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“Impostor Syndrome on a College Campus” – Dr. Lisa Orbé-Austin’s Keynote Address to the Holy Cross Community

Hui Li ’21

Co-Chief Graphic Designer

On Wednesday, September 30, the Office of Multicultural Education (OME) welcomed a visitor to deliver a virtual keynote address to members of the Holy Cross community. Dr. Lisa Orbé-Austin, a licensed psychologist and executive coach with a PhD in counseling psychology from Columbia University, is the co-founder of Dynamic Transitions Psychological Counseling, a consultancy that focuses on career advancement and leadership development.

She has served as a speaker for several national conferences and was featured on news outlets such as the New York Times (NYT), the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), and the Huffington Post. Dr. Orbé-Austin and her husband Richard wrote Own Your Greatness: Overcome Impostor Syndrome, Beat Self-Doubt, and Succeed in Life, an interactive self-help book that has been available for purchase online since April 2020. Over 70 students, faculty, and staff registered to hear her keynote address, titled “Impostor Syndrome on a College Campus.”

Dr. Orbé-Austin began her talk with a statistic: she stated while a common estimate for the percentage of people who experience Imposter Syndrome during their lifetimes is around 70%, more recent studies suggest the actual number may actually be as high as 82%. She added that as a psychologist, people often ask her whether Impostor Syndrome is a mental illness. “It is not. It is a phenomenon. It is an experience that people have that follow a bunch of signs and symptoms, but it is not a mental health disorder,” she said.

While the term “Imposter Syndrome” is commonly associated with celebrities like Michelle Obama, who recently shared that she had Impostor Syndrome, the concept of this phenomenon is not new. Imposter Syndrome was first brought to the attention of the psychological research community by two psychologists working in a college counseling center in the late 1970s. However, despite its nearly 50-year history in the field, the phenomenon is not as extensively researched as mental health disorders are.

Dr. Orbé-Austin spoke about the signs of Impostor Syndrome, which include high achievement with constant feelings of inadequacy and frequent attribution of success to other factors such as luck. People with Imposter Syndrome are more likely to discount praise that others give them for their achievements and instead feel fear and guilt about their successes. In addition to underestimating themselves, they may also tend to overestimate others and think that others are more competent than they are.

Among the four “Hallmarks of Imposter Syndrome” that Dr. Orbé-Austin and her husband have identified are habits of diligence and hard work to the point of overworking, intellectual inauthenticity to the point of downplaying one’s intelligence and skill, charm and perceptiveness that people with Impostor Syndrome attribute their achievements to instead of their own competencies, and seeking mentorship solely for external validation. Dr. Orbé-Austin also proposed “Impostor Cycles” that stem from performance anxiety, which is a common trigger for the symptoms of Impostor Syndrome. People who experience this phenomenon may believe that they are frauds in their field and that must overwork to compensate for the feeling of inadequacy. Others may respond to performance anxiety with self-sabotage or procrastination.

Dr. Orbé-Austin stated that people with Impostor Syndrome may have had childhood experiences that lead to their signs and symptoms today. Many people who experience this phenomenon tend to work hard or overwork themselves from a young age either out of pressure to succeed or out of necessity to achieve and survive.

She also mentioned the misconception that Impostor Syndrome only affects women. In the earliest research on the concept, the psychologists started to notice the traits in mainly the female faculty and staff. While this assumption was common in earlier research into the concept, more recent studies suggest that men experience Imposter Syndrome as well, although they tend to take fewer risks and affiliate with peers who are less-experienced than they are while women are more likely to struggle with a fear of fraudulence when they strive to achieve success.

Images courtesy of OME and Canva. Graphic design by Hui Li ’21.

Impostor Syndrome can affect students both during and after their time in college. Students with Impostor Syndrome tend to overwork, struggle to balance their schedules, have difficulty internalizing their strengths and assets, feel undeserving of praise, minimize their accomplishments and stick to simpler narratives in their job searches, and feel reluctant to network and form connections because they are afraid that they will be exposed as a fraud.

People from marginalized or underrepresented backgrounds also face what Dr. Orbé-Austin calls a “double impact.” She stated that for people of color and first-generation college students, “it is both the internal experience of the Impostor Syndrome, feeling that you’re fraudulent, feeling like you make one mistake and it’s like ‘it’s all over,’ and then [there is] also an external environment that tells them that ‘you don’t belong here, you are a diversity candidate/hire, you are not truly qualified to be here, you are truly an impostor.’ That double impact really makes it difficult to actually overcome your Impostor Syndrome.”

Dr. Orbé-Austin shared her own experience as an Afro-Latinx woman who was also a first-generation student in college. She said that it was difficult to know what to expect from the college experience because “no one had that knowledge” in her family. She felt more pressure to succeed and struggled with the implications of what it could mean to surpass others in her family by going to college. Dr. Orbé-Austin also added slides explaining how factors such as the fear of “messing up” after a hard-earned acceptance into a college and the lack of models on campus can contribute to the complexities of Impostor Syndrome for first-generation college students.

Citing recent research on the topic, Dr. Orbé-Austin shared some advice for students facing the double impact. “One of the central protective factors is finding community around that identity. Finding other people who are in that similar identity, who also are in a similar field and have some similarities in the area that you’re struggling [so] you share your experiences of Imposter Syndrome…so people can actually reinforce that the fact that you belong,” she said.

Dr. Orbé-Austin closed her presentation with what she calls the “3 C’s Model”: Clarify, Choose, and Create. She stated that in order to intervene on Impostor Syndrome, it is important to people to develop a sense of clarity regarding their particular version of Impostor Syndrome, which include identifying an “origin story” for the phenomenon, knowing what triggers their Impostor Cycles, and changing their narrative to include more enriching details about their experiences. By taking closer looks at the roots of their Impostor Syndromes, people can emerge with a newfound knowledge of how certain factors and specific scenarios may contribute to their anxieties and work toward new behaviors to help mitigate the impact the negative feelings can have on their lives.

People with Impostor Syndrome can also benefit from choosing to embrace their assets, silence their automatic negative thoughts (ANTs), and care for themselves. Among the many ANTs that Dr. Orbé-Austin mentioned in her presentation were the “Mindreading ANT,” where people assume what others are thinking about them, the “Labeling ANT,” where people attribute negative character traits to themselves, the “Catastrophizing ANT,” where people consider the worst-case scenario when thinking about outcomes,  and the “Unfair Comparisons ANT,” where people judge themselves using unrealistic standards based on people whom they perceive to have more experience and success than they do.   

Creating new “roles” for people with Impostor Syndrome is a key step in overcoming these thoughts. Dr. Orbé-Austin listed “the Superperson,” “the Failure Avoider,” and “the Behind-the-Scenes Leader” as some of the “typical roles for Impostor Syndrome.” Some of the new “roles” that she proposed that people with Impostor Syndrome experiment with included “the Collaborator,” “the Risk-Taker,” and “the Visible Leader.” It is also important to have a “dream team” of supporters, including and not limited to “the Cheerleader,” “the Mentor,” and “the Big-Picture Person.”

During the Q&A session after her talk, Dr. Orbé-Austin gave some advice to students who may be struggling with Impostor Syndrome: “Find community! Don’t hide your experience, share it. Find people who will help you cope with it and bring it out into the sunlight and address it proactively. [Don’t] let this go unsupported and un-dealt with. Work on dealing with those automatic negative thoughts – that skill is so useful! And if you really develop good skills around dealing with your automatic negative thoughts, it can really help when you’re triggered. [It is also important to] understand ‘how the heck did this happen?’ and how your [Imposter Syndrome] developed the way it did.”

The Spire contacted Michelle Rosa-Martins, the director of the Office of Multicultural Education, for comment regarding planning the talk. “The goal of this event was to highlight an experience that impacts students, faculty, and staff alike. Our hope was to put language and words to the feeling of impostor syndrome and start a conversation about this among members of our community,” stated Rosa-Martins.According to the Office of Multicultural Education, Dr. Orbé-Austin has agreed to lead a training session for faculty and staff. In her comment earlier this week, Rosa-Martins said, “The hope of the upcoming training session is to support faculty and staff as they begin to identify attributes of impostor syndrome in the classroom and learn how to help students navigate their Holy Cross experience.”

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