This syndrome is basically when you sit in a class, amazed by the questions others ask or the insights they have, and think “I could never be like them. I’m the dumbest one here.”
I first saw evidence of this misconception in a Differential Geometry course in my last year of undergrad. All of my math courses before then had been mostly silent, and this one was no different. One day, I turned and asked someone a question before class. Soon we all began chatting. We quickly realized that we all assumed each other was brilliant, and we each assumed we were the dunce of the course. Because each of us understood different pieces. If I understand piece A but not piece B, then I assume anyone could understand A – if I understand it, and I’m a dunce, then everyone must understand A. But my classmate understands B and not A. I assume she understands both – she assumes I understand both.
A group of my classmates and I formed in informal support group for a class. Directly after class each day we would go somewhere for lunch and talk about how confusing the course was, and how brilliant everyone else was. I started to realize that “If every one of us is the stupidest kid in the class, then we must all be about as stupid and about as brilliant.”
In a way, this syndrome may go hand-in-hand with the “if I’m not clearly the most brilliant student in the room, then I must be the dumbest.”
This syndrome is similar. My advisor talked to me and classmates (he was also my instructor for both semesters my first year) about how normal it is for a graduate student to come into grad school thinking, “Why am I here? I don’t feel like I belong. If they knew who I really was — all my weakness and dumb thoughts — then they would kick me out.” I still have this syndrome and I’m almost graduating!
I have found my best strategy for both syndromes is to talk to classmates and faculty when I’m feeling dense. They can either reassure me (which is addicting – so try not to over-use this strategy!) or share their own struggles and strategies.
When I am feeling overwhelmed, it’s easy to quickly get sucked down and it’s easy to suck other people down with me in a spiral of negativity. So it’s important to approach conversations with a view that this struggle is temporary, you can be brilliant just like everyone else (remember: growth mindset, not fixed mindset!), and that there are strategies to practice.