In elementary school, I always felt the pressure to succeed based on my race. I was supposed to be that stereotypical quiet Chinese kid. When I entered middle school, I measured my success based on the achievements of my older sister, Emma. I began to see my grades as a reflection of how well I could live up to the standards she set. But even then I felt like an impostor: a poor imitation of her accomplishments. But as the oldest sibling, she says she felt a different side of that pressure: the pressure of setting standards.
"So, first of all you’re kind of expected to be a role model and set a good example for the younger siblings," Emma says. "And at the same time, since you’re the parents’ first child, they’re also always pushing you to be better. And I feel like that has a lot of overlaps with impostor syndrome because they’re both about keeping up a certain appearance or some reputation of capability."
But this pressure we feel doesn’t just come from having siblings. I wondered: Where does Emma think it comes from?
"I think especially growing up in the Bay Area there’s a really big college culture where you’re expected to do well, get good grades, get into a good college. So I think there definitely is that academic pressure to succeed," Emma says.
It’s true. I’ve lived in the Bay Area my whole life, but even I’ve been intimidated by its heightened reputation. It’s a stomping ground for tech companies and corporations, a place where just living is expensive. And, it has a billion-dollar education industry: private tutors, standardized test prep — all aimed at pushing kids into college.
Back in high school, Emma says, it was always just kind of “get into a good college and then you’ll be set. With not a lot of thought as to what comes after."
And for me, as a junior in high school, that hasn’t changed much. I’m confronted with the college application process everywhere I go. It’s the biggest obstacle looming in my future.
But aside from figuring out my future, the application process has aggravated my sense of identity. Being accepted or rejected by a college can feel like a statement of my self-worth.
Suddenly, activities I once enjoyed seem dull, routine. I feel like I’m choosing to do things based on how it will look to a college admissions committee. I think, "Am I wasting my time on a subject I probably won’t pursue in the future? Am I really taking this class because I enjoy it, or because it looks good to a college? Maybe I shouldn’t be here, taking up a spot that someone else deserves. Maybe I really am a fraud, hiding behind all these labels, trying to prove that, yes, I am successful."
But especially in the Bay Area — in this climate — this type of thinking is fairly common. Emma agrees.
"You’ll realize most people have experienced that at least once, whether that be in the application process or in a college," she says. "You feel that even though you got accepted somewhere or you got a certain position, maybe the person choosing you made a mistake and you weren’t good enough."
It’s difficult to ignore these thoughts, Emma says. But it’s even trickier to know how to navigate them.
"I definitely still do experience impostor syndrome," Emma says. "I feel like it’s something that doesn’t go away. You just learn how to deal with it. But I feel like I learned to focus more on myself and my own interests rather than trying to think about what other people are doing or comparing myself to them. And that’s helped me stay more grounded."
I realized that that’s what I’ve been doing: basing my standards on someone else’s. And my sister is right: My impostor syndrome never really goes away. But I can’t keep wasting my energy worrying about what I can’t control. Instead, I can use that energy to pursue what makes me happy.
Success is individual; it isn’t quantifiable by some universal measurement. And, oftentimes, you can only look at success through a rearview mirror, only seeing how far you’ve come once you’re a good distance away.
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