Ask A Shrink: Imposter Syndrome

I'm a married 42-year old professional in S.F. I continue to struggle with “impostor syndrome.” I feel like a fraud at work, at home, and with friends even sometimes!

How can I alleviate the angst of impostor syndrome?

Dear Angsty McGee,

Ooh, I love this question! I can definitely empathize. And your co-worker can probably empathize. And your boss. And your barista. And your president. And probably even your own shrink!

That's the thing of it. Most of the people around you have experienced impostor syndrome to varying degrees at some point in their lifetime. When it arises, rest assured knowing that you are one of 7.4 billion people who struggles with this.

Impostor syndrome arises when you are attempting to do something that is outside of your comfort zone. When you're hustling to push beyond limitations — be this familial, class, gender, ethnic, or historical — you are going to bump up against impostor syndrome.

But let's take a closer look at what this might be about beyond the universal human experience.

Angsty, you said that you feel like a fraud at work, at home and even with friends.

Whoa, Nelly!

According to good ol' English, an impostor is someone who deceives others by pretending to be someone else. This implies an intentional misleading of others in order to … what? That's an excellent question — and one that psychoanalysts have been pondering for over a century.

Wait — wait! Don't leave at the mere mention of psychoanalysis. This shit is about to get good.

There was this dude, Donald Winnicott, who presented this groundbreaking idea that some of us create a “false self” in our earliest development — way before conscious functioning — as a coping mechanism. He theorized that humans develop a false self when there is a deficit in the external environment that keeps us from safely expressing the fullness of our emotional experience.

For example, let's say Mom cannot tolerate her own aggression. It is so deplorable to her that the only way she could deal was by erasing her own aggressive feelings. Now, as an infant, you most certainly have aggressive urges, but if these emotions are intolerable to your primary caregiver (i.e., dear Mom) she may simply refuse to acknowledge — we're talking unconscious now, folks — that these emotions exist in you.

What does it do to have a fundamental aspect of your character denied?! Well, it is so devastating that we must find a way to cope — even if that means annihilating our most authentic selves. In efforts to avoid the pain, you create a false self — a persona of sorts — that is worthy of love.

I want to give you a hug just thinking about this.

These parts aren't lost, but rather tucked away safely inside of you, waiting for the moment that they can peek their tiny heads out and meet another's welcoming embrace. Unfortunately, our tragic human impulse to repeat traumatic experiences — in hopes of repairing them — often leads us into relationship after relationship that reinforces the idea that our true self is the worst and we must keep up the facade if we are to be loved.

So, Angsty, perhaps you got the message early on that the only way to truly be loved was to hide parts of yourself. Given this, you could be surrounded by friends, family, community and still feel completely and utterly alone.

The solution? You've got to take the risk to let these vulnerable parts of yourself into the world.

It feels extremely dangerous to risk exposing your softie parts when you don't know whether those around you are actually rejecting them or if the rejections are imaginary. Often, it's a bit of both. The unconscious is a total mindfuck.

This is where finding a therapist will come in handy.

It won't be easy, Angsty, I promise you that. Finding a way to embrace the entirety of who you are, even though you've gotten the message from the very start that you are wrong, is a terrifying endeavor.

But I can say, after seeing this process unfold time and again, it will change your life. Remember that scene in The Matrix, where Neo is offered the blue pill or the red? Yeah … it's kind of like that.

Tiffany McLain has a psychotherapy practice in San Francisco where she specializes in working with young professionals who straddle multiple identities — be this professionally, ethnically, or economically. She has been featured in Huffington Post, Psychology Today, and Psyched in San Francisco Magazine. Find out more: tiffanymclain.comDisclaimer: Though Tiffany is a licensed professional, this advice column is not therapy. It is for education and entertainment. Use at your own risk.

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