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Duck Syndrome: It’s More Serious Than It Sounds

Have you ever felt like everyone always thinks you have it all together and are doing great? But, in reality, you are stressed out to the max and just barely managing to keep up? You could have joined the raft of people experiencing symptoms of Duck Syndrome.

What is Stanford Duck Syndrome

Stanford Duck Syndrome is an informal term. It is used to refer to a mismatch between the calmness and control that someone, for all appearances and purposes, may seem, but in reality, they are not. Why ducks? Watch a duck in water. On the surface, they seem to be effortlessly drifting along the surface. There may be a few ripples as they move, but all looks calm and well. When you take a closer look underneath the water, those little legs are paddling furiously to keep them afloat. The calmness is only on the surface, underneath there is a great deal of effort needed to keep moving in the direction they want to. It can be exhausting.

Duck Syndrome or Stanford Duck Syndrome has become a popular term in the last few years to refer to this phenomenon. Why Stanford? The syndrome has been identified among college students at Stanford University, along with other colleges and high schools. It is particularly used within those of the millennial generation entering the workforce. As yet there is, however, no clinical diagnosis.

Two Other Duck Syndromes of the People Variety

  • Baby duck syndrome is a term used by computer geeks to describe how humans interact with computers. We are said to learn, like baby ducks, from the first computer system we see. We tend to base our expectations for future systems on our first imprint from our first computer, or “mother duck” that we followed so to speak!
  • Ugly duckling syndrome tends to be used for those people who grow up being singled out as different. They later blossom or transform into more socially accepted ‘norms’. They may struggle throughout life to accept that they are ok. That they are not the oddball or ugly duckling that bullies led them to believe when they were young.

Stanford Duck Syndrome Symptoms

Given there are no official diagnostic criteria for Duck Syndrome, as yet, there are no ‘formal’ symptoms. What may be obvious is how you present yourself to the outside world and others are not the same as what you what you are feeling inside.

  • You may feel like an imposter, but nobody tends to want to show themselves as a lame duck.
  • You may present and project a feeling of calmness and serenity, gliding around life effortlessly. However, in reality, your inside feels like it is tied up knots and you feel like no matter how hard you work, you aren’t really getting anywhere fast.
  • It may start out as a “faking it until you make it kind of attitude”. But, you may be hiding and denying symptoms of anxiety and depression from yourself and others.

Who Is at Risk for Stanford Duck Syndrome

There are a few general groups of people at risk for Duck Syndrome. These include:

Younger People

The millennial generation and younger students coming through high school and college are often thought of as being the most at risk for Stanford Duck Syndrome than in adults. There are enormous social pressures embedded in this age group in any generation. Right now, these baby ducks are the generations growing up with the expectation that they can have it all. Combine this with the usual social pressures associated with adolescence and growing into adults, and boom. You can you can have people unwilling to show they are coping or achieving what they thought they would.

Prolific Social Media Users

Social media encourages people to present a false facade to the world, which is a symptom of duck syndrome. Who hasn’t posed and re-posed for a selfie until they look their absolute best before posting it?! What this does though is create a false sense of needing to be perfect before you show your face. In a sense, social media users may be sitting ducks for developing duck syndrome if they only ever post what is socially acceptable as ideal.

High Achievers

When anyone has been a high-achiever in any area, the expectation and pressures from themselves and others to maintain this level of performance can be intense, and unrealistic. This is particularly so in the USA today. They may not accept and admit they are not achieving what they have in the past, or a striving to do for the future. They may continue to put up a front of being ok with what and how they are doing, but actually, they are not.

People with Existing Mental Health Conditions

People with existing or predisposition to mental health illnesses can be at risk. In particular, anyone who has social anxieties, learning problems, low self-esteem, a diagnosis of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Or anyone who finds it particularly hard to find ways to cope emotionally with the hard stuff in life.

People during Stressful Life Situations

 The big stressors of life may be risk factors for developing Duck Syndrome. These include moving to a new location, or away from home. Coping with a bereavement, financial stress or physical or psychological bullying or violence are also major stressors. In all of these situations, the pressure to say everything’s ok, when it may not be can be great.


Even for people who are not perfectionists, as such, there is a great deal of external pressure from society for perfectionism. That can include honing the perfect body, finding the perfect partner, having the perfect career, buying the perfect house. Getting the perfect marks for grades or any scoring points on any type of project outcome at school or work is desirable. No one can be perfect all of the time, and it is ok to say you are not!

How to Treat Stanford Duck Syndrome

If you think you are experiencing or developing Duck Syndrome, do not be afraid to reach out for help and support.

  • Health professionals may look for and treat any underlying conditions to help you get back on track. These may include anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues. They may look at medical interventions, and counseling or therapy exercises and sessions to talk you through your options.
  • Friends, true ones, can be a great support in accepting you just as you are. It can be a big relief in itself to find your friends and peers are struggling in similar ways you are. Talk to them, and you may find they reply saying they feel the same. Surround yourself with authentic friends and family. Choose people who have reasonable expectations and believe in you no matter what you do. People who care about your health and well-being.
  • Set yourself realistic goals to achieve for all areas of your life. If you do not quite achieve them the first time, admit it, accept it, and try again. You may need to adapt your approach. You may need to take smaller baby steps or achieve smaller stepping-stones or milestones to get to your ultimate goal.
  • Find ways to manage your stressors and mental health, in general, to try to prevent things becoming overwhelming. Sometimes this can involve reducing the number of activities you do for a while, and be simplifying your life so you are not trying to achieve it all at once.

Final Thoughts

Although not a formal clinical diagnosis, people are increasingly referring to duck syndrome as a problem for people today. It is ok and desirable to strive for what you want and need. It is equally ok to front up and admit to yourself and others if things are not quite according to plan.


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