This incident, at best, was an effort to seem humble, and, at worst, my awkward attempt to flirt. However, it was only one in a constellation of moments ranging from a facetious dismissal of a compliment to diatribes of self-deprecation. These were disparate moments—conversations between classes, wine nights with friends, and run-ins at dining halls. They were moments tied together by a single thread: an underlying belief (fear?) that I did not deserve to be at Columbia—it was a fluke in the system, a loophole I crawled through, or maybe even luck. Whatever it was, it could not be the same path my peers took: intelligence and hard work.
Describing Columbia as a higher institution for the best minds, my acceptance letter set a tone that reverberated throughout my first experiences here. Columbia was the holy land for the greatest minds to read the greatest literature, to study the greatest philosophers, and to scrutinize the greatest works created in art and music in the greatest city in the world. It characterized itself as a place where "the best things of all human history and thought" were—the institution completely monopolized greatness. When I got accepted as a transfer student to this self-proclaimed "city upon a hill," the only thought that rang through my mind was, "Why the hell am I deserving of the key to its gates?" These insidious tendrils of self-doubt that attached themselves to my psyche sophomore year became fortified as time went on.
It didn't take too much Googling to realize it was a common curse: Impostor Syndrome. The two psychologists who discovered it define it as an "internal experience of intellectual phonies." However, the term has never appeared in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and many psychologists argue it might just be a pesky symptom of people in high-achieving fields. It could be some form of pathologization of normal human emotions, but regardless, it has been easy to spot my peers' own bastions of self-doubt during my time at Columbia.
Now, I am not diagnosing the entire Columbia student body with Impostor Syndrome, but students here, perhaps in awe of the accomplishments of their peers, push back hard against praise of any sort. Many depreciate their intellect and other achievements to the point of disparagement. And I've stopped counting the number of times I've heard people wonder how they got admitted into Columbia. But here lies the problem with that irksome superlative adjective, "greatest": It represents an impossible degree of comparison and standard that no student intimately acquainted with their own mind wants to take up as their mantle.
I find it hard, as I am sure many others do, to identify with "the best things in all human history and thought," but I also find that going here means someone thought that you might be worthy of that greatness. That is the crux of the phenomenon: feeling like others see me as something I am not and fearing that those same individuals may find out the truth, that I am not the best or the greatest.
For the sake of those students—and, dare I say, faculty members, who, like me, feel like frauds waiting to be found out—we should try to collectively move forward in exterminating the infestation of impostorhood that claims too much space in our minds and fractures our identities. We should take the compliment and confirm that, while we may not be the greatest in history, we are our best selves. I do not mean we should all discard any notion of humility and the acknowledgement of the luck and privilege that played a role in all our accomplishments, including acceptance to Columbia. I make a simpler, less narcissistic suggestion to begin the new year: to stop fighting compliments and affirm your best self. Maybe none of us are the "greatest" anything yet, but we should acknowledge that we are all pretty damn good.
So, next time someone tells you that you made an interesting point or have an enviable sense of style or a great laugh, don't fight it. In 2017, there are more than enough people (as evidenced by the election) out there to tear you down. So, to the girl loitering in front of the elevator, next time, just smile and say, "Thank you."
Rekha Kennedy is a senior majoring in political science and Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies. She doesn't always accept compliments, but when she does, she says, "Thank you." You can follow her on twitter @RekhaKennedy. Rekhannisance runs alternate Tuesdays.
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