A woman I’ll call Jill came to therapy to talk about her malaise. She described feeling lucky: a good job, a devoted husband, two great kids, and a beautiful house. But something was missing.
This feeling of something missing had been with her for her whole life. She’d used this feeling to propel her into motion at college and later at graduate school. She’d always excelled at work and in relationships, and now, in the midst of everything going well, it was still there. She talked about how she thought she should be happy, but wasn’t. She felt worried a lot of the time, was rarely able to appreciate her achievements, and often focused on times when she’d made mistakes.
As we talked, she realized three things:
- The feeling of something missing often emerged when she compared herself to others, especially on Facebook. The more time she spent on Facebook, where others tend to report the positive things in their lives, the worse she felt about her own life.
- The feeling arose from the sense that she wasn’t doing things right: that she should feel happier. She frequently felt pressured to feel happy. We found that when she just relaxed and didn’t pressure herself to feel one way or the other, she was able to experience greater happiness.
- She felt as though things just happened to her: that she lucked into having her wonderful husband, kids, and house. The feeling of being “lucky” prevented her from taking ownership of what she’d created in her life. She felt anxious about being “found out” that she didn’t deserve all she had, and worried that others might not regard her as intelligent and therefore, worthy.
Researchers call this imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome was first studied by two female psychologists at Georgia State University in the 1970s, and typically affects high-achieving people, both men and women.
For most people who experience it, imposter syndrome prevents happiness. Jill couldn’t relax because she didn’t feel she was responsible for the good things in her life. She felt that while her life “looked good on paper,” her successes were luck and her mistakes were her fault. She was in constant “striving” mode.
The Relational-Cultural Approach
As a relational-cultural therapist, my focus with clients is on increasing connection and empowerment. I work by identifying the ways and reasons that clients, ironically, hold themselves back in relationships in an attempt to preserve the connection. This pattern makes them feel less authentic and less “known.” In other words, if a family dynamic needed for you to be the hero in your family, you might continue acting selflessly for others, but have trouble asking for what you need. This may give you the feeling that others only stick around because you’re giving and they don’t really know you.
Relational-cultural therapy emerged in response to psychodynamic theory and arose out of the multicultural and feminist movements. It encourages authentic expression within the context of a warm and supportive connection with the therapist, views the person within her context, and strives to help people feel more authentic, connected, and empowered in their lives.
Relational-cultural therapy emphasizes:
- Focusing on strengths.
- Increasing the connection between therapist and client and using that connection in order to understand other relationship patterns. This is about the real connection experienced by the therapist and client and the things that get in the way of that connection, either in session or with others. It is not based on projection (transference/countertransference as in psychodynamic theory).
- Identifying the exceptions to the client’s usual relationship patterns: what was different that made authenticity more possible?
- Focusing on the expertise that therapist and client each bring to a session: the therapist’s psychological expertise and the client’s expertise towards her own life.
- Personal responsibility: the client is asked to really take a look at her life, while the therapist takes responsibility for her own responses and responds with openness and spontaneity.
- Finding ways to savor success while staying in connection with others.
As we worked together, Jill was able to realize how her pattern of dismissing her accomplishments was affecting her relationships and her capacity to experience happiness. Shifting her attention, practicing appreciation of herself and working on her openness with others increased her confidence, satisfaction, and ability to experience joy in her life.
Clance, Pauline Rose, & Imes, Suzanne. (1978). The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention. Georgia State University. Retrieved from http://www.paulineroseclance.com/pdf/ip_high_achieving_women.pdf
Carey, Benedict. (2008, February 5). Feel Like a Fraud? At Times, Maybe You Should. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/05/health/05mind.html
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