Now do I belong?: The effects of early-onset impostor syndrome

'Familiarity allows for stable footing and feeling like you belong, but cultivating still remains an exhausting task.' Reflecting on his own experience, Freddie Feltham considers the compatibility of belonging and identity at Oxford, and the importance of access in combating impostor syndrome.

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As Hilary Term drew to a close and we sat in my friend’s room, anticipating a final night out, we reflected on how we’d adjusted to Oxford life since arriving only six months ago. One said, in a tone somewhere between light-hearted and truthful, ‘I had such bad impostor syndrome when I arrived.’ I was surprised by the mixed reactions this comment was met with, yet there were some correlations in response to my friend’s compelling honesty: those from minority backgrounds agreed, whilst those from ‘status quo’ backgrounds either silently acknowledged or were blissfully unaware of what the term meant.

In case you fall into the latter category, impostor syndrome can be typified as wrongly feeling that you do not belong in your environment. Often used in relation to work settings, symptoms include anxiety and self-doubt about one’s intelligence and aptitude. Victims discount any achievements as either the result of luck or excessive effort, failing to recognise the extent of their own ability. These feelings culminate in the overarching fear that they are a fraud, an impostor, on the cusp of being exposed. The cycle is unforgiving, as the denial of one’s own value can be severely debilitating. Impostor syndrome often leads to low self-esteem, sustained anxiety and depression.

While the range of reactions surprised me, I was perhaps most taken with my own: I became aware of the distance I felt to those emotions, which had once drastically shaped my sense of self-worth. Admittedly, I’d had my moments of feeling like I didn’t belong. There was a particular low point in one of my first tutorials where the quality of my tute partner’s essay far exceeded mine, and another where my tutor laughed at my comparatively poor analysis. But the truth is, on the whole at Oxford, I hadn’t felt like an impostor. Despite being of mixed racial heritage, I had overcome any questions I had about deserving a place and whether I ‘belonged’ with relative ease. I knew that studying here would be challenging, but I had faith I was up to the task. Considering this, it disappointed me to realise that I hadn’t recognised how lucky I was to feel comfortable here, particularly given it hadn’t always been the case.

I initially grew up in Wembley and attended the state primary down my road. It was a typically diverse London school, which reflected the community we lived in, and I naturally meshed with the other children, most of whom hailed from complex ethnic and similar socio-economic backgrounds. My parents are both teachers, and while we don’t struggle financially, they would have never been able to afford a private education. However, my Dad, who worked at a private school, would receive a hefty discount if I passed the exams to enrol there – an informal access scheme that, in itself, was part of the attraction of his job. At seven years old, I began my private education, meaning my family had to relocate so I could be closer to school. I remember instantly thinking that I stood out – the way everyone spoke, dressed and acted in my new milieu was so foreign that it felt unattainable. Immediately, I shifted from being a high-achiever to a serial underperformer: I was bottom of all my sets and my behaviour was erratic. My shortcomings in academia felt matched by that in identity.

Through prep school I always felt that despite making close friends, I didn’t fit in. I didn’t believe I was intelligent, and my academic record seemed to prove it; on the rare occasions I did well, it was to the surprise of myself, my teachers and my parents. I remember feeling like a fraud because I couldn’t make sense of my identity: when I was at home in Wembley with my cousins and half-brothers I would drop my ts and use slang, then on the drive back to our school accommodation I could feel my consonants solidifying as my accent adapted again. I spent many flute lessons crying, admitting to my teacher that I didn’t feel good enough or that I really belonged. I felt alone in my confinement to a liminal identity. 

I couldn’t tell you what broke the impostor cycle. It wasn’t until the end of year 10 that I started to achieve results academically. This was in part a result of some amazing teachers, but I also wanted to make good on the sacrifices my parents had made for my education. I remember telling my Dad I was going to try for Oxford when I was 16. He told me I didn’t have to – a reaction of surprise, conditioned by my history of underachieving which did not manifest into overwhelming expectation (though one we look back fondly on now). I suppose what changed is that with time I came to accept that I wasn’t an impostor but that I was different, and slowly carved out a space between the lines for myself. 

Coming to Oxford wasn’t overwhelming like starting private school had been for seven-year-old me. There was familiarity in its stone walls, peculiar traditions, academic excellence, and the people who believe it is their birth-right to succeed, which nonetheless still seems at odds with me. Familiarity allows for stable footing and feeling like you belong, but cultivating still remains an exhausting task. It can be accelerated however, by seeing people similar to you. This is just one amongst myriad elements which make access schemes so important: beyond stating in no uncertain terms that your background doesn’t make you undeserving of your place, access schemes also provide an avenue for familiarity. It really is invaluable to see someone of similar heritage and identity to you at Oxford, a visual reminder that you have a right to study here, that you are not an impostor even if you constitute a minority. 

Unfortunately, access and representation are yet to reach an acceptable level at the University. Private school students still dominate the student body, many ethnicities remain underrepresented in our community, and we still have to deal with abuse of minority students as exemplified by the Oxford Union’s abhorrent treatment of Ebenezer Azamati in Michaelmas. Feeling at home amongst the ‘dreaming spires’ is one of many privileges that many public-school students have at Oxford; they shouldn’t feel guilt for their belonging here, but ought to recognise how fortunate their position is, and be sensitive to the fact that others might not. For those of us who feel imbalanced on cobbled streets, remember that you earned your place here – it wasn’t pot-luck. Whilst difference in identity may feel like a weakness, it is a strength to have a unique perspective that offers insight to your distinct and valuable experience, which others can learn from. Just your being here empowers people of similar heritage to push themselves in the realisation of excellence. Certainly, it is a challenge to establish your place, but we should remind ourselves that already getting to Oxford is a success, and one that ultimately, we deserve.

If you’re feeling anxiety and depression surrounding studying at Oxford, resources are available at Oxford Nightline (https://oxfordnightline.org) and SANE (http://www.sane.org.uk/what_we_do/about_sane).