Despite success, nonprofit attorney feels like an impostor

Issue April 2006

Q: Although I am doing quite well at my job in the nonprofit sector, I cannot often get past the feeling that I am an impostor, not really a knowledgeable lawyer, and that eventually I will be found out. At times, my anxiety about this perception gets to a point where I am virtually immobilized. Two past psychotherapists both viewed these feelings of fraudulence as irrational. Pointing out evidence of my abilities, they were both very encouraging and congratulatory about my having come so far from an impoverished and psychiatrically ill family. I appreciated their intentions, but also felt that they did not see the real me. The anxiety is getting in my way as I seek to move forward with my career and in starting my own family. What ideas can you offer me?

A: The complaint of feeling like a phony or fraud is not at all uncommon in professionals who come for therapy/counseling, and seems especially likely to occur in people like yourself, whose talents and motivation have brought them into a different social and/or career stratum than the one in which they were raised.

But this leap to a different socioeconomic milieu is not the only source of feelings of fraudulence. In the context of parental dysfunction, such as alcoholism or psychiatric conditions, children may be prematurely burdened with responsibilities or used as confidants by their parents. These "parentified" children learn to rise to the occasion, and to appear competent, while knowing inside that they are ill equipped for the role that the family system demands of them. Thus, a sense of faking can become part and parcel of their developing sense of identity. Even in adulthood, there tends to be a gulf between these individuals' real talents and capabilities and the way that they continue to view themselves. Similarly, there is a discrepancy between their public veneer and their actual emotional state. This may reflect, in part, another parenting deficit, in which parents are too caught up in their own struggles to "mirror" the child's feelings. It has frequently been noted, for example, that many adults raised in alcoholic homes have great difficulty identifying their actual feelings.

Psychotherapy is ideally one place where genuineness is both possible (e.g., you needn't worry about how the therapist will react, in contrast to most social discourse) and valued (getting as honest as possible, getting beyond defense mechanisms). Some therapists, such as those of a "relational" bent, may place greater emphasis on a two-way genuine relationship, which we suspect would benefit you. It is very understandable that your previous therapists expressed admiration for your history of accomplishment under adverse circumstances. You may need to clarify, for any therapist, your own reactions to such feedback, and probably remind them from time to time that a central part of the work you came to do is to confront the gap between how you look to others and how you feel inside. While working on these matters, which will not be short-term therapy, if the anxiety continues to interfere with your functioning, you might also consider an evaluation for symptom-reducing medications (preferably non-addictive choices).

We've elaborated here with only your question to go by, so our response contains some educated guesses. Feel free to come in to discuss your particular situation in greater detail, and/or for help in finding a well-matched therapist.

Questions quoted are either actual letters/e-mails or paraphrased and disguised concerns expressed by individuals seeking assistance from Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers.

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