Practical Optimism

The Bull x The Horns: Help! I have imposter syndrome.

Psychologists Art Markman and Bob Duke discuss emotions from a lack of self-worth and how to help others define their success.

Q: My husband works in a creative field and has ‘imposter syndrome.’ He worries that he’s not talented enough or can replaced at any moment. When he thinks about pursuing new opportunities, he becomes terrified of failure—professionally and financially. This stress is causing him to withdraw and be unhappy. How can I help motivate him to take action to change his situation?

—Supportive Spouse

Dear Supportive:

How fortunate for your spouse that he enjoys from you the love and support of a caring partner. It’s important that you and he both mention to one another (often) how much your relationship contributes to happiness in both of your lives.

Well-lived lives are generally characterized by meaningful work and meaningful personal relationships. When facing challenges in one of these dimensions, it’s possible to overlook the very positive features of the other and focus only on negative feelings and fear. Verbally acknowledging how much personal closeness and trust in a relationship bring feelings of security and joy is an important first step in working through problems associated with insecurity at work.

Imposter syndrome is not uncommon among professionals, perhaps especially among those whose work is often on public display. As you have undoubtedly learned from your husband’s experience, imposter syndrome involves a belief that others overestimate your abilities and are unaware of your actual limitations and the concern that if they ever discovered that you’re not really as good as they seem to believe, you’d be at risk of losing respect, position, and employment. This of course leads to an unhealthy combination of fear (of being found out) and a lack of self-worth (because you don’t really deserve the position you currently hold).

It is quite common for people in creative fields to experience imposter syndrome, in part because there is no unambiguous measure of one’s ability and the quality of one’s accomplishments. It’s always possible to attribute your past successes to luck and not your true ability and effort. And because most creative people are not entirely sure where their creative ideas come from, there is often a persistent concern that the fount of good ideas may run dry at any moment.

Part of what drives imposter syndrome is the (often false) perception that all the people around you who succeed and convey a sense of confidence feel none of the internal conflicts, anxieties, and uncertainty that you feel. They seem to have it all together, while you’re filled with self-doubt. Yet, nearly everyone experiences insecurity from time to time, and even those who seem to nail it in everything they attempt experience failures from time to time.

Just knowing that you are not alone in questioning your capabilities and that most other people experience similar thoughts is in many ways reassuring.

There are several things to think about in your efforts to provide support, the first of which concerns the nature and timing of your interactions with your husband. It’s often the case that conversations between individuals experiencing insecurity and their lovely companions who are trying to be helpful go something like this: “I don’t think I’m doing my job very well.” “I think you’re doing much better than you believe.” “I’m not sure I can continue to be successful.” “Don’t be silly; of course you can…” You see the pattern here. The person feeling insecure makes self-deprecating comments following which the supportive partner, with the best of intentions, responds with positive affirmations. The problem, if this becomes a pattern of behavior, is that the negative comments elicit positive comments from loved ones, which may begin to actually reinforce the negative comments (making them more likely to persist). So what to do instead?

Ask questions that direct your husband to identify positive aspects of his own work, so that he begins to verbalize what’s successful and valuable about his own creative efforts. You may also suggest that your husband have conversations with a few trusted colleagues about how they feel about their work. He is likely to discover that many of the people around him also have anxiety about their ability to succeed from time to time. Just knowing that you are not alone in questioning your capabilities and that most other people experience similar thoughts is in many ways reassuring.

Efforts to stay energized in a creative field are often helped by enrolling in a class or workshop related to one’s area of expertise. Learning something new about your work not only helps you stay current in your field, but also provides opportunities for gaining external validation from a teacher and other students. Taking a class may also provide greater insight into the sources of one’s own creativity, which can boost confidence about one’s potential to meet expectations and accomplish goals.

It may also be helpful to have a frank conversation about “worst-case scenarios.” What is the worst that can happen? Losing a job is a serious life event, to be sure. But considering what productive options are available to you in the case of such an eventuality may help gain additional perspective. Comedians talk about this all the time, because they regularly put themselves in front of audiences who sit in silence in response to what the performer things is a great joke. Their vocabulary is filled with metaphors of death. Having a terrible set means “dying” in front of the audience, while having a great set means that they “killed.” This vocabulary is instructive, because in reality, nobody actually dies when a comedian has a bad set. It’s a helpful reminder that there are options beyond the negative outcomes that we fear. They may require extra effort and time, but there are almost always avenues for moving forward after failure.

If your husband’s challenges seem to extend beyond whatever help you can provide yourself, it might be helpful for your husband to work with a therapist or career coach. Trained professionals have many strategies that can help people to deal with the most difficult workplace situations. His seeing a therapist would also relieve some of the weight of your own responsibility of being the sole confidant and source of support. All healthy relationships encounter situations in which one partner nourishes the other. But, they also need to have moments of joy and pleasure. And the more of those moments you have together, the more opportunities your husband will have to put anxieties about work into the overall context of his life.

—Dr. Art Markman and Dr. Bob Duke

The Bull x The Horns advice column is authored by psychologists Art Markman and Bob Duke, hosts of the Two Guys on Your Head podcast. This column represents the advice of Dr. Art Markman and Dr. Bob Duke and not the views or opinions of Frost Bank.

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