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Confronting Imposter Syndrome

A personal reflection on imposter syndrome in the final stages of internship.

By Elise Scullin, MusicWorx Intern

On September 27, 2021, I walked into the MusicWorx office for the first time, finally starting my internship after 4 months away from school and the music therapy world. I had no idea what was in store for me in the following 6 months, but I knew I was entering a period of learning, changing, and growing. I sat down in our cozy intern office at 8 am that day, meeting my then senior interns for the first time. They were filled with excitement to welcome my co-intern and me to the team and were eager to help us navigate the experiences to come. The next three months I would watch them navigate the world of case studies, special projects, senior placements, job applications, and internship completion. I assumed, based on the highlights that they shared with the team, that the senior interns were seamlessly navigating this transition.

As I am now in the shoes they once wore, I find myself comparing my stage of the journey to theirs. Witnessing another’s success can set you up for the typical trope of comparing your everyday life to someone’s highlight reel. I did not see the hours that went into their final papers, I just saw the beautifully curated end result. I did not see the late nights and long days wondering what was coming next, I just saw the celebratory moments we shared together.

I am a perfectionist by nature. In periods of learning, I often have to check in and remind myself that it’s okay to be a student; you can’t learn things that you already know. With this tendency to expect myself to figure out all the answers, imposter syndrome comes easily to me when I am not in fact omniscient (aka, most of the time). Imposter syndrome is “a collection of feelings of inadequacy despiite evident success” as defined by Harvard Business Review. When tasked with an opportunity or experience, that critical voice often likes to chime in at inopportune times to offer its unhelpful opinion.

“I’m not qualified for that task, I can’t do that, I don’t know those answers. I’m not, I can’t, I don’t…”

Imposter syndrome is not a prophet, it’s a saboteur. It cannot predict the future or what will happen; it states opinion as fact without double-checking the information. As my to-do list, responsibilities, and expectations for myself have grown, this voice has had to shout a little louder to make itself heard. Sometimes it feels that despite my wins and successes, the first thing I hear is “you’re not meeting expectations”.

Last week I received a message from my supervisor that we would be visiting with a Healing Notes HomeCare patient that had not yet been seen by anyone on our existing team. She asked that I take the lead. The conversation that played out in my head was as follows:

Like most people, I assume, I do not enjoy living in a negative headspace. So when this happened, I had to think: just because this is the internal dialogue I heard first, is it really the one I want to listen to? I decided to sit and hear out the ‘logic’ and ‘common sense’ voices for a moment. I rationalized the situation and considered what I knew. I had:

  • patient background information (the diagnosis, main goals of care, and other personal information); 
  • recently observed similar sessions the week before;
  • background knowledge on this population from my undergraduate education; 

Heck, I had seen patients for the first time with less information and without my supervisor being present! Most importantly: in previous situations where I had to try something for the first time on my own, I experienced success and growth. Weighing the information in front of me, I decided that the imposter syndrome voice was an opinion, not a fact, and that I did, in fact, know what I was doing.

How Can I Quiet This Voice?

Confronting imposter syndrome can be difficult, especially when our initial reaction is a string of can’ts and don’ts. This previous MusicWorx blog post is filled with useful background information on imposter syndrome, as well as helpful tips and tricks to confronting it. Here is a list of actions I have taken that have helped to diminish the presence of imposter syndrome in my own life.

Writing Down My Wins

In January of this year, I had a discussion with my supervisor regarding feeling a lack of confidence in the hospital setting. A lot of this lack of confidence was due to comparing myself with my peers. I was constantly telling myself that my co-interns were having better sessions than me, and rationalizing it by comparing my “worst” sessions with the highlight moments they shared with me. My supervisor discussed making it a weekly task to write down my wins. This action forced me to address the good things I was doing, regardless of the work my co-interns were doing.

Writing down my wins has come to be one of the best tools for confronting imposter syndrome with long term effects. Doing so forces me to look at each week as a whole, as opposed to honing in on individual experiences that did not go as well as I wanted them to. Finding a way to hold myself accountable to acknowledging my accomplishments was key. I made a point of discussing these wins with my supervisors, as well as friends and family.

Initially, I felt self-centered writing down these wins; my supervisor reminded me that it’s not self-centered or boastful to actively recognize your own growth, learning and success.

Writing my wins down has been a tangible way to look back on how much I have grown and learned over my internship. Having wins does not mean that I have never messed up or had a bad day, but it does mean that I am more than my bad days. I am more than the days where I felt unsure, I am more than the days where I didn’t have the perfect response, and my successes deserve receiving as much or more spotlight than what I was willingly giving to my “failures”.

Take an Inventory

In the story I mentioned above about my first time visit with a patient, the biggest thing that helped quiet the imposter syndrome voice was taking an inventory of what I knew. While the information I assessed above was specific to the situation at hand, there are still ways to take inventory of any situation.

Establish what you already know, remind yourself of the challenges you have overcome in the past, and if all else fails, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Admitting when you need extra support requires strength, and asking for that support does not make you a failure.

But what if I fail?

One of the topics covered in MusicWorx’s previous imposter syndrome blog that resonated with me the most is the importance of reminding yourself that failing is okay. No one is perfect 100% of the time, and failure is one of the best tools for learning. Imposter syndrome thrives off of the fear of failure, but if we eliminate that fear, we can work on eliminating the power of imposter syndrome.

Take a Breath

When I get into an imposter syndrome headspace, the number one thing that I forget to do is take a breath. I’m quick to let my thoughts run rampant and fill my head with those can’ts and don’ts. However, when I take a moment to breathe, I can gain some clarity that I am most likely thinking in extremes, which helps me to turn down the volume on those negative thoughts. We always discuss the importance of breathing with our patients– we can’t forget that it works for us too!

Final Thoughts

Imposter syndrome is a bug that won’t leave you alone during an otherwise lovely outdoor dinner. Luckily, there are multiple ways to swat it away. I will never be able to 100% prevent bugs from living outdoors in my dining area, but at the end of the day I am bigger and stronger and have tools to keep them at bay. In non-metaphorical terms, we are bigger than the voice in our heads telling us that we are not worthy. We are stronger than the voice in our heads telling us that we aren’t as good as we could be. Failure is not the worst thing that can happen to us and it is a privilege to learn and grow from mistakes and experiences.

For more information on imposter syndrome and how to confront it, check out this blog.

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