Overcoming Imposter Syndrome and the Impact of Hyperdocumentation

Overcoming Imposter Syndrome and the Impact of Hyperdocumentation

By Jesus Cisneros, Ph.D. and Alonso Reyna Rivarola

Published on August 27, 2021

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What Is Hyperdocumentation?

Hyperdocumentation is a coping strategy used by undocumented individuals. It consists of accumulating documents in the form of awards and degrees "to compensate for a feeling of unworthiness." Critical scholar Aurora Chang developed the concept of hyperdocumentation in 2011.

This coping strategy fits within an American model of worth that stems from educational success. Having lived in the U.S. for a significant part of their lives, many undocumented students have developed "American" identities and adopted dominant meritocratic worldviews.

Hyperdocumentation is one of the few ways undocumented students have been able to feel a sense of legitimacy within a national climate of fear and suspicion.

How Hyperdocumentation Impacts Imposter Syndrome

Wrapped in the politics of the DREAM Act and DACA, hyperdocumentation has protected many undocumented students from the fear of looking "illegal," being deemed unworthy, and being ordered to leave the U.S.

With hyperdocumentation, undocumented students aim to achieve a sense of belonging, worthiness, and Americanness by gaining awards, accolades, and degrees.

However, despite achieving hyperdocumentation, many undocumented students still face significant intolerance and the effects of being low-income, undocumented, and of color.

However, despite achieving hyperdocumentation, many undocumented students still face significant intolerance and the effects of being low-income, undocumented, and of color.

When an undocumented student does not meet the level of documentation that brings a sense of belonging, imposter syndrome can set in and cause students to doubt their talents, skills, and abilities.

This feeling has often impacted the success and persistence of first-generation students and students of color. For undocumented students that hold these identities, the impact can be quite burdensome.

As Alberto Ledesma, author of "In the Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer," recalls from his father, "Mijo, it doesn't matter how good you think your English is, la migra will still get you."

Strategies to Overcome Imposter Syndrome and Hyperdocumentation

Recognize when and why you feel the pressure to perform.

Being the first, the only, or one of the few can create pressure for undocumented students to represent their entire group. In these contexts, pressure might be a normal response to stereotype threat and hostility against undocumented immigrants.

Acknowledging the pressure that undocumented students feel to perform can help demystify the experience. Naming the phenomenon of hyperdocumentation and recognizing that it is a shared experience may help undocumented students feel more empowered.

Begin to deconstruct your thinking.

Hyperdocumentation can uphold dangerous discourses about who counts as an idealized "good" immigrant deserving of citizenship and who does not. We must all challenge ourselves and others to understand how such ideologies oppress our communities and pressure others to perform.

Remember that social context matters in determining how you feel about yourself.

It is important to reframe hyperdocumentation not as a problem that ariseswithinundocumented students, but rather as a byproduct of oppression and discrimination. Understanding hyperdocumentation involves exploring the ways meritocracy and white nationalism have been embedded in immigration laws and discourses.

Build community to increase feelings of belonging.

Undocumented students must receive support from mentors, professors, and programs at their schools. Undocumented student organizations and resource centers can provide opportunities for these students to build support networks.

Relationships are key to our sense of belonging. When undocumented students surround themselves with positive and healthy relationships, they may feel more supported and connected to a community.

Reframe hyperdocumentation as a step toward self-empowerment.

Undocumented students who initially sought an award, accolade, or degree to compensate for their undocumented status are still permanently enriched by those experiences.

No immigration policy can take away the knowledge and abilities that students gain from their academic achievements. Undocumented students should celebrate their accomplishments — not because they need to prove anything to anyone, but because they developed important skills and achieved personal growth.

Too often, undocumented students are pressured to be high-achieving to justify a pathway to citizenship. Hyperdocumentation can lead to burdensome and unachievable goals with real mental health distress outcomes. We must work to create a future where undocumented students can instead focus on documenting joy and everyday life.

Feature Image: Carol Yepes / Moment / Getty Images

When it comes to race and status, Black undocumented students encounter many challenges. Read this interview to learn more about their experiences. Explore mental health challenges for undocumented students and get tips to help manage stress, anxiety, and marginalization. Learn how student affairs professionals on campus approach advising and supporting undocumented student experiences.