When I was an undergraduate at the University of Texas I attended a seminar on owning your greatness and fraudulent feelings. I was 18 and didn’t know what direction I wanted to go in life. I don’t remember much from that talk, except that there was a successful-looking female speaker in the front of a large room of (mostly) females, telling us that a common struggle with success is feeling like a fraud. I thought, “That lady? She feels like that? It doesn’t make sense.” And a follow up, “I could never be as successful as her.”

It wasn’t until I went to graduate school that I noticed more about my natural talents. But doesn’t everybody do that? In my practicum training, as I met with clients from the community and then subsequently assessed by a licensed therapist on my clinical skills, I was affirmed in my intuitiveness to see through and beyond what people were presenting. But can’t everybody see that? I looked around and compared: that person is more empathic, this person has better therapeutic presence… and I began discounting myself, and minimizing my own strengths. It was difficult to take risks because of these fears.

As I’ve walked with family, friends, and clients, similar sentiments emerged: What if they find out I’m not what I seem? I did well on this assignment, but I’ll probably fail the next one, then they’ll know. I don’t deserve to be here. I’m a fraud.

The good news: Many people feel this way.

And there’s a name for it: Imposter Syndrome. This name was coined by two American psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978. It is a feeling of “phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable, or creative, despite evidence of high achievement.” Those that experience this often “live in fear of being ‘found out’,” and are unable to internalize their accomplishments.

On the one hand, Imposter Syndrome can lurk near to those that have natural abilities in a given area. There can be a belief that had you just worked really hard at something, you would know you deserved credit for it. It’s like a parent telling you you’re smart and wonderful. “They’re just saying that because they have to.” For some, naturally excelling at something leads to a discount of its value.

The other extreme though, is that you did work hard to grow or learn in a specific area, and because it may not be natural, you fear being ‘found out.’ You’re just one mistake away from complete failure. Both extremes lead to paralyzing fear and living in a space of anxiety, potential self-sabotage, and restricted risk-taking that diminishes the greatness you could offer the world around you.

How does one overcome these feelings?

  1. Let go of catastrophic thinking and self-importance. You aren’t that big of a deal (sorry!), and if you make a mistake (like we all do), the world keeps spinning. You probably won’t be fired. It won’t make the front page of the New York Times. You can learn, grow, and do it differently in the future.
  2. Accept and believe in yourself. Luck didn’t get you where you are. Of course, you didn’t do it all alone, but it is you- your character, your talents, that opened up doors and brought about your achievements.
  3. Take time to remember encouragement and affirmation from others. Keep a file with emails, notes, comments that people have made over the years. Make a list of your achievements (especially those that brought the greatest sense of potential failure). It’s easy to discount the positives and focus on the negatives.
  4. Stop the Comparison!! This only feeds the shame, fear, and self-loathing monsters.
  5. Practice Vulnerability! It combats shame. (Check out Brene Brown’s work on this!)
  6. Remember: No one else has your particular set of experience or skills. You have something to offer. When you hold back, you’re depriving the people around you.
  7. Making mistakes and being wrong DOES NOT make you a fraud.
  8. Understand the difference between feelings and reality. The perception of your success is not necessarily the same perception others have.

Some famous people who have struggled with Imposter Syndrome:

Maya Angelou, writer, activist: “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.'”

Kate Winslet, actress: “Sometimes I wake up in the morning before going off to a shoot, and I think, I can’t do this. I’m a fraud.”

Dr. Margaret Chan, Chief of World Health Organization: “There are an awful lot of people out there who think I’m an expert. How do these people believe all this about me? I’m so much aware of all the things I don’t know.”

Michelle Pfeiffer, actress: When asked how she had developed her gifts in 2002, “I still think people will find out that I’m really not very talented.  I’m really not very good.  It’s all been a big sham.”

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook: Wrote the book Lean In with Imposter Syndrome as a foundational premise.

Carpe Diem, friends. The world is waiting. 

Teaching Others How to Treat Us

There are many skills that we are not taught prior to reaching adulthood. They can have lasting impacts on relationships and the communications therein. Boundaries are one such skill that many people seem to miss on their developmental journeys toward adult independence. Boundaries have been described as many things: the ability to say no, determining limits on your physical person, thoughts, and emotions. Boundaries are limits that one sets for themselves to protect not just yourself, but also relationships with others.

Setting effective boundaries can be difficult when you constantly put others’ needs and feelings before your own, you don’t know yourself very well, you fear boundaries will compromise a relationship, or you don’t feel you have the right to instill boundaries. Many people assume boundaries are selfish. This is not true. Boundaries do not say: “You are not allowed to treat me this way.” Boundaries do say: “Should you choose to treat me this way, I will instill a consequence/ boundary.” The difference in these two statements is that in the first statement the use of boundaries is in an effort to control and manipulate. In the second statement however, proper responsibility is placed on the proper parties. For example, a healthy boundary might be: “When you yell at me it makes me feel threatened. I am going to leave the house until we can speak calmly.” This communication is clear, direct, assertive, and calm; it seeks to protect the self and the relationship.

Without boundaries, we can feel taken advantage of or that our desires are unimportant. We become frustrated and angry that our boundaries are violated yet we are unable to express what our boundaries actually are. Constant yielding to a family member or friend becomes our habit. We lose our own sense of self and often find ourselves in unhappy relationships, jobs and life situations. Resentment, anger, worthlessness, and feeling taken advantage of are common experiences to a lack of boundaries. Setting and maintaining boundaries is an art, and it is a skill that takes practice.

Unhealthy boundaries are:

  1. Controlling or manipulative
  2. Invasive or dominating
  3. Set for us by others
  4. Rigid and immovable

Healthy boundaries are:

  1. Clear and firm
  2. Appropriate
  3. Determined by us
  4. Flexible

At the end of the day, people can treat you however they want, but it is up to you to teach them what is, and what is not, appropriate. If you desire a healthy relationship with friends or family members, it is important to own your responsibility in various matters, and live out self-respect by enforcing boundaries that not only show you care about your heart, but you care about the relationship, and their heart as well.


We were never meant to be alone. A factor that can influence severity and duration of various mental illnesses is whether or not a person has a supportive community. Isolation can lead to a downward spiral. It has been said that joy is not complete until it is expressed, shared with others. We need other people. And not just those superficial conversations about the weather and clothes, but rather authentic soul-bearing friendships that allow us to share the ugliest parts of ourselves and still be accepted. Those types of friends are rare, I admit, and I don’t recommend leading into a new friendship with that type of content. But when we can be vulnerable and share our stories, we invite others to become vulnerable as well.

It is important to share with others the good and the bad in our lives. It helps to lessen the burden of the painful. It allows the blossoming of the joyous. But what if you have a hard time expressing your story?

In his new book The Examined Life, psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz also discusses the importance of telling your story. In a conversation with Jane Clayson for On Point radio, Grosz talks about the emotional damage that results from an inability to express your life in stories.

I’m really interested in what happens when people can’t tell their stories. So often people come to see me and of course the most difficult story from their childhood was the one their parents…didn’t help them find the words for. ..maybe because of guilt…[the parents] don’t know how to help the child articulate their feelings…Sometimes we don’t know how to put into words the most important things that a child may be going through. Those stories don’t go away, they get buried in us, and they come out in all sorts of different ways. And part of what therapy may be about…are people who are then troubled or caught in an impasse because of these stories not being known to them, not having the words for them.

Stories are important because it helps us to understand ourselves, our world, and those that inhabit it. Stories help us to make sense of things, and to heal. We all have the ability to hold memories. Perhaps these memories are accessed as feelings first, with no real content. And then as one begins to untangle the confusion, the memory emerges in more clarity as a coherent story and can be dealt with in a healthy way. It might involve grief, it might involve anger, or any other slew of emotions, but the power behind the memory can be dismantled. We need trusted others in our lives to give us the space and the grace to process these things. To help us articulate the pain. Or to simply sit with us and acknowledge our tears. In this chaotic world, we were never meant to be alone.

Some ideas on articulating your story:

  1. Try journaling in an attempt to articulate your story
  2. Read memoirs or other biographies to help inspire and bring your story own to life
  3. Talk to a trusted friend
  4. Paint your story, or aspects of your story

How Does That Make You Feel?

IMG_20130725_015819   This question was epitomized by TV therapist Dr. Phil. Unfortunately it has been broadly, and scoffingly, ascribed to all counselors as their “go to” question. There is so much more to therapy than getting a person to share their feelings. Yet, like all stereotypes, there are grains of truth embedded. Why do counselors spend time at all with clients unraveling the tangle of their emotions? Our culture defines male masculinity as strong, stoic, and emotionless. Assertive females who show little emotion are viewed as sexy and mysterious, aloof and powerful. Openly expressing and sharing emotions is culturally seen as embarrassing, immature, and weak. But if a friend came to you in grief because they lost a loved one, a job, or even a cat, would you treat them disdainfully? My hope is that would not happen; but my guess is there might be some mild discomfort. Most people are uncomfortable with deep expressions of emotions (like grief, despair, depression, etc.) because they are not comfortable with their own pain.

As human beings, made in the image of God, we have feelings- and LOTS of them! They are neither good nor bad. It is what we do with them that can be good or bad. They are signals that things are going well, or flags that they are not. Our culture teaches us to quiet the sirens, numb the feelings, avoid the pain. In other cultures there are dances and songs to wail out when one is experiencing pain. Our culture has no such practices. When we stuff down and ignore we grow more and more disconnected to our authentic selves and our relationships. Not living out of an authentic self, journeying toward greater emotional disconnectedness, many things are affected.

  1. Relational intimacy is sacrificed. That goes for platonic and romantic relationships. It affects how close you are willing to get to others. If you avoid hard emotions within yourself, then you are most assuredly avoiding those same emotions in others. Relational connectedness suffers.
  2. Physical and/or behavioral concerns grow. When emotions are stuffed oftentimes anxiety develops, depression can flourish, anger/rage increases, to name a few. Body aches can increase, especially things like migraines, shoulder pain, neck pain, and digestive issues.
  3. Your life is lived in the grey rather than the brilliant colors offered. When we avoid the negative, it doesn’t mean the positive reigns. It means they both are dulled. Author and pastor Henri Nouwen says suffering and joy are two sides of the same coin. To numb one consequently numbs the other.

Avoided, unnamed, and buried emotions can leave us stuck and imprisoned. It can be difficult to name the emotion if you’ve lived this way for a long time. Happy or sad are the two descriptors most cited. To begin living more fully, I would suggest a few things:

  1. Give yourself space and quiet. We live in such a busy time, and that makes it easier to avoid and numb out feelings. Find some space to reflect and assess where you’re at.
  2. Think through events that have occurred throughout your day or week. Do you feel anything in your body? If so, where? What are the thoughts that accompany those experiences? What does it feel like? Looking through a list of adjectives can be very helpful. Or using a search engine to find a “Feelings Wheel” to help narrow things down. Sometimes we need someone else to use the language for us before we can use it ourselves.
  3. Find a trusted person to discuss some of your discovered feelings, and own it. They’re yours. They aren’t good or bad. It will help you understand them better.
  4. Choose to enter into the difficult, the painful, the confusing. Choose again. And again. They will become less scary, and you will find greater freedom and authenticity in your life.

Perhaps it’s not such a bad idea to start asking ourselves: “How does that make you feel?”