In 2017, I entered one of the Philippines’ top universities the same way most freshmen do: starry-eyed, full of energy, and ready to join every single student organization I showed a crumb of interest in. One of them was the official student newspaper, but I had no actual journalistic background for the choice to make sense. All I knew was that I had a penchant for politics and writing, and that stepping into this role could be my way of marrying the two.
The application process was lengthy: One had to undergo a series of tasks that closely mirrored what the staff did on a monthly basis. The publication prided itself in its responsible journalism, and the rigorous application process was a testament to that value. For the news team in particular, I was given a week to complete a fully-fledged article with interviews from relevant sources and come up with two other story pitches.
I ended up sending my 10-page application well past the strict midnight deadline, with my story pitches nowhere to be found. Not long after, the section editor wrote back to tell me what I already knew: “This is missing the two story pitches. You may follow these up within the next 15 minutes. You may also opt to submit the pitches late. Though affecting your application, it will still be better than not having submitted the pitches at all. It’s up to you.” I never opened the email. Reading it from the notification was enough to cripple me in my seat. With the acceptance rate so low, I was convinced I wasn’t going to stand a chance, so I never got back to her. Getting into the publication was something I swore I wouldn’t be able to do in the first place anyway.
A few days later, I was accepted as a news staffer for reasons only the section editor would know. I remained a news staffer for the next two years, working on articles I’m still proud of today. One article turned into two, then three, until eventually my author page was filled with 16 news pieces. I only left my role as a staffer when I became the section editor of the very team I almost didn’t get into—a spot I had to compete with two other contenders for. My consistent uphill climb as a campus journalist would culminate with an internship at the online news website Rappler and two student journalism awards.
I was lucky to have morphed into a success story my mom can brag about on Facebook, but to me, that’s exactly all it was: luck. Luck that the section editor was kind enough to look past my shortcomings. Luck that I was chosen to lead. Luck that no one else bothered to submit in my category for the award. I’ve always believed that had others grabbed the opportunity, the judges could’ve easily found another recipient. It was a hill I could die on. It was just luck, after luck, after luck. None of my success felt real because I didn’t think I deserved any of it.
Soon enough, the discrepancy between who I am and how I am perceived by others became too much to bear. Behind the titles was my ineptitude to perform certain tasks a journalist would be expected to carry out, as exemplified by my missing story pitches. I didn’t just get away with my incompetence, but I had everyone tricked into thinking I was someone worth looking up to. To others, I was respected, feared, and admired when I saw no reason for me to be at the receiving end of these impressions. Call it a perception problem, but I know about the skeletons in my closet: the missed deadlines, the oversights, and the reprimanding emails that came every once in a while. This led me to keep up with a performance I have created for myself, prompted by the weight of expectation that is latent in my social environment. Out of my published works, this is a story I was never proud to tell if I did at all.
“To others, I was respected, feared, and admired when I saw no reason for me to be at the receiving end of these impressions.”
Impostor syndrome is nothing new. It isn’t anything special, either. The phenomenon was introduced by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978 to describe the woes of high-achieving women in the workplace at a time when gender stereotypes and cultural norms held everything in place. It wouldn’t be until around 2014 when the term would take flight, sparking articles on how to cope with it left and right. Even the likes of Michelle Obama, Tom Hanks, David Bowie, Tina Fey, and Maya Angelou thought of themselves as charlatans, which is to say: No one is safe.
At the core of the issue is the inability to internalize any sense of success for fear of being exposed as a phony. Inside our minds is a reserve of faults and failures only we are privy to, fuelling the belief that we’re fooling everyone else with our pretense. When freelance journalist Sandeep Ravindran planned to write about the growing impostor syndrome within the science community, most graduates who hailed from Stanford University and other prestigious universities rejected his request for an interview regarding the subject matter because “they didn’t want to publicly admit a lack of confidence in their abilities.” The danger in this is that the more it is brooded on, the more cemented this conviction becomes. As Oliver Burkeman explained in The Guardian, “You have access only to your own self-doubt, so you mistakenly conclude it’s more justified than anyone else’s.”
If you have the condition, you are expected to cure it. How else could you navigate through low self-esteem but to work on yourself? One Google search will reveal an endless pit of self-help authors and career coaches telling us to make a tangible list of our successes to serve as a reminder of our merit. If that doesn’t work, we’re told to transform the negative emotion into motivation for better performance. However, these recommendations are moot at best and counterproductive at worst. Anyone with impostor syndrome knows it could care less about the facts. Trying to beat it at its own game by moving up the ranks will only make it worse until it’s rendered unsurmountable. I should know—I tried.
Instead, it might be worth examining the kind of culture that led us to believe only the best and brightest can have a claim to success. It’s one that boxes “objective” worthiness in the myth of meritocracy. By definition, to deserve is to be worthy, fit, or suitable for a particular reward. It’s simple enough, but how this is processed in the (often irrational) mind is much more subjective. Without measurable criteria but access to others, our own worthiness becomes a value judgment, and value judgments are inherently biased, if not baseless altogether.
“It might be worth examining the kind of culture that led us to believe only the best and brightest can have a claim to success.”
In a Vox article, Roge Karma claimed that “when meritocracy wins, everybody loses,” so maybe it’s about time we flip the script. What if we abandon the concept of “deserving”? What if we frame our successes as something that just came at the right place at the right time and be at peace with that fact? Changing the way we perceive who is the most deserving of success is the key to reconciling with impostor syndrome—and our best bet is to believe that the answer is no one.
No one else understands this truth better than opportunity expert Gabby Beckford, whose story became viral on TikTok from recounting the time she won a local scholarship grant in her senior year of high school. At the ceremony, one of the organizers went to congratulate her, and in the process, let slip that only 12 out of 14 slots were filled up for the scholarship program. That was the only reason Beckford had won.
“Is attendance really enough to be deemed worthy of a good thing?” Beckford told VICE. Going through what she did would have sent me spiraling, but she got a powerful epiphany out of it instead. “I realized that it didn’t come down to a matter of me deserving or not deserving, at the end of the day, I had shown up—and just showing up was enough for me to be successful.”
The scholarship revelation became a springboard from which Beckford became a full-time travel influencer linking countless Gen Zs to paid travel opportunities, but that’s beside the point. Rather than feeling like a fraud, she chose to embrace her default win. To me, her story is a lesson on acceptance just as much as it is for taking on opportunities—something that I had yet to learn on my own. A win is a win, regardless if it is secured through merit, luck, or otherwise. That there’s no such thing as “deserving” is a kind of optimistic nihilism that could set us free from impostor syndrome—and empower us to not just succeed, but also find acceptance in it when we do. This solution wouldn’t sound so radical if more people were more forthright about experiencing this phenomenon in the first place.
To beat impostor syndrome is also to acknowledge that most of us are, well, impostors. Only in admitting that, to ourselves and to one another, can we put an end to the secrecy it thrives in. In Beckford’s case, she didn’t have to be the most experienced to secure the scholarship—it was sufficient that she showed up.
“I couldn’t help but be extremely excited at the idea, but also deeply saddened by it. I had discovered one of life’s greatest secrets,” Beckford said. “That was the day I realized that showing up as yourself is already more than enough. Many don’t show up for themselves at all.”
And she was right: I’ve been too preoccupied with impersonating the (fake) better version of myself who, in the eyes of the public, was the perfect candidate for success that I failed to notice that everyone else is busy doing the same. My deep-rooted fear of being exposed as a fraud wasn’t a result of how people saw me, but how I saw myself. All I had to do was get out of my own head.
“My deep-rooted fear of being exposed as a fraud wasn’t a result of how people saw me, but how I saw myself. All I had to do was get out of my own head.”
In the process of writing this, I wanted to prove for certain that my suspicion on my default win for the awards on student journalism is true—that this impostor syndrome wasn’t just based on an irrational gut feel I had. Rooting for my own failure, I reached out to the award coordinators to ask how many applicants there were in my category for the two straight years I had won. My best guess was one, but the response was conclusive: eight in 2019 and five in 2020.
Did knowing this fact ease my impostor syndrome? Not really. Did it at least make me feel more deserving of the awards? I still don’t think so, but I’m slowly learning that it doesn’t really matter. In fact, I might as well have not asked for the count at all.
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