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Imposter Syndrome: Who let me post this?

Only at MSP does this happen.

I’m in a class in the MA program, and Dr. King asks that we pair up and take turns following each other around, repeating out loud in a cycle our personal greatest fear.  Here’s mine: “You don’t belong here.”

It was a strangely calming experience, probably because it is so familiar.  How could I disagree?  I tell this to myself every day.

Imposter Syndrome (IS), credited[i] to psychologists Suzanne Imes, PhD, and Pauline Rose Clance, PhD, is a very real thing even though it is not currently a diagnosis in the DSM.  If you take a moment to look up it up, there are plenty of respectable media outlets to assure you that it’s real.[ii]

IS is the belief that any personal accomplishment you make is probably a fluke.  IS is the fear that, at some point, your professor will stop mid-lecture and just ask you to leave.  IS has also been described as that worry that you will be “found out” at school or at work by everyone else who has a more legitimate claim to the space[iii].

For me, IS has been around for years.  Even as a child I could hardly tolerate praise.  I use to feel anger toward my teachers for giving me good grades – how could they!  Now I just feel faintly sick.

I imagine IS strikes those of us in the helping professions more than is typical of the general population.  How can I help anyone else, when there is so much I don’t know?  What if I screw it up, and the client ends up worse?

A not-very-scientific poll of a few MSP faculty (who are also MSP alumni) revealed that although none of them feel like imposters teaching or working here after being a student, many did feel like imposters early in their experience as a therapist.

There has to be something to that – there is plenty of talk[iv] about IS striking high achieving types, but is there an extra hook for psychologists?  Is there something about the practice of doing therapy (as distinct from teaching others to do it), especially early on, that makes us extremely susceptible?

If there is, it is easy to understand, given the work, but hard to describe.  IS for beginner therapists goes deeper than just the fear that an anxious client will leave the session with more to worry about than when he arrived.  IS burrows down into wherever we carry the darkest of our self-doubts about our own right to existence…maybe some place of primal human worry about the purpose of our tiny existence in this dark, vast universe.

Or maybe not.

The only way to combat IS is the same as many other unconstructive mental habits – recognize it when it happens in the moment and call it what it is.  Maybe even arrange a (silent) pep talk when IS flares up – Okay, here are the facts about why you were accepted to this program/hired for this job/receiving a paycheck…

[i] http://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2013/11/fraud.aspx

[ii] Including… https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200911/field-guide-the-self-doubter-extra-credit?collection=1082872

[iii] http://www.forbes.com/sites/margiewarrell/2014/04/03/impostor-syndrome/

[iv] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/26/your-money/learning-to-deal-with-the-impostor-syndrome.html;


Cynthia Ransley, MA, LLPCynthia Ransley, MA, MSP Social Media Copywriter