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Battling the Impostor

By Dr. Patty Williams on September 3, 2023

Bright Insight Support Network founder and president Dr. Patty Williams is a trauma therapist and coach who specializes in EMDR, ND-Affirmative DBT, and IFS modalities. Through Bright Insight, she works to counsel, coach, and advocate for gifted, twice-exceptional, and neurodivergent persons, along with other marginalized populations.




Battling the Impostor


Impostor Syndrome. Have you heard of it? Even if not, maybe you have experienced it.


I've been told that impostor syndrome is common for grad students. I maintain that it is common for many gifted individuals too. Let me explain what it is though.


What is Impostor Syndrome?


In my book about giftedness and trauma, I wrote about impostor syndrome because it was relevant. Here is an excerpt from the unpublished manuscript:


Impostor syndrome, a phenomenon reported by many gifted folks, refers to the experience of high-achieving individuals who, despite their evident accomplishments, struggle to internalize their success. They might constantly doubt themselves and fear being exposed as frauds while finding it challenging to accurately attribute their achievements to their genuine competence (Bravata et al., 2020). This may be particularly true with fast learners who do not have to study like their peers to receive high marks, or when we easily conceptualize difficult topics while others struggle to grasp simpler concepts. That is, gifted individuals cannot always prove their knowledge because of the effort and time contributed to the research. Sometimes they just know because of exposure to a topic and a propensity for pattern-finding. And while it is wise to not become complacent with our own educations, this does not discount the fact that we do in fact know what we know.


In my experience, though this may require additional research to substantiate, impostor syndrome does not typically cause trauma. However, it is quite possible that an individual who has experienced developmental or complex trauma may be prone to questioning their own value and belongingness, particularly in professional settings.


There is so much more to this phenomenon than was written about briefly in Intersection of Intensity. Indeed, impostor syndrome, though not experienced by all gifted persons, is considered and talked about by many of them. And I may go so far as to suspect that it is particularly common with twice-exceptional individuals who experience giftedness and another neurodivergence. This is also particularly true if the other exceptionality is a difference identified as a disability or difficulty, and/or minority status (sometimes making a person identifiable as thrice-exceptional or 3e). This is because of assumptions about minorities and/or people with disabilities. It may be already assumed in loud or microaggressive ways that THESE people don't know or do or achieve what others can.


Yuck.


Impostor syndrome is insidious at times. It causes one to ask: “Why am I here and should I be" in both more specific to broader senses. I can offer a recent anecdote to further explain this.


My Personal Impostor Syndrom Story (one of many)


I am a nerd, well, maybe more of a geek. I always forget the difference. Whatever the ideal word, I dork-out about nerdy and geeky stuff, and particularly psychology. Because of this affinity, I am exposed to (and am friends with) many comic, video game, and popular culture enthusiasts. As such, I've been to a couple of comic-cons to support loved ones and certainly to people-watch (gotta love some creative cosplay and immersion into a nerd-rich environment).


Recently, however, I was invited as a panelist at a con. I was PART of the show. Why? Well, I know a decent amount about nerd culture and I know a whole lot about nerds from a psychological perspective. As Dr. Patty, the mental health and trauma expert, therefore, I spoke on a panel titled: Overcoming Mental Illness Through Comic Books.


Wow though. Talk about feeling like an impostor.


What was I doing presenting at a comic-con? I am not a cosplayer (though I enjoy it). I do not read comics except for Archie when I was a kid. I do not know what is cool and popular.


WHAT WAS I DOING!!??


I had to back up from that old inner a**hole who liked to question my worth and expertise. I was there because I had a lot to say. I make connections and ascribe meaning easily. And by golly, with my depth, complexity, compassion, connections, education, and ability to see beyond the obvious, I was not just a professional there, I was an ideal professional and human who could contribute greatly.


I had to believe though, or at least believe enough, that I belonged there. And I did.


This is only one of many stories about my own impostor syndrome fed by trauma and a very human developmental battle with gifted identity. It is not uncommon and it will not be my last experience though I can say I'm starting to believe I end up where I ought to be, because I do in fact know an awful lot.


Gifted Identity and Impostor Syndrome


So, let's talk about this. The relationship between gifted identity and impostor syndrome is quite a thing in of itself. So many gifted individuals, myself included, question their giftedness and belongingness in gifted, intellectual, or seemingly elite groups. This is common.


Part of the questioning is because not all people are at a developmental position where they are questioning and thinking critically about themselves and the world around them so they question (or do not believe) people who do. Additionally, when people are questioning everything while being questioned, well the math just adds up.


That is: Sometimes we think that if they are questioning my belonging and I am questioning my belonging, then I must not belong.


This math may seem logical, however, it is a fallacy. The logic of a negative plus a negative equals a bigger negative, neglects all the positives or “proof" if you will.


Proof of Value


Well, in reality, I do not believe people should have to prove their value. To me, this is gross. That said, when working with therapy and coaching clients who offer me a negative cognition such as “I am not worthy," I ask them to explore proof of this and proof of the contrary message that “I am worthy.”


Then we get to work.


While I do not like how society seeks to demand proof of worth from people whom I identify as inherently worthy, I see this therapy activity as helpful. Generally, the so-called proof of non-value comes from misguided or unkind others or from traumatic experiences that in ways “should not be." Proof of value, however, is based on the internal beauty or importance of a person be it innate or due to how they positively impacted others or can do so in the future. It can also be due to creativity, wonder, or any number of personal attributes. To me (and my honest belief of how things should be), the value is there because they are. Them... You... Me...


We have value because we exist.


When it comes to expertise or opinion, we know what we know. If we believe or even feel compelled to speak up, perhaps it is already inherent that we have something of value to say.


Certainly, our sometimes fragile egos can cloud communication and in some ways, ego protection and narcissism can act as the antithesis to impostor syndrome. To combat this, though, we simply need to listen and believe also, that if others are speaking up, it is because they may be worth listening to as well.





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