I used to work in community mental health. That is to say, I spent long hours attempting to help folks with poor resources, intractable mental illness and life circumstances that would knock most of us down for the count. Though I loved being on the front lines in that way (and think absolutely every therapist should do it before entering private practice) I often felt ground down by the hopelessness my clients articulated. Even if I viewed them as capable, vibrant individuals with lots to give the world, many of them didn’t view themselves that way. I found it maddening. How could I convince them that they were worthy and intelligent?
This was a problem I thought I would not be facing any longer when I moved exclusively to private practice. I mean, my clientele now consisted of NASA scientists, my elected officials, lawyers and professional performers and athletes just to name a few. If we gathered all these folks in one place, they truly represent the creme de la creme of their disciplines. Yet, the story in my therapy room was much the same. No matter what professional heights they had reached, they were terrified that at any moment, the world would pull back the curtain and see that they were not all that great after all. It wasn’t that they were awesome, they told me. Nope, it was that they had tricked everyone into simply thinking that they were. Pretty soon, they reasoned, we would all figure out that underneath the degrees, muscles or charisma there was an empty shell where the intelligence and virtuosity should be. And boy, would the rest of us all be ticked that we had fallen for it. (Well, that or we would be smugly satisfied and get a good laugh out of it.)
Therapists call this particular phenomenon Imposter Syndrome. Though it’s not an officially recognized disorder (and personally, I don’t view it as a disorder–just an unhelpful way of thinking) it is a growing trend as far as I can tell. It used to be mostly thought of as something to which high-achieving women, minorities and folks in academia fell prey. But, more recent studies have demonstrated that it is increasingly wide-spread. Imposter Syndrome is associated with personality traits of perfectionism, thus making it pretty ironic that the folks most of us would evaluate as most capable are the ones who suffer intensely.
So, what can you do about it?
1) Be Present: I’m not saying this in a new-agey kind of way. Like, really, take stock of this moment and what is actually going on right now. When we have anxiety, worry is the activity we engage in to bind it up and do something with it. But, if we think about it, the whole point of worry (even when it’s warranted) is to project what could happen and attempt to avoid the bad outcomes. That sounds logical until you realize that you are a super-duper creative individual when it comes to worry. We all are. We can come up millions of things that could happen. And, when we do that, we are off in theory land. We can’t process the now, which is usually a far nicer place than our projections if we’re constantly somewhere else. Even if it isn’t much nicer, it’s all we can control at this moment.
2) Mind your mental coin purse: I’ve mentioned in other blogs that thoughts are like taxis in NYC. Another one will come along any second if you don’t jump in this one. Be selective about which rides you’re willing to take. You’re paying for it if you take it both metaphorically and literally. You are offering mental/emotional/spiritual resources to that thought if you entertain it. Also, if you are constantly entertaining very negative, panic-provoking thoughts you are paying for it physically as well. Be a good steward of your resources.
3) Help Others: In all honestly, I remember more about how great of a therapist I am when I mentor other therapists than when I am with clients. If you have a skill set that you can share, you can hone it further by articulating it to your colleagues or those just coming up in your field. If you have to explain it rather than just doing it, the details become clearer.
Are you worried that the world will soon figure out your charade? Do you need help reminding yourself that you deserve the fruits of your labor? Why don’t you come on in so that we can talk about it?
Your Partner in Healing,
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