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SPH addresses impostor syndrome, phenomenon affects higher education

Students, staff and faculty alike filed into Boston University Medical Campus’ Bakst Auditorium to learn about impostor syndrome, and for those who feel affected by the syndrome, a potential cure. Valerie Young, who has explored the phenomenon and wrote a book about it, spoke to the audience at the talk organized by BU’s School of Public Health.

Young defined the impostor syndrome as “the secret belief that you’re not as intelligent, capable or talented as people think you are despite tangible evidence of accomplishments and ability.” The event drew in record-breaking numbers and required an overflow room for some audience members to view the seminar via monitor, according to Meredith Brown, special projects manager at BU SPH.

According to Young, many people attend her seminars to learn how to be cured from impostor feelings.

“I’d like to think I help people realize [being cured isn’t] necessarily the goal,” Young said in an interview. “It’s to normalize it, reframe and just keep going regardless of how you feel.”

According to Emergency Medicine News, people with impostor syndrome “live in fear that it is only a matter of time before they are found out.”

When first describing the phenomenon during the talk, Young emphasized the importance of considering the source not psychologically but contextually. Young said a potential source behind the syndrome could be overbearing parents.

Parents who provide their children with too much or not enough praise may inadvertently instill in their children a need to live up to or surpass their parents’ expectations, according to Young.

People in creative fields, Young said, are especially subject to impostor feelings because their work is judged through subjective standards by those whose review it. An individual with impostor syndrome may feel constructive criticism is a personal judgement, Young explained.

Young said individuals in the medical, technological and academic fields are also subject to impostor syndrome.

“I think a lot of people underestimate themselves and feel like they don’t belong and shouldn’t be there especially, especially in academia,” Brown said.

An academic paper from Ohio Dominican University, titled “The Impostor Phenomenon in Higher Education: Incidence and Impact,” found a pervasiveness of impostor syndrome at the college level, in students, faculty and staff.

Young expanded on how universities can enable IP behavior and pulled up a photo she took of a parking sign at UCLA that read “Nobel Laureate Only.” She said that though the university is clearly appreciative of their prestigious faculty, this is also liable to create impostor feelings. According to Young, however, she was initially invited to BU due to staff conversations.

“I believe [they] said it began as staff conversation, about what staff wanted to learn about,” Young said in the forum. “At universities, people focus on faculty and students, and then the staff are seen as the poor stepchildren on campus, so they’re perceived as, ‘Well, you don’t have this degree’ or whatever. So they often get neglected in terms of staff development and training.”

Cristian Morales, who is completing a master’s in the College of Engineering, said he found Young’s seminar to be extremely helpful and attested to the widespread popularity of the talk.

“The fact that this was such a well-attended event with an entirely packed room, and then the spillover room, shows that this is a normal thing that a lot of people will feel,” Morales said. “To start normalizing failure, to start realizing that nobody’s perfect, that we can’t know everything, that we can’t do everything all the time, and to start accepting that.”

During the seminar, Young encouraged audience participation by asking those in attendance to raise their hands if they were a part of a certain demographic. As hands were raised — and lowered — Young’s activity demonstrated that a wide array of people from students, professionals, faculty and people out in the corporate world are all subject to impostor feelings.

“Dr. Young talks about normalizing that feeling and realizing everyone’s going through that, and that you’re working and you are qualified,” Brown said. “You should be there.”


Featured image courtesy of Pixabay user John Hain

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