Last week, I graduated from university with a first-class degree in International Relations and an award for being the joint top academic achiever for my subject and year. For many, this would be a cause for celebration and pride. Instead, the news triggered my anxiety and depression. I felt undeserving and distressed, especially at the idea of sharing the news. This pattern of thought was not atypical; it has followed almost every personal achievement for the last ten years.
Impostor syndrome causes people to doubt their accomplishments and believe that they are not as smart or competent as others think. Deep down, I do not feel like I deserve these achievements or praise. Attributing any success to luck or deception is easier than attributing it to my efforts.
Some research suggests that there may be a gendered element to impostor syndrome. Compulsory heterosexuality and the patriarchy teach girls to be humble and modest about ourselves. Being overly smart is not attractive, and we do not want to emasculate the men in our lives. Underplaying our achievements becomes the norm.
Linked to this, is a similar misogynistic notion: when women are equally or more successful than their male peers, some will attribute this to diversity initiatives. I internalised this belief. Awarding an openly queer woman made the department look progressive. That made way more sense than me being the best in the year for my subject. Still, the person I shared the award with was another queer woman. If she expressed similar doubts, I would tell them that they were being hard on themselves. Rather, they should be proud of themselves for succeeding in a system geared against them. But I cannot apply this same logic to myself.
Adding to this is my previous experiences of not meeting expectations. I did not do as well in my A-Levels as I had hoped. My final results were pretty good by most people’s standards. But I had come from receiving all As and A*s at GCSEs, with similar predictions for my A-level grades. My first choice university accepted me even though I slightly missed their entry requirements. Instead of pinning this acceptance to any personal merit, I went into my first year feeling like a fraud surrounded by actual smart people who would soon discover my inadequacy.
This took a toll on my mental health. Feeling distant from my peers, I barely made any friends for the first few months. After submitting my first essay I broke down in tears. The stress of my first end-of-term assessments left me physically ill. Beginning treatment for depression in the second term helped to ease the intensity of my responses to being assessed. Despite my feelings of fraudulence, I ended my first year with a strong average grade. My course felt exciting and engrossing, and I managed to maintain this standard in my second and third years.
However, my performance never felt like a particular cause for celebration. Anything lower than a first in a module would be a failure and proof that my success so far had been a series of flukes. The entire three years of my degree I held my breath, waiting for my luck to inevitably run out. Even now I have graduated, part of me is still holding my breath. I am still waiting for the moment that a bunch of agents will swoop in and revoke all my accomplishments.
While I could not avoid telling people that I received a first, I wanted to keep the news of the award to myself. But the universe decided otherwise. Fast-forward to the next day, and my university department announced the award on their twitter page. Messages from my coursemates started coming in, asking me if I’d seen the post and congratulating me. There was no avoiding it. So I made the expected long Facebook post announcing that I had graduated and received an award. This kept me from directly dealing with praise from friends and family members that I felt undeserving of.
A day later, I called my partner and she mentioned that she saw my post and congratulated me. What she then said made me reflect on my attitude:
“Why did I find out about this award from randomly deciding to look at Facebook? I thought you would message me about something like that.”
Knowing my partner, it was intended as a passing comment made in jest. She knows me to be shy when it comes to receiving praise. But it stuck in my head. For her, this was something exciting that had happened to me – and I’d left it to a Facebook post for her to find out about it. Considering how much we share about our lives, this was a glaring omission. If she had received similar news, I knew I would want her to tell me about it person-to-person. Why was it so hard for me to share this with her, and others important to me?
Before this conversation, I treated my approach to my successes as harmless. If anything, it seemed like a healthy way to prevent me from getting egotistical. After all, no one likes an overconfident young queer woman. Part of my reluctance to tell her came from a fear that she’d somehow resent me for my success. It did not matter that we were doing different subjects in different universities – and that she would not even be graduating for another two years. Logically, she was not going to break up with me for being an overachiever. Rather, I was projecting my perfectionism and competitiveness onto others – and shutting them out in the process.
So the next day I apologised to her and promised that I would make an effort to share any future successes with her.
Owning my achievements and acknowledging the hard work behind them is going to be a process. For years I had wrestled with feeling less intelligent than everyone had estimated. Suddenly acknowledging that hey, maybe I am smart is a weird adjustment to make. But even if I am yet to believe that I deserve these accolades, my loved ones deserve the chance to share this part of me. They deserve to see how their support and encouragement has helped me grow.
My successes do not take place in a vacuum. They are bigger than me. I am a young queer woman, who succeeded in a traditionally male-dominated discipline. I can at least take joy in queer women being recognised and celebrated. I can take joy in my parents realising they raised a smart daughter. And I can take joy in knowing that I have a partner who supports me and reminds me to feel proud when I neglect to do so.
As for my inevitable downfall… this year has demonstrated the futility of trying to predict the future. The human experience is a series of ups and downs. Maybe I will spend the next few years failing at everything I do. Either way, waiting around is not practical. Recognising where I am at now is way more gratifying.
Photo courtesy of MD Duran