As a student in Singapore, I studied in elite schools and consistently scored top grades in national exams. But before every exam, I shook with sweat, wondering if this was the set of tests when I would screw up so badly that it would nuke my entire academic trajectory. Before every results collection, my heart would palpitate with worry that this was the doomsday that would finally reveal to my teachers and peers that my prior successes were nothing but one-off flukes.
I used to dismiss these notions as a healthy cocktail of good ol’ humility and Asian values. After all, every time I confided in my friends about these feelings, I was met with hearty choruses of “Same!” and “Me too!” Reassured by my peers, I figured that such emotions were normal.
So imagine my disbelief when I chanced across the phenomenon of “impostor syndrome” online. “You mean there’s a syndrome for downplaying my achievements and attributing my successes to luck and sheer hard work?!” The term left a funny taste in my mouth. I was dumbfounded and, at the same time, eager to find out more.
Symptoms, definition and facts
Researchers from the International Journal of Behavioral Science have approximated that 70% of millennials relate to impostor syndrome.
So, what exactly is this phenomenon?
If you’re wondering if you have impostor syndrome, take this test. (Disclaimer: Please do not take this quiz as a diagnostic.)
Impostor syndrome is when you doubt your accomplishments and have anxiety about being “uncovered as a gimmick”. Some tell-tale signs include self-doubt, self-deprecation and self-sabotage. Interestingly, this occurrence is not just limited to academic settings or workplaces. It can even extend to romantic relationships and platonic interactions.
To put it in context, impostor syndrome is when you feel you conned your way into the school of your dreams; when you anticipate failure though your track record proves otherwise; when you have the nagging belief that your partner will never love you for your true self.
Dealing with impostor syndrome
Juggling a heavy academic workload of an extra A-level subject paired with my co-curricular obligations and responsibilities as a student representative, I felt that producing perfect work was the bare minimum.
And it seems I’m not the only one feeling this way.
An ex-classmate commented to me that, “Even though I got an A in General Paper, I actually feel like I don’t know how to write an essay still.”
Despite sustained achievements, impostor syndrome makes it feel like you’re faking all of them and that the most recent task will be the one that will inevitably trip you up.
Singapore’s competitive paper-chasing climate means people are forced to consistently produce near-perfect work or risk being replaced in the corporate ladder. This hits close to home especially for us millennials. Job prospects are getting progressively dimmer, with many of our rivals holding a bachelor’s degree or even a master’s. With the ongoing pandemic, the stakes have become higher than ever. Anxieties about entering the rat-race as a fresh graduate in the midst of a recession are very real. All this fosters unhealthy perfectionism, which leads to an ever-present aversion to failure as well as unrealistically high expectations.
These emotions continue when we’re off-duty too, particularly in the realm of social media.
Social media fanning the flames
Here’s another side effect to add to the ever-growing list of reasons to go on a digital detox beyond the FOMO it encourages: social media makes you feel like a scam.
Like other millennials, I’m an avid user of social media. Scrolling through my carefully curated profiles consisting of filtered pictures coupled with witty captions, I feel like I’m tricking people into believing an airbrushed persona of myself. Receiving comments like “life/makeup/body goals!” intensifies the feeling that social media is a fragile house of cards, and one misstep will cause the cards to come crumbling down.
The more people view me as “successful” online, the more I feel like a sham in real life. What if people find out that the real me isn’t as fortunate or richly blessed as I may seem?
Millennials often wind up feeling as if their IRL selves do not live up to their online reputations. As a result, we feel crushing self-doubt and the nagging notion that we are nothing but big, fat phonies painting a nice picture for the world to see. Contrasting your own flawless Internet image of baby-smooth skin and a megawatt smile with the crushing reality of what you see in the mirror (think: unkempt hair, a new pimple and that old t-shirt you’ve been wearing for 3 days straight) is when your imposter syndrome amplifies.
Modern-day affirmative action
Today’s woke culture, and the increased awareness that comes along with it, is another reason why impostor syndrome might affect millennials more compared to past generations. As a woman in the predominantly male field of laboratory research, I sometimes wonder if opportunities come by more easily for me because of affirmative action. In an era of social advocacy, the calls for greater gender equality in all facets of life are louder than ever. I worry that there’s a lower barrier to entry for me in the name of tokenism so that large corporations can avoid being scorched by the heat from socially conscious millennials.
I’m currently interning overseas in Melbourne, Australia, at a renowned lifestyle diseases research institute. I’ve found myself wondering if my resume seemed particularly outstanding to my employers not because of the inherent value of my attainments, but because of my gender. Would my application to job-shadow be unsuccessful if I were born a man?
Or, in the words of a famous Singapore-based meme, is it because I’m Chinese? In both cases, would the facility have taken me in if I couldn’t increase their diversity count?
Affirmative action is a double-edged sword. It promotes equality by giving access to opportunities to minorities. But it could also discredit the achievements that they’ve worked so hard to attain.
Stepping Out Of The Darkness That Is Impostor Syndrome And Into The Light
As the saying goes, acceptance is the first step to recovery.
The best way to overcome impostor syndrome is to come to terms with it. Personally, I love to jot down my waxing and waning feelings, the highs and the lows, in a journal. Chances are, by penning your worries onto paper, you will realise that they are unfounded.
Another remedy is to fall back on your support system of treasured family members and friends. Reaching out to people who love and care for you reveals that you are not in this fight alone.
Lastly, and more directly, the way out of impostor syndrome is to alter your inner monologue by owning and internalising your successes. Repeating silent affirmations to myself seems to do the trick for me. The next time you walk past a mirror, try hyping yourself up like the queen or king you are. And remember to keep your head up high so your crown doesn’t fall.
Cover: Septian Simon/Unsplash