This week, I’m reporting live from the stream of consciousness that arises after midterms. Every midterm and final season carries this feeling I cannot justify — a feeling that my success has got to be a sham — even if all my instincts suggest that my fears are unwarranted. But that’s impostor syndrome for you.
Even with a strong rationale, it doesn’t go away. Still, I consider myself lucky: Without some level of soulful torment, one rarely acquires a sense of humor, and making light of situations is one way I get through it all. But no matter how hard I wish it away, or how many times I tell myself I am not a fake noodle, I still feel like an impasta.
When grades were released, I wasn’t surprised. I had understood the material, and the topics were all subjects I enjoyed. So I studied as well as I could, and after seeing the results, I was happy — but only for about 10 minutes. I couldn’t stop doubting the results as the fear washed over me almost like clockwork.
As I sat there feeling my amygdala being slowly enveloped, the usual voices returned in all their self-doubting glory: The GSI was probably just being nice and it’s probably on a curve became the night’s defining assumptions, and I closed my laptop fully ready to continue tonight’s segment of wallowing at 5.
Weirdly, those doubts completed the experience. Ever since I could remember, the feeling of accomplishment was a twin, incomplete without its other half, and it’s only gotten worse during my time at UC Berkeley. I knew attending the top-ranked public university in the nation was enough to humble anyone, and my psyche, the bitch that she is, knew it too.
And as I’ve navigated my years on campus, it’s come at me in full force. What was I doing here? It was already a tough experience finding where I fit in, and seeing so few other Black students on campus made me feel like I was so obviously in the wrong place. I stuck out, and not in the way you’d want to.
Even if my misgivings were unfounded, though, I felt like all the stereotypes about being Black at a prestigious college were being projected onto me, and I developed a sense of myself in relation to my surroundings. It felt like I was having to battle how others saw me, while also battling how I saw myself — and I wasn’t sure I knew what either of those images were.
I knew I was smart and capable, and at first, that seemed like it should be enough. I tried to brush off my self-doubt as just a function of my anxiety, trying to trust what I had already known — I could handle my classes. But as they went on, I couldn’t help but feel like my essays, ideas and answers weren’t good enough.
Every time I received positive feedback, I wondered if I was just being pitied, that no one had the guts to tell me how bad my work really was. It had to be only a matter of time before I’d run into a professor or boss who’d look at me or my work and see right through it. I’d be hesitant to raise my hand, even when I knew the answer. It felt like if I could think of it, then it had to be wrong. It was no longer a judgment of my skill, but my own condemnation of myself within the space.
I was already vulnerable in the isolation of feeling like I didn’t belong, constantly met with the idea that I didn’t deserve to be here. Part of it was manifestations of my own paranoia, but much of it was true in the data and in UC Berkeley’s reputation. A study done by USC ranked UC Berkeley as one of the worst schools for Black students; indeed, the problem is so severe that even Carol Christ has noticed it, promising to address the underrepresentation of Black students on campus. Anyone can experience impostor syndrome at any time, but the rate among college students is especially high — never mind for students who are BIPOC. Facing the pressures of college makes you feel like you have to excel because you and your work are being watched extra closely. Frankly, I wouldn’t wish that pressure on anyone.
The brain is a funny thing, and trying to understand its phenomena still leaves professionals in the dark. But it’s a proven fact that gender, society and environment all influence how you think and act, and when it comes to being Black and having to deal with impostor syndrome, it isn’t just me being hard on myself. The self-doubt I battle isn’t just imaginary voices — in some form or another, they have been said aloud, and loudly, in the institutional structures of our nation. Black kids at an early age learn the value of code-switching in an effort to seem professional and intelligent, perpetuating the ideology that you have to be white — or echo whiteness — to be capable of academic or professional excellence. Impostor syndrome for Black students isn’t only just us doubting ourselves, but also validated as one of the many faces of institutionalized white supremacy.
But I’ve realized that to associate intelligence with the limited images the educational system and the media show society, which are almost invariably images of whiteness (at times, stereotypically Asian, but never Black or Indigenous), is a product of socialization, and not a valid truth. Growing up in a disempowering system constantly assures you that you are lesser, teaching you to believe falsehoods and stereotypes — even about yourself.
Despite my better judgment, on a certain level, I fell victim to this ideology. I managed to think my answers were wrong even when they weren’t, or that I wasn’t smart enough to be in a class even though I’d ace every test. And to be honest, I’m afraid I’ll always think that way. But after these thoughts pass, I make sure to snap myself back to the truth: These are only thoughts, results of a terrible consciousness. Not reality.