Breaking The Ice: Feeling like an 'Imposter' in an Online Environment

If there is one thing that I am certain of, it’s that a great deal of us deal with the feelings of being an imposter. In many challenges – both personally and professionally – we are held back by the unnerving imagination that we are both incapable, and perhaps totally bewildered, by the possibility of personal success. Despite our past achievements, given what we know, or see of ourselves: how stupid, dull, and insignificant we might be; we continue to leave the feelings of success and prestige to others, impotent to the idea that we are nothing but imposters.

“The root cause of the imposter syndrome is a hugely unhelpful picture of what other people are really like” (The School of Life)

I think that the core personality of the imposter syndrome, despite the obvious feelings of rejection and a lack of worth, is the lack of perception towards other people. We fail to imagine just how similar everyone else must necessarily be.

If the pandemic has pandered to anything, it’s that the effects of self-doubt remain consistently pertinent. With the uncertainty on when learning might go back to normal, we are faced with a crippling disparity that is online learning. We have entered into an ecology of virtual education, one that feels both solely artificial and unfulfilling. Academic achievement has always been a steep responsibility, and to some degree, not much has changed. However, this new realm of predominant self-instruction creates a large list of real disparities. Its disconnect from in-person connection has since repressed quality access to guidance, counselling, and the necessary experience required to compliment a proper degree.

"The world may observe academic success of a high degree, and may find it hard to believe in the very real distress of the individual concerned, who feels "phony" the more he or she is successful." (Winnicott, 1960/1965)

Though I understand that we each deal with things differently, I'm sure I am not alone in feeling this. Starting my master’s degree at the University of Leeds, which stands already as a certain achievement, has been quite difficult. The pandemic has established a prickly terrain; from student-related interaction being through online chat-rooms and zoom calls, with the inability to meet and engage with new people; a lack of a solid learning environment, one that remains riddled with minor technical issues and disruption; and overall, a genuine sense of loneliness. There no longer remains the novelties that University life typically offers, and such is the case that this new direction, one so dense and uncoordinated as this, has certainly peaked an already pre-existing diagnosis of the imposter syndrome.

I have always been troubled with the feelings of comparison, self-doubt, and a sense of unworthiness. And with studying from home, while very much a privilege in its own right, I feel as though it has only grown worse. Finding the motivation to do anything, especially study, can be frequently difficult. My day consists of long-winded calls on Microsoft Teams and the frequent burden of writing essay after essay, and I often realize, as the sun begins to set, that sometimes I haven’t spoken a single word all day. This lack of interaction can invite a whole list of minor anxieties and frustrations, and has quite easily created a rift in how I see myself in comparison to others. What’s more, the online classroom, though advantageous in some ways, has generated a greater burden when it comes to communication. The reduction of face-to-face contact has heightened the psychological bridge for interaction – simply unmuting myself has become a chore, and a harder decision then it should usually be – and I can’t help but feel unprepared and overwhelmed in breakout discussion, even when I have thoroughly prepared myself for the lesson. It’s as though I feel unworthy of being there, despite doing well overall on the course.

Nevertheless, we must remind ourselves that we are no different or less able than the other people surrounding us. In spite of the surface, the encounters we make with strangers, whether colleagues or classmates, though tangibly difficult and scary at times, holds one unflinching similarity: behind such a projection, they are in very basic ways, very much like us. They too buckle under pressure, overlook certain decisions with shame and regret, and cling to a totally unrealistic and bias comparison. The possibility of success and fulfilment fall to all of us, irregular of whether you see it or not.

Having reached one year since the coronavirus outbreak was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organisation, and the drastic measures that it has caused, I am grateful to be in the position that I am in. This opinion piece is in no way a reflection, nor an accurate feeling on the epidemic. It’s just a personal observation.