Emotional Intelligence, self-perception

With any new job comes new learning curves, new responsibilities, new personalities, new deadlines. Many people, when taking on new roles that push the boundaries of what they think they know about their own abilities, often have an anxious time settling in and while some people can face the challenges with a fearless, Can-Do attitude, many more of us get wrapped up in varying degrees of performance anxiety, and fear that those who hired us are going to discover we’re not as good as our resumes make us look, that we’re clearly imposters who don’t know what we’re doing, and that we’ll prove ourselves to be flawed and incompetent.

If you think therapists never fall prey to this kind of anxiety, let me tell you:

Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha… no.

We all have good days and bad days, but the early days of anything involving a learning curve are tough. Trying to prepare and manage our integration into new environments, new teams, new expectations can lead us into doubting the speed with which we learn (speed that is compromised by stress and fatigue, two factors that also tend to tag along on new job situations), and our ability to translate that learning into demonstrable performance. I faced this same fear many times during hiring/onboarding cycles in high-tech, both as a permanent hire and for years as a contractor; now as a therapist I sometimes face this several times a day whenever I sit down with new clients on intake.

In the new group practice at Bliss Counselling, I’m bring some particular niche-lifestyle savviness to the fold, which on one hand is great for both the community I represent and for the increased resources we’ll develop within the clinical team. On the other hand, however, I’m being tagged internally as a “specialist” or “expert”, and nothing will send Imposter Syndrome singing top-volume arias in one’s head like being tagged an “expert” in something and being asked to speak somewhat knowledgeably about that topic. Another colleague of mine and I are preparing to do a talk to the soon-to-be graduates of the therapy program from whence we ourselves came; a nice little bit of “giving back to the community” that spawned us, to provide some street-level business perspective that the program itself does not. And I’m finding that, too, is sending my internal Chorus Of Demons into overdrive, questioning what I think I know and challenging my belief that I have any right at all to claim to speak knowledgeably on these topics.

I’m sure many of you know EXACTLY how this feels. We know what we know… right up to the point where we have been asked to share what we know with others. At that point, blending quietly into a small, innocuous clump of dust bunnies seems HIGHLY preferable to sharing information like an informed and knowledgeable resource. We get flushed out by our own insecurities, and while I sometimes amuse myself by debating openly with my internal hecklers, for some this becomes an outright debilitating problem.

When I recently commented to friends that I had been tagged to provide some “expert” information on my community support and was unquietly losing my sh*t over the request, one friend offered the sagest suggestion I have ever heard, after also pointing out to me that I was losing my sh*t over nothing more than talking about something I’ve been part of for thirty years. She said to me, “If you’re not the expert in the room, imagine someone who is; doesn’t have to be a real person you know, but imagine you’re sitting next to a Real Live Expert on this subject. Watch the Expert. What do you imagine The Expert might say, or what they might do. Then *you* do that thing.”

It’s kind of a “fake it till you make it approach”, but when I thought about that idea, I felt myself calm down. There’s still a little bit of Imposter Syndrome lurking around the edges of “pretending to be something I don’t comfortably believe myself to be”, and “what if they find out I’m only *pretending* to be The Expert?”, but at the end of the day, I remind myself (sometimes more persistently than I should admit professionally) that this is all *STILL ME*. *I* did this thing, and The Expert in the room, both the externalized imaginings and the internalized delivery system, are all me. It seems like a lot of cognitive work to go through, but it’s the same work I do with clients to offer externalized perspectives on skills as well as fears. Sometimes we can’t see what’s inside ourselves, but if we can imagine setting it next to ourselves, outside ourselves where we CAN see it, sometimes we gain a better grasp of how it works, how it influences and moves us, and how we can interact with it differently.

These “externalizing conversations” and projections often allow us to move beyond thought distortions tied to a belief in some kind of innate flaw—”I’m a failure”, “I don’t know anything”, “I’m an impostor”—and into a different way of interacting with the anxieties: “I don’t know how much I know about this topic, but here’s what I can tell you about what I do know, and I know how to connect with resources that know what I don’t”… which is exactly what An Expert would do, too!

Relationships

You know your world is too small when a friend in northern Virgina blogs something that sends a coworker into my office in Waterloo to shake his fist at me in a “shoot the messenger” kind of way.

The NoVa friend wrote:
“And indeed, we have discovered that some of our well used communication tools are, well … broken. In talking to [me] and [my partner] this weekend they pointed out something very simple – “tools break”. I tend to think of relationship/communication tools as handy, reliable and vaguely unbreakable – but that’s a fault in my thinking. I got lazy, we got lazy – whatever it is, I forgot that everything needs a tune up now and then.”

Having the friend’s words thusly reinforced by the coworker’s reaction, it surprises me (in a “this-really-shouldn’t-have-surprised-me” kind of way) to learn that people don’t realize that all things wear down – and sometimes break – over time and with repeated, occasionally forceful, use. As with workshop tools, so too with relationship tools.

Human beings are not carved in stone, and those actively pursuing any path of self-awareness and improvement are even more dynamic, in terms of changing things in themselves and their environments. It stands to reason, in my mind at least, that tools that worked at one stage may cease to work later on as needs change, as communications evolve, as faith and trust are established and change. Blunt-work tools that worked when a relationship was new and you spent most of your time just trying to hammer in *any* kind of process, generally get refined over time as you build trust and intimacy. But most people who have established long-term relationships also know that, after a while, it’s easy to get lazy and take things for granted… you start making assumptions, communicating from those assumptions, and BOOM! Suddenly things that worked even a few weeks ago suddenly seem to not be working at all.

There are two things to consider when you’ve reached that point.

a) Did the tools actually stop working, or
b) did you just stop applying the tools with as much care and attention as you used to apply?

If a), you might want to sit down with the other party(parties) in the relationship, and work back to what changed – what knot in the wood or pocket in the stone did you hit to cause that previously-fine chisel to turn in your hands and break? Why wasn’t the change communicated immediately (either by the person in whom the change occurred, or in the partner who may have noticed it and “let the little things slip until they became big things”, for example)? Was it a fear that kept notification of change under the rug? Or did everybody just miss it, by not being conscious of needs, and actions towards those needs?

If b) you might want to look at your own methods of communication, your own needs. Why did you stop driving that particular process? Did your needs change, did you start acting towards changed needs? Were you just getting tired of “all work, all the time” in terms of relationship management? Did you assume that falling back on patterns of expectation without any complaint from your partner meant that everything was OK, or worse, “all better”? Or did you stop because you felt you weren’t getting anywhere with your efforts – the return was no longer worth the investment of effort?

In either event, realizing that tools *can* stop working appears to be something of an earth-shaking revelation for people. I suspect that’s in part because we’re (some of us) reasonably new at this “conscious application of tools” business, and so, having met with a degree of success in our limited experiments to date, we trust they are universally infallible, and stop doing the homework, as it were. “Ah, I’ve hired a math tutor to get me through the exam – I don’t have to worry about learning this stuff for myself anymore, because the tools I get from the tutor will fix all my problems” – only to discover that those tools fix you for this year’s algebra course, but do absolutely nothing for you next year when you move on to calculus… unless what you learned was better tools for *learning*, and not the short-cut, learn-by-rote formulaic fixes.

When you learn how to create tools as well as wield them, it’s much like learning how to learn in school. You can’t take a single formula and apply it across all problems and all people; you’re better off at the very least learning how to observe people, and how to notice and communicate change. Learning how to analyze processes and risks to implement some kind of process for managing those risks, is another level of process complexity some people won’t want to see value in, let alone implement, let alone check in on regularly to see how well those tools are working, let alone fix the tools when they break.

Nothing is static; everything changes. You can get mired in the adherence to the ideal of stability, bury your head in the sand against the inevitability of change, assume that things you create will never fail you – or you can embrace the fact that change is something over which you have little control, other than control of how you manage the opportunities that change presents. Being fixated on unchangeability and reluctant to constantly re-evaluate, upgrade, or completely toss outgrown tools is simply another way we cling to things we shouldn’t, and close ourselves off in our little boxes of hurt and confusion and anger.

Tools break. Be prepared for that, in the mind and in the relationship, as much as in the hand and in the workshop. The question of how you will deal with those breakages goes a long way towards informing the kind of character you are, the Stuff of which you are made.

Copyright 2006, 2011 KGrierson