Growing, Imposter Syndrome, and Starting Grad school

Long time without an update. I have been feeling like it’s worth making a post about where I am at now. I don’t think I’ll resume regular posting, but I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how glad I am that I wrote a lot of this stuff out here. I’ve looked back on old posts and can see that my feelings have evolved, but I like that I can access information about where I was at that point in my life. Since in the not far off future I will begin seeing patients of my own, I want to be sure that in my integration into the field as a professional that I don’t forget the vulnerability that comes with being a patient in therapy.

This isn’t to say I am recovered from my mental health difficulties. But I can see now that there are places where I have shifted to slightly more moderate perspectives. For example I now feel the need to ad more qualifiers to my feeling that in moderation, “There is nothing wrong with self injury”. More, now I feel that for me personally the risk benefit/ratio makes it such that it is not an area I feel is worth prioritizing for my treatment. That said, I have considerably decreased the frequency I do it at. But this has been more of an incidental benefit from improvement in other emotional issues. Also, I got a cat. Getting a cat has probably done more to decrease my self-harm than any therapy. For example today on my way home I was visualizing how I would cut as soon as I got in the door. But I walked in and my cat demanded my attention. So I hugged him and now I’m writing this blog post. Maybe I’ll cut later or maybe I won’t. It is hard to say.

I also am trying to be more open to DBT as a treatment. Not for me. But I need to recognize that it does help some people. I am going to make a specific effort to receive training in administering DBT. It’s not easy. Looking at the Marsha Linehan book on my desk makes my heart race. But if I can separate the emotions I feel about being bullied by DBT therapists and pull out the useful bits from that by identifying areas to be more sensitive about, maybe the negative experiences with DBT could make me more effective at administering DBT. That said, I don’t think DBT will ever be my favorite treatment modality, but I can recognize that some people find it helpful.

I’m also making as specific effort to not avoid things due to worries that they may increase the chances of my running into the therapist who kicked me out of my undergrad school. I’m not specifically trying to find events where I might run into him (that would be stalking), but if I am invited to attend an event and am debating whether I should attend, I am making an effort to not factor running into him into my decision. For example I was invited to a wonderful talk by my advisor that was put on my a small organization the therapist-who-kicked me-out-of-school helped to found. I was terrified he would be there, but also knew that the event could be beneficial professionally so I went. He wasn’t there. I’ve no gone to quite a few events where I was terrified of running into him and attended without problem. I’ve really enjoyed going to these events and am glad that I didn’t let the worry hold me back.

Even though a lot of time has passed the fear of being somehow unmasked and losing things I have worked for is still very strong. In my research assistant job I took prior to coming to grad school, those fears started to lessen over time. I reached a point where I felt I was contributing valuable enough efforts to the team that the discovery would not dimmish my hard work. But the fear never fully went away. It’s hard when the fear is partially grounded in reality. There is a risk that if my mental health history were known it would impact me professionally. The problem for me is that my fears are out of proportion and I end up hiding even more than is needed at the expense of forming close relationships. Part of what terrified me about dating is that during a breakup the ex could use information they have learned about me to sabotage my career. It has been  roughly 6 years now where I have been unable to form new close friendships. I rely only on the superficial friendships and the people I knew from before it happened.

Some of this maps onto Imposter Syndrome which is very common in graduate students but I feel that my experience is a step beyond what is typical. For the most part in the past with work and undergrad this feeling was limited to hiding my mental health history, but since starting grad school (I’m not even a month in) I feel like it has slammed me in the face. I’m surrounded by so many smart hard working people in my classes. Everyone has such great ideas and asks such clever questions. I am feeling very intimidated. I always tend to beat myself up mentally a bit about things I say, but the current intensity in highly elevated. I worry about not talking enough but then worry about talking too much and if I said stupid things. My anxiety is not usually as social evaluation focused, but this too is unusually increased. I feel like the most awkward one there. I normally don’t care much about the risk of being socially left out but now I’m terrified that I will somehow be ostracized from my cohort if I do something stupid. And then my general distrust comes in because I can’t tell if I am being invited to things because it would be odd to leave out an invite to one member of the cohort or if I am really wanted. Even caring about if I am wanted is a bit unusual for me. I am usually so independent. Things have just started so I imagine that the intensity I am experiencing these things at won’t be sustained, but I am worried that the intense emotions I am feeling will isolate me from my classmates in a way that can’t be repaired over time.

I had to move to go to grad school. I had to leave meeting with SM (the one therapist I made a good connection with). When I resumed meeting with him 2 years ago I tried to tell myself that it might be possible for me to not need therapy after the 2 years. That was not a realistic goal. So I am now meeting with therapist #28. The area I have moved to has a lower therapist per square mile density than I have had in the past. When I also factor in how many of the therapists in the area might be people I will encounter in my academic training I simply can not afford to go back into my cycle of firing a therapist every couple of months. There are just not enough therapists around form me to do that. So I am trying very hard to stick with #28. If I leave, I need to have a very good reason and need to try to not do it impulsively. This is tough because I feel that every therapist I have left I have had a good reason to leave and that it was well thought out. I know there’s no way for me to go through 28 therapists without me contributing something to the problem, but on an individual therapist level it is very hard to see it as anything other than a problem with one particular therapist.

I have only had a couple of appointments with #28 so far. It’s so frustrating to start over and so hard to gauge if things will work. Having a therapist like SM who saw me over a period of 6 years (although with large gaps of seeing other therapists during that time when I was living too far away from him) and knows the history and associations I have with different things and how some of my views have shifted is so valuable. In talking with #28 about some of the social anxiety I am experiencing I get so frustrated needing to interrupt my flow to throw in background information. I am trying with 28, but I don’t feel connected to her. Everything feels forced and unnatural.

She made a comment that freaked me out a lot. If she knew more about me she’d have realized not to say it. Going to avoid the specifics here to avoid identifying myself too much. But the simple issue is that she made an “if ___  then ____” relating to an action she might take if a certain thing turned out to be true. This is an action which would be undesirable to me. She told me this in response to my worrying about whether this thing might be true. It has turned out that the thing I was worried about is not true, but while I was still worried about that I had a new added worry about whether I needed to lie to 28 if it did turn out to be true to avoid her doing the undesirable thing. Sorry that is so convoluted. The simple issue here though is that she created a situation in which my providing her information might hurt me and made me need to consider lying in therapy. I hate lying in therapy. This is one of the things about no-harm contacts and such that infuriate me (that’s not what this was). Rather than help me deal with the situation they create an environment where I feel I can’t be honest which defeats the point of therapy. It’s tough to have an issue like this come up so early. I feel like if I am honest and say that it upset me and stressed me out because I felt like I might need to lie to hide it that she might think I am actually lying about the thing we had talked about before. But if I don’t mention it I get to stew over it and feel like I can’t have open communication. It’s so hard to get things to where I was with SM. If SM had somehow done the same thing I’d feel comfortable telling him and not worry about repercussions of my words. But in this new environment I am worrying that my words will be used against me. This type of problem is the kind of thing that I know is capable of building up into something that causes me to leave therapy.

SM and I are doing brief monthly check in phone calls to ease the transition. I get to talk with him Monday, right before my appointment with 28 so maybe he can help me figure out how to deal with it. The therapy transition is tough. I’ve been having so many new experiences and challenges that I want to be able to talk through with someone. I try to picture in my head talking to #28 about these things and the image and interest in talking fizzles away. But if I think about talking to SM it feels comfortable. Even in my imaginary visualizations of therapy he is better.

I do want to avoid having this end on a negative note. I am incredibly happy with the program I am in. Everything so far has been confirming that I made the right choice with this school. I just need to handle the anxiety enough to get the most out of it.

2 thoughts on “Growing, Imposter Syndrome, and Starting Grad school

  1. Hi,

    Just wanted to say that I’m enjoying following your blog, and that I’m kind of in awe of you. Someday I hope to stop being crazy enough to go to graduate school for mental health, as well. Thanks for making it seem like it might be a possibility!
    I was wondering if you would be able to and/or feel comfortable with continuing your sessions with SM. You say that you feel comfortable with him and that you can imagine talking to him rather than to #28. Could this be an option for you?


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