Finding your worth: a Canadian on impostor syndrome

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Danielle is from Canada and is undertaking a DPhil in Obstetrics and Gynaecology.

“Congratulations! We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted to the programme of your dreams for start in October 2018.” Opening email, my heart dropped. It sank due to disbelief; I’m not sure why I, amongst the global pool of intelligent and driven individuals, was selected to start my DPhil this October. This newly established depth in my heart somehow defied the rules of gravity and migrated to my head, as I began to fill my mind with thoughts of self-doubt, framing myself as a fraud. A sadly unfamiliar feeling I had become accustomed to was labelled as ‘impostor syndrome.’ While I’ve spent the past ten months trying to convince myself that I’m worthy, and have been praised by many for my accomplishments, my feelings felt unjustified. Since arriving at Oxford just about four weeks ago, I’ve noticed that although many of the people that I’ve encountered are from thousands of miles away and have lived lives independent of mine, we all converge with our feelings of impostor syndrome and people here aren’t afraid to name it for what it is. I’ve also yet to meet someone who is ashamed of the fact that they experience it. 

Having the great privilege of attending a top institution is a double-edged sword, so to speak. While you have the opportunity to be surrounded by leaders, innovators, and creatives who challenge your way of thinking and push you to be the best version of yourself, this can also induce feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, and fraudulency. It can cause you to look in the mirror and question your worth, your intentions, and your sense of belonging (or lack thereof). Within the first week of arriving at Oxford, I had experienced all of this in one regard or another. When my mum left for the airport, I wondered if the University had wrongfully accepted me and I’d be joining my mum back home within the next week. It wasn’t until an international students’ dinner where it started to sink in that the very feelings that made me feel so isolated were actually something that united us all. One of the DPhil students said to us, “You belong here, you are not an impostor.” And throughout the church, there were nods in unison as we acknowledged our shared feelings. As Freshers’ Week went on, I attended a college induction where this was one of the main sentiments conveyed by our Senior Tutor as well, who made a point to tell us we are not impostors.

One of the DPhil students said to us all, “you belong here, you are not an impostor.” And throughout the church, there were nods in unison as we acknowledged our shared feelings.

So where do we go from here? We recognise that we’re all at a heightened risk, per se, of experiencing impostor syndrome, so how do we cope with it? Firstly, I now take confidence in knowing that there is a community of Oxford students, freshers and others, who are experiencing the same feelings as I am, and from personal experience, are open to talking about them. This being said, reach out to your friends in moments of self-doubt. Sometimes it’s good to air your dirty laundry and clear your mind a bit by saying how you feel out loud. I’d also suggest prioritising positive affirmations. Let me be the first person to tell you that being kind to yourself in moments of doubt is not easy, but sometimes you have to fake it until you make it. What I mean is that even if you doubt yourself, be your own cheerleader on the sideline! Lastly, take comfort in knowing that the University itself acknowledges that these feelings are not uncommon. There are resources at our colleges, departments, and the greater University. Thankfully this means that they have established infrastructure, even if it is confusing to navigate at times, that is there to support you in your time of need. Whether it be your college adviser, a peer supporter, or programme director. This isn’t their first rodeo, these people are in your corner and will help you whenever you may need it.

If you’re experiencing a bit of self-doubt now that we are in week three and you’re somehow already behind in readings or you’ve had to redesign your thesis topic, let me be your cheerleader today. You are deserving of your place as a student here. You worked hard to get here, and didn’t cheat any system to get in, the process would be too complicated. Stay involved with your work, ask questions, and be honest with yourself and others about how you’re feeling, because we’re in this together!