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.

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