“Imposter’s Syndrome”

Chuck Wendig’s weekly flash fic prompt reminded me of a story I wrote about a year ago. This isn’t my official submission, but I thought I’d post it here.

“Doctor, I’m afraid I don’t belong here,” the young man said. “I’m afraid they will all find out that I’m a fraud.”

“It’s natural to feel that way,” the psychologist reassured him. She wrote notes, her eyes darting from the patient to her paper. Nervous, agitated, eyes are aware, not unfocused, seems energetic. No obvious signs of depression or delusion.

“Why do you think you’re a fraud?”

“Everyone here is so smart,” he said. “I’m just faking it. I’m not really this smart, but I can pretend. I don’t know how I’ve managed not to flunk out so far. Grad school is really… hard.”

There was a pause. The student looked at her expectantly. She cleared her throat.

“Go on.”

“No, that’s it, I think,” he said, frowning. “I mean, everyday I worry that they’re going to pull me aside and say ‘Oh, no, we made a mistake, you weren’t supposed to get accepted. Here, let us help you out.’ But they don’t. It’s like no one knows I – I’m a fake.”

The tic took the doctor by surprise. He hadn’t shown any previous signs of speech impedement. She supposed it was the stress of the situation. She looked through the patient history. Well, she thought, it’s not the kind of thing you put on a form when you see a shrink.

“Well, it’s common for graduate students to feel this way,” she said, collecting her thoughts again. “Exceptional people are counterintuitively modest to such an extent that they don’t feel worthy of the things they have actually achieved. What were your test scores to get in here?”

“Um, I don’t remember exactly,” the student said. “But above the 50th percentile.”

“So they were pretty high?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“And your college GPA?”

“3.7.”

“Again, pretty high. And what is your GPA here?”

“3.5, but I’m pretty sure they inflate it.”

“Mmhmm.”

The doctor wrote some notes and sighed. Just another overachieving grad student freaked out by the process. She got more of these every year.

“Here,” she said. “I’m going to give you a referral to the psychiatry department, just to make sure you get a medication evaluation, but I doubt you really need anything. If you want to come back and see me in a few weeks, we can talk about some techniques to break the cycle of distortion in your thoughts about your own achievements.”

“That’s it?” he asked.

“Sorry, but this is very normal. You are very normal,” she said. “That should make you feel better.”

“Yeah, I guess it does. Thanks.”

The student got up and walked out, and the doctor returned to her paperwork. She looked down at the clipboard and realized this was a different kind of case. She spent a little time writing and then walked out of her office to the receptionist.

“Cindy, do you know why I have to make a full report for this?” she asked. “It was just another grad student with imposter’s syndrome.”

The receptionist took the top sheet and looked at it, then typed something into the computer. She read the screen.

“I dunno, but you’re supposed to submit a full report of the interaction to the head of cog sci,” Cindy replied. “I can get that sent off for you, if you want.”

“No, I got it,” she answered. The doctor returned to her office, grabbed an envelope and her jacket. The walk to cog sci was short and she was curious why they were interested in this student. Maybe there had been another incident. She found the chair of the department and gave the envelope to his assistant, a young man with a beard and a bow-tie, who thanked her with a winning smile.

“Thanks so much, Doctor,” he said. “The professor will be excited to see this report.”

“I’m a little confused why the department is exercising their right to observe this student’s file,” the doctor said. “He seemed unremarkable. Has there been an incident I haven’t been told about?”

“Oh, no, sorry,” the young man said. “He’s a test subject in the android AI department. His appointment with you was one of his Turing Tests, and it seems like he passed.”

Huh, the doctor thought. Imposter’s syndrome: that was cute. It was a pretty good one this time.

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