Friday, February 23, 2024

Imposter Syndrome

By David S. Prescott, LICSW, and Kasia Uzieblo, PhD 

At last year’s ATSA conference, David had the good fortune to facilitate two discussion groups for people who, due to their circumstances, don’t have many colleagues with whom they can speak openly. By far the two biggest topics that came up were working in isolation and imposter syndrome, also known more recently as “imposterism.”

During these sessions, newcomers to the field heard from us old-timers, who all agreed that we still feel it often. It all reminded me of the time — years ago — when a world-famous researcher openly discussed how even his submissions have occasionally not been accepted for the ATSA conference. While many simply acknowledged having had the same experience, many more thanked the researcher profusely, saying they were grateful to know that they were not alone; it can happen to anyone! 

Have you ever had that feeling that someday you will be outed as the fraud you fear you might be? I (David) am very lucky that I was far along in my career, with nothing to prove to anyone, when a disgusted colleague approached me.  My name had come up in conversation with a prominent researcher who said, “Don’t forget… He’s not Dr. Prescott, just Mr. Prescott.” My response was probably along the lines of “whatever,” but doubtless it would have hurt had I still been an early career professional. Not everyone has been so lucky. 

The reason I mention all this is not because of all the research showing just how common imposterism is across professions. Nor is it to illustrate that men are just as prone to it as women and nonbinary people. It’s to emphasize something about ATSA members learned across many decades now: we have your back! We support you and want you to succeed! What you do and who you are matters. As much as we may argue over research and practice within ATSA, the work you do on a day-to-day basis is likely to help our clients and communities. 

While there are legitimate questions about treating and over-treating the truly low risk, and similar questions about the structures of our laws (lifetime supervision, civil commitment, etc.) the fact remains that everyone doing this work has something to contribute to our broader goals of stopping offending, helping clients live better lives, and building community safety. 

If there is anything most ATSA members learn from membership and attendance at our conferences, it’s that we all support each other and especially our newer members and students. As a part of this, it’s worth mentioning that those of us who are further along in our work lives don’t always have to project a perfect image of ourselves. Allowing ourselves to be open about our doubts and failures can also be inspiring and reassuring precisely to those who look up to them or are making their way in the field. We all have an obligation to help the next generation along.

Psychologist Jill Stoddard recently wrote a book on this topic titled, Imposter No More. In it she advocates flexible thinking skills that can help individuals find their way through the often crippling effects of imposterism. In her TED Talk and interviews, she discusses her own experiences, including how her family teased her with weight-related nicknames. She is now a highly regarded practitioner of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, often referred to simply as ACT. Every time she shares her story, making herself vulnerable along the way, she touches hearts and inspires others. Her work is worth a look. 

In his recent interview with ATSA Executive Director Amber Schroeder, Karl Hanson also emphasized the importance of proceeding fearlessly with our careers while remaining open to the feedback that helps us become more effective. 

In the end, the message from ATSA’s leadership and blogging team is simple. We have your back! If you’re feeling like you have no one to talk with, feel free to reach out. No one should feel alone in this work.

Thursday, February 8, 2024

The challenge of balancing human rights for all

By Kieran McCartan, PhD.,  & David S. Prescott, LICSW

Last week’s blog post focused on an unfortunate reality: We can’t always discuss things publicly lest we be labelled as political partisans. Although no one is without some degree of biases and leanings, it is simply too easy to attack and be attacked for statements taken out of context. We recall the sad fate of someone who commented in social media that balancing the human rights of the client and the community can be a challenge. His statement was sent to a local politician, who went to the media and scored significant political points saying that this doctoral level researcher and policy wonk had a “catch-and-release policy towards predators.” (It is worth noting that many human rights are enshrined in international law as well as state and agency policies; the Tokyo Rules are one example. In the US, the death penalty has been ruled unconstitutional for sex crimes, but that hasn’t stopped some states from trying.)

Working in the criminal-justice field often presents many paradoxes and contradictions that leave professionals conflicted about their roles, and/or their belief systems. In some cases, we have to and having to justify our roles to others. On the one hand, compassionate treatment approaches are the most effective. On the other hand, the practitioner may have to work hard to to look beyond their own biases and beliefs to do so. Important to remember is that having compassion for someone does not mean that you condone or endorse their behavior; it means that you can see into their situation, try to understand, and prioritize their highest needs (which means developing a lifestyle free of harming others).

Over the years, this blog’s authors have written about the early-life adversity that has influenced our clients and the need for trauma informed practice in order to ensure the most effective participation in treatment. What we often talk about less is human rights, although many have done so. It’s easy to respect the human rights of law-abiding people, but more difficult top do that for people who have hurt and harmed others.

In recent weeks there have been many cases across Europe that have called for us to have respect for others, to call in question our moral lens and to advocate for human rights in difficult cases. We have seen a call for care homes to be built for aging individuals convicted of sexual crimes, an individual being tried and convicted of manslaughter on the grounds for diminished responsibility for the murder of three people last year in the UK, and the change in incarceration conditions for Josef Fritz as a result of his dementia diagnosis. These cases beg the question of how we best treat those whose who have committed horrific crimes when their capacity to understand their punishment is gone. Where are our human rights thresholds?

Not surprisingly, many have found it difficult to tread a line between compassion and punishment, especially when the system is built on the grounds of punishment. Public, as well as political, sentiment often reflects that. However, its important to remember that many professionals are in the field of rehabilitation, even as we work in environments that stem from punishment.

Rehabilitation, treatment, and support cannot be seen as an afterthought or an add-on to punishment. We all want people to come out of the criminal justice system better able to manage themselves in society than when they went in, or at least no worse. We have seen the damaging legacy of doing nothing through the failed “nothing works” doctrine of the 70’s and 80’s started by Robert Martinson, and that became a hallmark of the Reagan-Bush and Thatcher eras. We know though research and practice that treatment works, but that it can take effort and that it works in different ways, at different times, for different people. This can make it complex and not easy to rationalize or fund when one can’t entirely predict the outcomes. Although it can seem like we are in a revised nothing-works era currently, that is not true with the influence of public health and prevention policies in criminal justice. We are still talking about treatment and rehabilitation; but it’s challenging for professionals at times to engage in these conversations and find support.

We need to be compassionate in our work and think about the human rights of often risky and at-times dangerous people. How can we hope for them to reduce their risk and to integrate back into society if they can’t learn about pro-social, empathic, and good behavior from us? How can we best accept our clients even as we don’t accept their behaviors? How do we process our work with others? How do we explain it? Where do we seek help? And, more importantly, do we get help when we ask? It is important to provide a rationale, critically discuss, and support each other in the challenging times we are experiencing. Supporting people who have seriously offended and are dangerous is as much a collective endeavour as an individual one.


Friday, February 2, 2024

We’re Losing Ground Again

By David S. Prescott, LICSW, ATSA-F

I’ve long felt sympathy for our colleagues working in the area of family and interpersonal violence. These issues are widespread but receive little attention. It is well known that violence against women has only gotten worse in recent years, and yet many governments have considered abandoning the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, known as the Istanbul Convention. Too often, the reasons have been political, with governments claiming that while they are against family violence, they want to preserve traditional family values. Observers are quick to note the political aspects of these decisions; one media outlet noted Turkey’s objection to “promoting LGBTQIA identities” (although the treaty’s only reference to sexual orientation merely stipulates non-discrimination).

Of course, it’s not just governments that have difficulty finding ways to prioritize ending family violence. One might reasonably ask how we can end violence when so much of our media and political discourse contain violence and violent themes? Recent media coverage of ideologically based death threats suggests that matters are only getting worse. In my former state of Maine, a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion coordinator recently fled the state in response to threats made against his life.

A central concern of this blog post is that at a time when too many people view violence as normal and sometimes desirable, those seeking to reduce its harm are too often lost in the mix. Whatever the data may show in one legal jurisdiction or another, we are all up against a cultural maelstrom in which violence and threats of violence have somehow become more acceptable.

What’s not acceptable is that our attempts to stop violence have become wrapped up in politics. Further, most people in our field understandably don’t want to talk about politics. As recently as a few days ago, a listserv for psychotherapists was taken offline for a period of time because of arguments over the current situation in the Middle East. It seems that even when we are open to talking about politics, we’re not particularly good at it.

ATSA has always championed ending sexual abuse. Unfortunately,  at the individual member level, too many potential discussions are off-limits because they are so hard to talk about. Wouldn’t it be great if professionals could talk about the relevant issues without political impediments?

All of this seems relevant at a time when a former US President has recently been found liable by a jury for sexually assaulting a woman. Another jury awarded her more money than most of us can realistically imagine. Lest readers think that mentioning this reflects a political agenda, it is vital to remember that there have been plenty of allegations across the political aisle, including in the 1990s. Indeed, questions of sexual abuse in national politics is nothing new.

It makes sense that discussing the actions of our leaders is difficult at best. Nonetheless, some important points emerge

- Sexual abuse and other forms of violence exist at all levels of society.

 Current public debates make even acknowledging this fact challenging.

- Many of our policymakers have engaged in the same behaviors they seek to regulate.

- Given all of these things, we are compelled once again to look at sexual abuse through a public-health lens.

 It would be unconscionable for us, and society, to soften our stance on ending violence simply because there is so much of it on the world stage. In truth, the mission has only become more critical.