle school, science was always the subject that kept me from getting that sweet, sweet 4.0. I remember I cried during class when I failed a science test for the first time in 7th grade. I didn’t think about it again after that. I’d always fall a bit short, but I didn’t mind — I knew I tried my best.

In high school, that didn’t cut it anymore. I remember seeing the fat 40 percent on my first biology test in my honors class during freshman year. I didn’t think much of it at first; after all, everyone told me Mr. Cook gave pretty hard tests.

But now I know it was because I still wasn’t studying. I couldn’t bring myself to even peek at my textbook and figure out what the hell a lipid was. I didn’t know how to.

This all eventually snowballed to me getting…less than stellar grades. I didn’t fail my classes, but I wasn’t exactly doing well either. And how else would an Asian-American girl, who has been taught her entire life by her family and her peers that grades build your worth, feel? Like shit. Complete and utter shit.

I grew up with the idea that grades were the only indicator of how successful of a human you were. My mom banned me in the summer after 4th grade from using my Nintendo DS Lite to play Pokemon because I got more Bs than As on my report card. After that, I knew what I wasn’t getting the As my family expected of me. I felt like an utter failure of a human, like I was just a fuck-up. The Cs I was getting in AP classes might have said you’re average to others. But what they told me was you’re stupid. They nagged me, called me lazy, and screamed that I was worth absolutely nothing.

And yet, people still saw me as smart. Me? The one who couldn’t figure out what the hell a lipid was? Me, who couldn’t figure out why her answers didn’t match the answer key in the back of the book? Who had a complete meltdown just doing her AP statistics homework?

I can still recall that moment. There was one problem in the textbook I couldn’t find a plausible answer for. I kept flipping pages back and forth, looking constantly at the answer in the key that didn’t match the one on my calculator. I typed, cleared, typed, cleared, typed, and cleared again and again, while the anxiety in me grew from my toes to my chest, and my eyes blurred with tears. I slammed on the keys in frustration, hoping the repetition would give me the right answer eventually — then something in me just snapped. I threw the calculator, slammed my book shut, pulled on my hair, hit my head, and just scream-cried my frustrations out. At that moment, all I saw was red; I was angry at everything — at my teacher for giving us such a difficult problem, at all of my classmates who thought stats was a breeze, at everyone and anyone who did understand this problem, and most of all, I was angry at myself.

I was pissed that I was so goddamn stupid.

I found out the next day that there was a typo in the answer. That’s why I couldn’t solve it. The answer I kept getting was right the whole time. Great! I wasted brain cells and damaged some hair follicles for nothing.

This wasn’t an isolated incident, so it’s safe to say I was a complete emotional train wreck before college. Yet, people somehow still thought of me as the one who knows all of the answers to your biology homework questions. That’s not true, I kept telling myself. You don’t deserve that image. You’re just deceiving everyone into thinking you’re smart, and one of these days, all of them will find you for the phony you are.

I was so afraid of people finding me out and the backlash I thought I would get, so I began to just reject the compliments. In my mind, I was at least being honest with everyone. After all, it felt deceiving to accept their praise. You’d just be lying to everyone, I’d tell myself. I hated myself so much that I repeated the same lies over and over to myself — there was no way I could take any of the praise that people sang of me.

And that’s where this problem set in. I’ve struggled for years to take any praise or my own success seriously. To me, success and praise stems from extreme luck and the fact that most people have not seen the utter train wreck I am — riddled with anxiety and characterized by moments like that gut-wrenching meltdown.

But it isn’t just being incapable of taking compliments. I am genuinely, wholeheartedly, absolutely terrified that the very people who talk highly of me will find out that they’re wrong. They’ll find out for themselves eventually that I’m a complete fraud, who doesn’t belong where she’s at, who has no idea what she’s doing, and is just one iceberg away from becoming her own Titanic. It always feels like I’m donning an elaborate mask, but I’m anxiously anticipating the moment someone will finally see me for who I really am and rip that mask off of me.

Even though I became the editor-in-chief of SAC.Media, my college’s student media publication, after working in its staff for a year, have won an award for my writing, and have nailed job interviews (no, this is not a humble brag), I felt I wasn’t deserving of any of it. Each time our adviser and any editor sings their praises for me, I just sit there, smile, and say no, that’s not true. To me, the awards I’ve won were just from pure luck.

I once won first place in a copyediting competition, and as I reveled in the moment my name was announced, the little dark cloud inside my head told me, “You didn’t win that because of your effort — there was barely anyone who was competing, and you just happened to know the answers. You got lucky.” I took that to heart. I didn’t truly deserve it — I just got lucky.

I’m almost constantly feeling this way. I get support, and I tell people it’s misplaced. Someone would call me talented, and if I did get a moment of confidence from it, it was short-lived because I’d name off every single person who I thought was realms better. That feeling of self-pride would die whenever I saw someone doing well. I never took praise to heart because I felt I couldn’t. At least, until I found out about imposter syndrome.

Imposter syndrome, also known as the imposter phenomenon, is a “psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments.” It’s been written about in the Harvard Business Review, the American Psychological Association, and Time, among other publications. It’s said to occur mostly to those who are in executive positions and come from families that stressed achievement above all else, a perfect description of my background. Is it classified as an actual diagnosis? No. Is it still very much a problem? Of course, it is, especially since the phenomenon is typically a package deal with anxiety and depression. Gotta love that three-for-one deal.

I’ve felt this way for years, since I was in high school and had to come to terms with the fact that I wasn’t as special as everyone thought I was in the past. As someone who grew up in an Asian immigrant family, whose sister went to UCLA and also whose brother became a nurse, the pressure was on for me to find success somewhere — and like many other Asian Americans, that expectation was to find that success specifically somewhere in STEM.

I tried my hand at AP biology, AP statistics, pre-calculus, and any other STEM class I thought would help me become the computer engineer my mom made me believe I needed to be. Maybe this is where my imposter syndrome comes from; everyone thought I was smart and coasted through those classes (I did not).

And now that I’ve found my place in writing and the humanities, I thought my feelings of inadequacy would be gone (surprise, they are not).

I still regularly got anxious just going into my designated editor-in-chief office because it meant I’d have to fulfill the very things I never thought I was capable of doing. I saw our managing editor kill it with his stories, and I would get the most invasive thoughts ever. There’s no way in hell I could ever do that, I told myself. I shouldn’t be editor-in-chief. I’m not the shit that everyone thinks I am; I’m just pure shit.

Whether this feeling has to do with family-related problems, my insecurities, my sense of perfectionism, personal high standards, or all of the above…I’ll likely never know unless I unpack it all in therapy.

I’m not the only one feeling this way. Maria Klawe, the current president of Harvey Mudd College, asks her students every year if admissions made a mistake with them. According to her, every year, at least half believe so. Colleges are fraught with students who genuinely don’t believe they belong where they are or should be praised in any capacity; it just feels fake to them. I

At the time I’m writing this as a community college student, I’m sure my feelings are only going to get worse once I transfer. If I do get into the kind of prestigious university that’s up to my personal standards, I know I’m going to be afraid. My brain has been wired in a way where I’m constantly afraid, and it’s especially made me believe I should be afraid of being amongst the people who do look like they know what they’re doing. For schools like USC, UC Berkeley, and UCLA, my brain tells me I’m going to be a fish out of water, desperately gasping for air until I die as I watch other fish walk onto land with ease.

At the very least, I have identified that this is all irrational. I’m in my fourth year of college and have had others show me I am deserving of my achievements. I’m able to, as someone put it, “quit it with the humble shit.” I’m beginning to see that the things I’ve accomplished coming out of high school were products of both talent and hard work. Most of all, I know that I’m not a fish — I’m human. I make mistakes, and so does everyone else.

If this story seems familiar to you, you’re not alone. If students who were admitted to Harvey Mudd, a school with an acceptance rate of less than 15 percent, feel this way, then it’s likely not just a you problem, even if it seems that way. This means that you should talk. People who feel like a phony have trouble opening up about it because they’re so afraid of being found out. Remember that you’re not the phony you think you are. Then, talk to a family member, friend, mentor, or anyone else who knows you really well because they can either relate or call you out on your bullshit. Either way, it’s a reality check.

Make a list. List out everything you’ve ever achieved, and I mean everything, humble be damned. A promotion, a good grade, a compliment — list out experiences where you were recognized for work you have done, or points where you felt proud of yourself. Successes don’t make you you, but they’re also not something to completely disregard and are still a damn good starting point. They are still a result of effort, talent, or both, and you deserve to be proud of them.

Stop comparing yourself to others. You could think of yourself as a dying cactus in a world of flowers; that doesn’t mean you’re any less deserving of water and sunlight, and you’re free to bloom at your own rate. In other words, let yourself go at a different pace than everyone else if that’s what is fueling your imposter syndrome.

And now for the hardest part: just take the compliment. It’s going to be hard to believe for a bit, but each time someone sings their praises for you, appreciate the melody. Praise tends to come from someone who thinks you genuinely deserve it. So as bitter as it might taste and as hard as it may be to swallow, take your medicine — it’s good for you.

And if, for a while, that little demon in your head still constantly whispers to you that you’re a phony, if you’re still on edge whenever you receive a compliment or achievement for a while because you see another person who deserves it more, it’s time to stop that thinking in its tracks. Because chances are, that person you’re thinking about? They don’t think they deserve it either.