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Impostor Syndrome

By Becky Bressan, MusicWorx Intern

Just imagine…

You walk out of an interview, and you’re sure that you tanked it. Every single thing you could have said wrong, you did. Oh, and the interviewer’s face; they must think that you’re such an idiot, bringing up that other job you had when you were a kid. And you wore red. Why did you decide to wear red? It’s too flashy; they probably think you don’t understand what professional dress looks like. Everyone else at the company was wearing black and grey, obviously you just showed you wouldn’t fit in. 

A sick feeling fills your stomach and you know it will be a miracle if you get a call back. 

Low and behold, two days later you do get a call back! Not only did you get the job, but they were so impressed with you that they offered you a position with room for promotion to management if the first 6 months go well. The sick feeling reemerges with vengeance. No, that can’t be right. You tanked the interview. You must have tricked them somehow. You sold them some lie. You’re not really as confident as you came across in that interview, you don’t have the skills for management, you don’t have the knowledge to fill this position. You can’t really do this job. And they offered you way too much money! You’re not worth that much money… Best to just turn down the position instead of seeing their disappointed faces when you end up being a fraud.

This scene isn’t pretty, is it? The negative self-talk probably seems so harsh and illogical. This person is finding every possible thing wrong with themselves that they can, and is quitting based on a fantasy they created in their head. A fantasy where they are doomed to fail, because they can’t see how they could succeed. Their only rationale for how they acquired the job is that they tricked the interviewer. 

This scene may be completely irrational to you, or all too familiar – but regardless of where you fall on this spectrum, know that this line of thought is more common than you would think. What I described above is the exact scenario that played out in my head after every college interview, every job interview, and almost every professional conversation I’ve had since my first job. If you ask my mother to tell the story, she will do an impression of me stating that almost every interview I had went “absolutely terrible, you would not believe how awful it was, I can never show my face again.” My mother then rolls her eyes, and says I’m a perfectionist and an overachiever, and that I always do fine. 

And much to my confusion, she’s usually right. 

So, why, despite the world showing me that I have no reason to think so negatively, do I continue to get wrapped up in this thought process? Why do I anticipate that I’m going to fail? Why do I have to be perfect before I can even engage in an activity? I don’t hold anyone else to these impossible standards. A few years ago, I learned a phrase that added some logic to my illogical thoughts and actions. I, and many others, experience something called Impostor Syndrome or the Impostor Phenomenon. 

Source: dewanemutunga.com/imposter-syndrome

What is Impostor Syndrome and is it contagious???

Impostor Syndrome is a phrase coined by psychologists Dr. Suzanne Imes and Dr. Pauline Rose Clance in the 1970s. They describe the phenomenon as an internal dialog where people are unable to internalize and accept their success. People that usually experience Impostor Syndrome often are labeled as high achievers and often attribute their accomplishments to luck rather than ability, and fear that others will eventually unmask them as a fraud  (American Psychology Association, 2013). While Impostor Syndrome is not a psychological diagnosis, many psychologists recognize it as a common form of self-doubt and negative self-talk that often leads to anxiety and depression. One study shows that over 20% of students in a given sample experienced feelings of “impostorism” and that those feelings affect the student’s daily life. 

“In our society there is a huge pressure to achieve,” Imes says. “There can be a lot of confusion between approval and love and worthiness. Self-worth becomes contingent on achieving” (American Psychology Association, 2013). Due to this connection, those who experience Impostor Syndrome feel that the more they achieve, the farther they have to fall, and/or the more of a facade they feel they’ve built. Instead of success being a sign of competence and skill, it’s really a sign that they have to work that much harder to stay “worthy.” 

But how does Imposter Syndrome emerge? Is it something we’re doomed to experience based on personality? Or is something that comes from our environment and society? Are certain people more likely to experience it than others? 

Psychologists currently believe that Imposter Syndrome is usually a result of societal constructs and one’s environment as they grow up. There is a strong correlation between those who experience the Imposter Phenomenon and those who grew up in environments and cultures where there is a strong emphasis on achievement. This correlation becomes stronger when there are mixed signals in the child’s environment between overpraise and  criticism. 

Further research has also shown that Impostor Syndrome is common amongst minorities. One interview on the subject speaks to how success feels linked to pity or sympathy from others, not merit. The interviewee states, “I was taught I would need to ‘work twice as hard to be half as good.’ While this instills a goal-oriented approach within me, it also keeps me feeling as though my efforts will never be enough” (Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 2013).

Source: larpmusic.com/feeling-like-a-fraud

Impostor Syndrome and Music Therapy

Impostor Syndrome is commonly seen amongst those engaging in new challenges and during transitional points in life. What fits that description? One example: music therapy students beginning their internships, testing for board certification, or starting their first jobs.. As a young professional in a young field there are so many uncertainties – especially when you are constantly told to trust your “therapeutic instincts.” 

What does that even mean? What if my instincts are wrong? What if I have the therapeutic instincts of a cactus? 

… And there goes the negative self talk. Let’s try that again. As a young professional in a young field, the feeling that you are tricking everyone around you comes easily. If they saw a real music therapist, they wouldn’t think you are good at your job. If they only knew what music therapy could be, they wouldn’t hire you. This feeling is only amplified when advocating for the field. How do we explain to other allied health professionals, parents, clients, patients, teachers, etc., that we are valuable to the team when we do not feel like a valuable member of the team? 

The original studies on impostor syndrome believed that it was unique to women; yet, further studies found that such experiences are also common in men. Is there is still a higher correlation between women and impostor syndrome though? Some believe there is, which would make sense when thinking about the gendered roles that women have been breaking out of over the past 60 years. If this gendered connection does exist, it would also make sense why Impostor Syndrome is prevalent in the field of Music Therapy where approximately 88% of therapists identify as female (AMTA, 2017). 

One small sample study done by Julia Sims showed overwhelming evidence that Imposter Syndrome is evident in Music Therapy students (2017). In this study Sims found that her entire sample of music therapy students felt that they experienced some level of Impostor Syndrome. And when looking at the root of those feelings, Sims found common themes of “educational transitions, transition of the music therapy profession, and awareness and prevalence of IP [imposter phenomenon] constructs and patterns” (2017). 

In my experience as a student, research assistant, and intern within the music therapy field, this all rings true. I have had so many conversations on this topic, where as students we often find ourselves as the experts on music therapy because few know of it. And yet, we are students; still learning and growing. This push-and-pull can amplify those feelings of being a fraud, especially as we start internship and begin interacting with clients and patients 40 hours a week. I have often felt like me being the therapist assigned is a disservice, because they could have had a real music therapist.

Source: https://medium.com/datadriveninvestor/why-imposter-syndrome-affects-the-most-successful-people-d3e5c8bb977e

Tips and Tricks to Beat Impostor Syndrome

However, to complete my education, and grow as a therapist and a person I have to treat patients and clients; I have to make room for myself to make mistakes. Am I simply doomed to feel anxious and inadequate my entire life/career? 

While that thought would be a dramatic ending to this blog, it wouldn’t be extremely helpful. Instead, let’s focus on some tips and tricks we can all use to control the feelings of inadequacy.

 

Identify and focus on your strengths 

This one is important, because when these feelings of self-doubt surface, we start feeling like we can’t do anything. But that’s simply not true. So make a list of your strengths and look at them often. If you’re having trouble coming up with strengths, ask your mentors, peers, or supervisors. These strengths aren’t your only ones, and they don’t limit you, but they can help you stay grounded when that negative voice starts up. Check out this blog for more on the topic of strengths. 

 

Realize that failing is okay

Saying the word fail is hard for me; it feels harsh. Try it yourself: “failing is okay.” We grow the most from failures or mistakes, and it’s part of learning. And oftentimes, you can find a way to fix what you did incorrectly. 

 

Normalize talking about failures (because we all experience them)

A few years ago, I was at a symposium and the keynote speaker told a story about how he made a mistake with a patient early in his clinical practice. This story was so meaningful to me, because here was this amazing music therapist who is widely recognized saying, “yeah, I messed up, I learned from it. It’s not okay, but it’s part of the learning process and we’re only human.” Have these conversations, and normalize the fact that we all make mistakes and we can’t know everything.  Have constructive conversations about your blunders and failures. Normalize that kind of education. 

 

Talk to your mentors 

Mentors, supervisors, professors: these people are resources for a reason. Whether you are a student or a music therapist that has been in the field for 40 plus years, you can always engage in supervision. Find someone you trust and talk about those feelings of inadequacy, talk about strategies for when you feel like a fraud. Ask for advice, ask for reassurance, ask for a new perspective on the thoughts swirling around in your head. If you are currently lacking a supervisor or mentor that benefits you, check out these services

 

My Personal Action Items: 

Here are some things that work for me when the self-doubt starts taking over: 

  • Create lists of things you can and cannot control 
  • Create list of realistic expectations for yourself 
    • I like to do this as if I was writing it for someone else. I’m usually kinder that way.
  • Look at the realistic worst case scenario and how you would handle it
    • Realizing I can handle the worst helps me find perspective 
  • Write yourself a supportive letter you can read after an upcoming experience that’s causing anxiety
  • Talk to your peers, friends, and family 
  • Remember that you are enough, and being a good therapist does not mean that you have to be perfect. You’ve worked hard to get where you are.
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