Hidden Curriculums & Imposter Syndrome: How to Give Yourself Grace and Empower Your Strengths


“There’s a sense of being thrown into the deep end of the pool and needing to learn to swim … But I wasn’t just questioning whether I could survive. In a fundamental way, I was asking, ‘Am I a swimmer?’” 

- William Somerville, Clinical Psychologist

As the first person in my family to attend college, I quickly learned that there was a hidden curriculum to higher education. In other words, I recognized that other students seemed to know what they were doing in situations where I felt panicked, stressed, and unprepared.  

Higher education’s hidden curriculum is broadly understood by educational scholars as the collection of implied rules and unstated expectations that students abide by to achieve higher education success. For example, I didn’t know what “office hours” meant as a freshman, so I was hesitant to approach (read: “bother”) my professors with requests for support. When I eventually learned that it was appropriate to ask for help, I let go of my fears of being annoying or coming across as incompetent. But that didn’t happen until I felt comfortable; for a while I just felt like a fish out of water. 

This feeling of otherness is also commonly described as imposter syndrome, a psychological concept I understand quite well - not as a result of any formal psycholgical training but rather of my lived experience. While almost everyone has had moments of self-doubt, imposter syndrome is differentiated by a persitent feeling of unworthiness-- those who experience imposter syndrome tend to perceive their success as good luck or coincidence rather than as achievements they’ve worked for and earned themselves. When transitioning into new opportunities (such as entering college, graduate school, or beginning a new job) imposter syndrome can be exacerbated by natural feelings of uncertainty and unfamiliarity.  

It is so easy to feel like an imposter - despite being accomplished, capable, and intelligent - when you observe others successfully navigate systems or situations that seem confusing and difficult. Careers and professional industries also have their own hidden curriculums that new professionals are - sometimes unknowingly - tasked with navigating and understanding. The resulting intellectual self-doubt feels numbing and can manifest alongside feelings of anxiety and depression stemming from the lack of belonging and fear of being perceived as fraudulent.  

If you have felt this way before, you are in good company. I am here to tell you that your anxieties do not define you and that there is a light at the end of the imposter syndrome tunnel. Here are 5 tips to help you reflect on your own personal anxieties and empower yourself to tackle what lies beneath your imposter syndrome as you make your next career move or continue through your educational career: 

1: Always Shoot Your Shot 
As UK Billionaire Richard Branson once said: “If someone offers you an amazing opportunity and you are not sure you can do it, say yes. Then, learn how to do it later.” Take advantage of any opportunity that interests you even if it is big and scary. When applying to professional roles, be sure that you meet the required qualifications, but know that a job description may reflect skills that are “recommended” or “suggested,” too. 

This might sound silly, but I recommend writing out a list of affirmations or positive notes about yourself before applying to a new position or role. For example, when I was applying to be a Career Consultant, my list read: “You have experience helping students. You are passionate about this kind of work. You have the credentials they are asking for.” Whenever I got nervous during my interviews, I looked down at my list and re-centered myself before moving forward. 

2: Set Realistic Expectations and Goals for Yourself 
It is important to be real with yourself, too. If you feel like you are lacking skills in a certain area, explore ways to professionally develop. Perhaps you might want to find a course, co-op, internship, volunteer, or formal mentorship opportunity to develop your skills and empower yourself before plunging into the job or graduate school market. As you proceed throughout your career, you will continuously find things that you can improve upon. This is normal and does not mean you are inherently unqualified. We are all a work in progress! 

In addition to this, be sure to track and measure your success. Keep a master version of your resume to list out all the relevant experiences you have had as a student and be sure to celebrate your achievements with your professional networks as you reach new milestones. Also, remember that self-care is an important part of your professional career. Always take time with yourself and your support system to celebrate as well. 

3: Consider Your Environment  
Rather than blame yourself for feeling like an outsider, I encourage you to consider the landscape in front of you. If this is a new opportunity or an otherwise big change, give yourself time to adjust and learn what might lie within the hidden curriculum of your new role. Instead of feeling like you need to “hit the ground running,” focus on self-reflection and advocating for your immediate needs as you are getting acclimated. Be honest with yourself and your feelings and consider what changes can be made to your environment to improve your experience.  

After some evaluation, it is always possible that changing your environment might be what’s best for you to proceed on your journey of healthy professional development. If that’s the case, don’t be afraid to make a career move and lean on support people like your Career Consultant to talk through your feelings and thoughts before making a life-changing decision. As a reminder, our Alumni Career Services team is available to UGA Alumni for life, so you can always come back to see us no matter how far you are beyond the Arch. 

4: Lean on Your Network and Support Systems 
Mentorship and intentional support from supervisors have been invaluable to my own career progression. Connect with your managers, peers, and colleagues in your field to process the challenges you are facing and lean on that network for support. You may find that others are feeling similar pressures or have been through similar situations themselves. 

Additionally, the University of Georgia’s Mentor Program can be a great opportunity to build your network as a student and young professional. I encourage all students to have 3-5 Quick Chats with UGA Mentors prior to embarking on a new career opportunity. Refer to our list of informational interviews and ask questions that will help you feel more comfortable and confident in facing new challenges. Revisit mentorship conversations as frequently as you need to—you’re never too “professional” for mentorship! 

5: Give Yourself Grace 
Many folks who experience imposter syndrome are high achievers who expect perfection of themselves in every facet of life. If you relate to this, I encourage you to be kind and patient with yourself. Again, take time to both invest in your skills and process your anxieties with those that you trust. Most importantly, though, remember that there is no singular path to get to where you want to go.  

Bottom Line? If you are selected for a role, you are a good fit. Read that again—you are a good fit. You are exactly where you are supposed to be if this is where you want to be and, if it’s not, there is always room to make professional changes or career moves. Believe in yourself and move forward with confidence! 

Sources: 

Hidden Curriculum’ of Unwritten Rules and Unarticulated Expectations Threatens Student Success

The Hidden Curriculum

https://80000hours.org/2022/04/imposter-syndrome/ 

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