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Adia-Gooden-web“How would you engage in your life if you knew you were wonderful just as you are?” Dr. Adia Gooden asked Milton students. “I want you to think about what you would have the courage to do if you knew you were worthy.”

Dr. Gooden, a licensed clinical psychologist, visited campus as this year’s Talbot Speaker. She is the director of community programs and outcome measurement at the Family Institute at Northwestern University. She spoke with students about the issues of imposter syndrome and low self-worth, things that make even the highest achievers feel as if they are unworthy in their day-to-day lives.

Imposter syndrome makes a person feel as if they don’t belong in a place, even when they have been specifically chosen to be there. For students at a selective school like Milton, or for adults in their workplaces, that feeling can manifest itself in different ways: People may “make themselves small” and fly under the radar for fear that others will discover they don’t belong; they may procrastinate on tasks they feel unqualified to complete; or they may put unsustainable pressure on themselves to be perfect.

Low self-worth can affect anyone, Dr. Gooden said, and she believes it is the root of many mental illnesses. People are constantly exposed to messages—internal and external—that tell them they’re not adequate for various reasons, and those in marginalized communities are especially vulnerable, she explained.  

Struggle and discomfort are normal, even helpful, parts of growth. A person’s value is not in their possessions or achievements, but in their individuality, she reminded students. She offered four strategies for students to feel worthy and a sense of belonging: Practice self-acceptance; practice self-compassion, especially after mistakes, and allow yourself to feel your real emotions; connect to supportive people; and identify your unique strengths and what you can contribute to your community.

Social media, despite its usefulness in connecting people, exacerbates both imposter syndrome and low self-worth, according to Dr. Gooden. “It’s become easier and easier to spend hours comparing ourselves to one another,” she said. Disabling app notifications can help social media users check their feeds only when they want to, and not because they feel compelled to. 

The Samuel S. Talbot ’65 Memorial Fund for Counseling and Community Issues, established in 1993, enhances the School’s efforts in teaching community members about affective behavioral issues.