cambridge mental health

Imposter Syndrome, mental health and working from home: how they interact.

By Nancy Tupling

Lent term is supposed to be the term where you have settled in; settled into your course, the Cambridge routine and can continue developing social relationships with friends you made in Michaelmas. In some ways, this year’s cohort has lost out on the important personal developments that I have heard occur during your first Lent term. 

One of these developments is the decreasing influence of imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is exactly what is sounds like; feeling as though you are an imposter in the Cambridge University environment. In Michaelmas, imposter syndrome is rife, and it is very easy to feel as though you do not belong. Whether that is down to struggling with the workload, feeling like part of an ‘other’ to the general university population or finding it difficult to grasp that you are here because you are just as smart as everyone else. One second year I spoke to said the main cause of their imposter syndrome in their first year Michaelmas was their refusal to see how other people were struggling; ‘when you’re still getting to know people they tend to show you their best selves, which can be intimidating when you’re not feeling your best.’ I have not experienced an in-person Lent term, so I thought it would be more productive to speak to some second and third years who found their first Lent term really helped them lessen the influence imposter syndrome was having on them:

“I think it happened because I was getting used to my workload, I made more of an effort to stay in touch with friends from home, to keep me grounded and I started to realise that I had earnt my place and that no one could now take that achievement away from me. I also listened to an alarming amount of Alanis Morrissette, which I genuinely think helped.”

As a first year, I and a lot of my friends have found imposter syndrome creeping back in during this term. This, in my opinion, is down to having to work from home. One of my friends, who would like to remain anonymous, agrees and thinks that working from home has not only damaged their mental health but also worsened their imposter syndrome:

“From my perspective I feel like I’m finding online university hard, and I know everyone else is too, but I feel like I’m struggling more than I should be which makes me doubt whether I’m ‘cut out’ for this.”

Imposter syndrome has a direct impact on someone’s mental health and self-worth. Although many colleges have organised support in the forms of zoom study sessions, weekly quizzes and direct welfare support, many students still feel as though there is a distinct lack of peer support in that you are not around people going through the same experience as you. Sure, you have the option of a 3 hour long zoom once a week to connect with other students working, but once the call ends you are left at home and most likely the only person in your household having to manage university work. Although parents, carers and siblings are trying their best to support us in most cases, they can never fully fill the support gap that is usually filled by the presence of other Cambridge students during term time. 

Even second and third years, who though their imposter syndrome had been managed, have found working from home has caused a re-emergence of it:

“Working from home caused my imposter syndrome to re-emerge, largely because I no longer had the regular contact with my friends, who would have reminded me I was taking everything a bit too seriously! I managed to catch myself falling into familiar unhealthy patterns and I made a conscious effort to socialise with friends (outside or online), but also used contact points like college library zooms to commiserate with other students over how hard homeworking has been. I think it is only natural to feel a resurgence of imposter syndrome right at the time when we feel most out of our depths, and I think many people will be experiencing that right now.”

However, it’s important to recognise that not all students are experiencing working from home in the same way and some students I spoke to have found working from home has actually helped alleviate the hold imposter syndrome has upon them:

“Working from home has been amazing for me. Not being in the Cambridge bubble has somehow made me able to just work without all the imposter related thoughts. It’s like my work has now become a hobby and there are ‘few consequences’ if things don’t go well. Also not being in the Cambridge bubble is making me live a much nicer and more normal work-life balance.”

I asked the second and third years who had managed to control their imposter syndrome what advice they would give to freshers who are missing out on this vital lent term:

“I really feel for Freshers trying to overcome imposter syndrome at the moment, so many normal coping strategies have been taken away from us. I would say that what helped me overcome my imposter syndrome was rediscovering the things I loved, both about studying but also hobbies I forgot or abandoned during Michaelmas. What I would really recommend is engaging with new clubs and societies, first year is the perfect time to do so, and it will show you that Cambridge can be more than you and your laptop against the world.”

Hopefully, people have not experienced imposter syndrome as terribly this term despite us being at home and if you have, know you are not alone. This is an uncertain time and hopefully we will all be back in Cambridge soon.

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