Do you ever feel like you’re about to be found out? Like you don’t belong and it’s only a matter of minutes until the people around you realize it? Or maybe there will be a realization on their part that your credentials or qualifications are undeserved?
I’ve been Dr. Bell for over 15 years and will still look around for my father-in-law when hearing the title being used. Heck, I’ve been Mrs. Bell for over 20 years and assume the person is addressing my mother-in-law. My husband and I joke that we’re amazed the hospital let us bring our daughter home from the hospital 10 years ago. How did the staff think we were ready to be competent parents? Obviously, they didn’t know we struggled to keep plants and fish alive in our home. I’ll try to identify someone more grown-up than I am when trying to figure out who’s the adult in the room. There’s got to be someone more “adultier” than I am to take responsibility.
To a certain extent, these reactions are typical. It can take a while to adjust to the new identities that are associated with going through life transitions. However, when someone has difficulty assuming these new elements (titles, recognitions, positions), it can lead to further-reaching issues within their lives.
Imposter syndrome is the term used when someone doubts their abilities and feels like a fraud. Generally speaking, this affects people who are high achieving and find it difficult to accept the accomplishments they’ve legitimately earned. Many question whether they’re deserving of accolades.
This can connect to a lot of insecurities and self-doubt. When receiving a recognition, there is a swarm of questions that accompany it. Was I really good enough? Was someone else more deserving? What was missed or overlooked when determining this recognition? When will “they” change their mind and rescind this? How am I going to get found out?
Each of these questions taps into an anxiety or a worry. These then, in turn, circle around to the underlying themes of inadequacy and not feeling good enough. Framing this differently, it can be considered a form of perfectionism.
The perfectionist trap hones in on the “not good enough” areas of life. Given that you’re the only one with a truly inside scoop to your own life, you can identify all the flaws that no one else sees. Consider it your blooper reel, only each of these bloopers is magnified and given far more attention than the rest of your footage. Because you see these so-called flaws and attach such weight to them, there’s the assumption that others must be seeing them as well (obviously, how could they not?). The “logical” conclusion is that it’s only a matter of time before others become aware of the obvious flaws and short-comings that are laid out for everyone to see if they only look close enough.
I put logical in quotes because, while it may seem clear and direct to you, the interpretation of the situation is not logical but skewed by the perfectionism. It can feel uncomfortable to accept recognition, praise, or accolades. Thoughts run through your mind as to why you shouldn’t be the recipient.
Disqualifying the positive, a type of distorted thinking, means your brain narrows in on the negative “evidence” that supports your being undeserving and discounts all that would support your being worthy of the recognition. Perhaps you shouldn’t be considered good at math because you got 5% wrong on the test. The 95% that you did get correct was a fluke – the problems were too easy or you got them right by chance. You only got the lead in the play because the director didn’t hear you flub a line or see you trip as you exited the stage.
To counter this, try to identify things within that 95%, things that went well in the given scenario. The more you teach yourself to seek out the positive, the more this can become a habit. As your brain pulls out these elements, there’s a decent chance that you can connect these successes to things that you did to facilitate the process. While the scenario may not have been perfect, you contributed to it going well. Your brain can twist around the meanings and find ways to discount kernels of positivity. Your challenge is to recognize that those positive elements are present and to allow them to be present.
I like to remind myself that my brain only latches onto these specific areas of perceived fraud because they embody themes that are personally relevant and meaningful to me. This area is likely something that defines an aspect of your identity – family role, profession, talent or skill, characteristic. Perfection feeds on these elements because there can always be ways to improve and to do more. Consequently, by having areas where you could do more, it must mean that you currently are not doing enough.
Are you a good enough parent? “Mom Guilt” is a strong cultural construct that feeds directly into this. Beginning with breastfeeding and homemade organic meals and continuing through to screen time and college visits, there is no end to all the things that you could be doing for your child. The inner voice could tell you that you aren’t a good enough parent unless you’re doing all these things PLUS making brownies for the theater cast party tomorrow night. It isn’t possible to do all of them and you may not want to do them.
Are you “competitive” in your pursuit of choice? I personally dislike how many activities have been redefined as competitions because this can distract from the enjoyment and growth of participating in the activity for its own sake. The focus is redirected from engaging in an artistic endeavor to measuring the form of expression against others’ standards. It simply isn’t possible to always be the top or the best. When you aren’t standing on the top of the podium, ask yourself why you continue to participate. Are you only in it for the pursuit of the podium or are you enjoying the activity and the process?
My work as a psychologist is very important to how I view myself. I’ve invested myself in this career since beginning graduate school in 1997. When I’m around other professionals, I find it hard to see myself as “psychologisty” as them. They’ve been practicing longer. They’ve done more research. They’ve published articles or books. They sound more professional than I do.
I’m really helping boost your confidence in my work as a psychologist, aren’t I?
That’s when I step back from the moment and reflect. I am a psychologist and have been licensed since 2008. I’ve earned that title and that degree; they didn’t come from a Cracker Jacks box. I don’t do research because I have chosen to not pursue that path – I don’t like research. I do like clinical work and I’m confident that I’m good at it. I may not have articles or books published, but how does that negate my being a psychologist? The majority of clinicians don’t publish and I don’t see them as being “less than” those that do publish. So why do I judge myself by that standard? If and when I choose to write more than these blog posts, I can do that. It is separate from my legitimacy as a psychologist. And as for sounding professional, I don’t hear myself as professorial or articulate but I know I can effectively communicate ideas to colleagues and clients alike. I pride myself on being personable and engaging. So I’m a “feelings doctor” who collaborates with people to face their worries and to navigate the challenges in their lives. That’s what matters, not the “psycho-babble” that describes the process.
As I ask myself about the choices and actions, I’ve engaged in that reinforce my being a real live psychologist, see what you can reflect on for yourself.
Ask yourself, how have you been present for your child or your family? Are they alive? That counts! Did your teenager emerge from their bedroom for more than thirty seconds and utter some noises in your direction? That counts too!
Did you do something related to your own pursuits?
Did you do something that brought joy into your life?
Did you find a way to grow or challenge yourself?
My daughter refers to perfectionism and Imposter Syndrome as a fatal flaw. It can be what stops people the most because it can block the efforts before they even start. There’s a worry that if you think positively about yourself, it’s a sign of being full of yourself or being prideful. Instead, consider that thinking positively about your actions is a sign of your finding pleasure and fulfillment in your choices. As you identify what went well, you also are identifying what you’ve done well. Hold onto these as evidence of how you are enough, how you are not an imposter. You are enough.