Understanding Impostor Syndrome in High Achievers: An Interview with Stevon Lewis, LMFT
Curt and Katie interview Stevon Lewison working with high achievers who struggle with impostor syndrome. We explored what impostor syndrome is, how society contributes to impostor syndrome, how you can differentiate impostor syndrome from internalized racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, etc., the emotional impacts of impostor syndrome, and how therapists can work effectively with these clients.
Click here to scroll to the podcast transcript.
Click here to scroll to the podcast transcript.
An Interview with Stevon Lewis, LMFT, Author of Silencing Your Inner Bully
Stevon Lewis is a licensed psychotherapist, speaker, author, and host of the podcast “How to Talk to High Achievers About Anything” produced by LWC Studios. In his private practice, he specializes in working with professionals who struggle with Impostor Syndrome. He has been a featured expert on major television and media platforms, including the Oprah Winfrey Network, KevOnStage Studios, Bustle, Thrive Global, and Entrepreneur. Stevon has facilitated discussions about Impostor Syndrome, race, and mental health concerns in the workplace for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN), Tory Burch, Scotch Porter, The Creative Collective NYC, Deluxe Media, The Blackbird House, and A New Direction, a London-based nonprofit that provides support and development to individuals from communities that are underrepresented in the creative and digital industries.
In this podcast episode, we talk about how impostor syndrome shows up in high achievers
We reached out to our friend, Stevon Lewis, to explore impostor syndrome.
What do therapists miss related to treating impostor syndrome in high achievers?
- Looking at the symptoms versus the root cause
- Understanding the common patterns
How does society contribute to impostor syndrome?
“Our definition of humility is not one that I think I subscribe to. I think that people operate with a definition of humility that goes something like this: that I ought to not talk about the things I’ve done as much, in order to kind of not appear as conceited or pompous or better than everybody else. And my definition is tweaked a bit, it says that, I don’t think humility is really talking about what you’ve done less, or what you’ve accomplished less. It’s not making people feel less, or treating people less-than, because of what you accomplish. And I think that’s the difference.” – Stevon Lewis, LMFT, Author of Silencing Your Inner Bully
- Productivity and detail-orientation are praised
- The role of humility and Stevon’s difficulty with the accepted definition of humility
- Subcultures that are hyper-focused on achievement and competition
- The impact of a marginalized identity or identities on impostor syndrome
How can therapists support high achievers with impostor syndrome in therapy?
- Slowing down the conversation
- Shifting the language related to goal-setting
- Finding a path to celebrating wins
- Perspective taking on how you treat yourself versus how you treat others
- Self-compassion and self-understanding
How do you sort out impostor syndrome from internalized racism, sexism, ableism, etc.?
“So, what I tried to talk to [people who struggle with impostor syndrome] about is that you’re in an environment where there aren’t many people that look like you. Why would you operate from narrative that suggests that this was made for you to be successful, for you to thrive and for you to grow? … Is this environment designed for you to be the best version of yourself? If it’s not, then let’s throw that or take that off the table as something you need to be striving for, and say, How can you be successful in a place that is not designed for you to thrive and to be successful easily?” – Stevon Lewis, LMFT, Author of Silencing Your Inner Bully
- Contending with stereotypes and unreasonable expectations
- Looking at the environment within which someone is working or living
- The impact of parenting and what you’ve grown up with
Emotional impacts of Impostor Syndrome
“If you’re a high achiever, it’s hard to not want to continue to do well… because everything else will feel like mediocrity.” – Stevon Lewis, LMFT, Author of Silencing Your Inner Bully
- Description of the inner bully
- Fear of being found out, not belonging
- Fear of being a disappointment or of being too successful
- The danger of exploitation, especially for folks who have traditionally been marginalized
- The pushback when you are being different
What does healing look like for high achievers with impostor syndrome?
- Radical acceptance of self
- Getting freedom
Resources for Modern Therapists mentioned in this Podcast Episode:
We’ve pulled together resources mentioned in this episode and put together some handy-dandy links. Please note that some of the links below may be affiliate links, so if you purchase after clicking below, we may get a little bit of cash in our pockets. We thank you in advance!
Stevon’s Journal: Silencing Your Inner Bully
Instagram – @StevonLewisMFT
Facebook – @StevonLewisLMFT
Twitter – @StevonLewisMFT
LinkedIn – https://www.linkedin.com/in/stevonlewis/
Dr. Joy Degruy: Posttraumatic Slave Syndrome
Plantation Theory: The Black Professional’s Struggle Between Freedom & Security by John Graham
Relevant Episodes of MTSG Podcast:
Lets Talk About Race: An interview with Stevon Lewis, LMFT
How to Overcome Impostor Syndrome to Leave Your Agency Job: An interview with Patrick Casale
Vulnerability, Mistakes, and the Impostor Syndrome
Therapy for Executives and Emerging Leaders
What to Know When Providing Therapy for Elite Athletes
Who we are:
Curt Widhalm, LMFT
Curt Widhalm is in private practice in the Los Angeles area. He is the cofounder of the Therapy Reimagined conference, an Adjunct Professor at Pepperdine University and CSUN, a former Subject Matter Expert for the California Board of Behavioral Sciences, former CFO of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, and a loving husband and father. He is 1/2 great person, 1/2 provocateur, and 1/2 geek, in that order. He dabbles in the dark art of making “dad jokes” and usually has a half-empty cup of coffee somewhere nearby. Learn more at: http://www.curtwidhalm.com
Katie Vernoy, LMFT
Katie Vernoy is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, coach, and consultant supporting leaders, visionaries, executives, and helping professionals to create sustainable careers. Katie, with Curt, has developed workshops and a conference, Therapy Reimagined, to support therapists navigating through the modern challenges of this profession. Katie is also a former President of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists. In her spare time, Katie is secretly siphoning off Curt’s youthful energy, so that she can take over the world. Learn more at: http://www.katievernoy.com
A Quick Note:
Our opinions are our own. We are only speaking for ourselves – except when we speak for each other, or over each other. We’re working on it.
Our guests are also only speaking for themselves and have their own opinions. We aren’t trying to take their voice, and no one speaks for us either. Mostly because they don’t want to, but hey.
Stay in Touch with Curt, Katie, and the whole Therapy Reimagined #TherapyMovement:
Consultation services with Curt Widhalm or Katie Vernoy:
Connect with the Modern Therapist Community:
Our Facebook Group – The Modern Therapists Group
Modern Therapist’s Survival Guide Creative Credits:
Voice Over by DW McCann https://www.facebook.com/McCannDW/
Music by Crystal Grooms Mangano https://groomsymusic.com/
Transcript for this episode of the Modern Therapist’s Survival Guide podcast (Autogenerated):
Transcripts do not include advertisements just a reference to the advertising break (as such timing does not account for advertisements).
You’re listening to the Modern Therapist’s Survival Guide where therapists live, breathe and practice as human beings. To support you as a whole person and a therapist, here are your hosts, Curt Widhalm and Katie Vernoy.
Curt Widhalm 0:14
Welcome back modern therapists, this is the Modern Therapist’s Survival Guide. I’m Curt Widhalm, with Katie Vernoy. And this is the podcast for therapists where we talk about the things that come up in our practices, issues that affect therapists and sometimes things that affect clients. And today, we are once again joined by Stevon Lewis. He before the show, he was like, I know that you’re probably gonna have some sort of dad joke about imposter syndrome. But I don’t know that I’m the one who has the place to say something like this. So.
Katie Vernoy 0:47
Good attempt, Curt. Good.
Stevon Lewis 0:49
I see what you did there.
Curt Widhalm 0:51
Thank you very much for joining us and coming on and talking about impostor syndrome here.
Stevon Lewis 0:57
Thank you. Thank you guys, for having me. I’m happy to be back on. This is gonna be fun.
Katie Vernoy 1:00
Oh, good, it’s so good to have you here. We always love having friends to the show. So as you know, our first question is, who are you? And what are you putting out into the world?
Stevon Lewis 1:10
I am Stevon Lewis. I’m a licensed psychotherapist. And I’m putting out light and positivity into the world by discussing impostor syndrome, and really getting people to find a way to attach to their success, so that they don’t feel like a fraud as they walk through life and do amazing things.
Curt Widhalm 1:29
So how did you get into imposter syndrome in the first place, I don’t know many people who get into imposter syndrome work without at least kind of some personal experience in this. So I have to imagine that there’s some origin villain story that you here.
Katie Vernoy 1:47
A villain story? Okay.
Stevon Lewis 1:48
Expose yourself Stevon. Be vulnerable. So my story is a bit different. I kind of at an early age, I had to really lean into being myself. I recognize that I was going to be different, or you know, kind of experience life differently than other people. And so I was like, either try to change myself to, you know, allow people to be more comfortable or more accepting of me, or just accept myself and let other people figure that out. And that was like, you know, elementary school. And so it’s odd for me, or it’s interesting, when people have a tough time doing that. I’m like, Just love on yourself, and you’ll be fine. And everybody else will figure it out. But kind of to talk about how I got to impostor syndrome, I, I love all my clients. But I had like a set of clients, I did like an evaluation or an audit of like, all my clients, and the ones that I really like got excited to work with, or the ones that presented with like a similar set of experiences. And you know, that that kind of drove me to do a little bit more research. And this is back in like 2017. And the rest is kind of history. I was like, Oh, these are my folks, I need to only work with these folks. Because I feel like I do great work. And I feel like you know, I help them and then they get the best out of this experience as well.
Katie Vernoy 2:58
You specifically focus in on high achievers as well, and and how this interplay comes in and you and I are aligned in this. I love this work. I love what you’re doing on Instagram, like all the stuff where you’re basically beating up on all of us.
Stevon Lewis 3:12
Those aren’t the words I would choose.
Katie Vernoy 3:17
Yeah, fair enough. Fair enough. You’re pointing out that we’re beating up on ourselves. How’s that?
Stevon Lewis 3:21
Katie Vernoy 3:22
And it feels like there’s a difference when we’re talking about imposter syndrome and high achievers. And so what do therapist get wrong when they get a high achiever in their office. And they’re not necessarily addressing impostor syndrome in the way that that you might suggest that they would consider?
Curt Widhalm 3:38
Is there a way that we can ask that question without making our audience feel like they are imposters in what they have already done? Hey, people out there who are listening to this, you’re doing great. And we just want you to, you know, see if there’s maybe a little growth edge or some some things that, you know, you can help your clients a little bit better here. Stevon, what kind of advice do you have?
Stevon Lewis 4:02
Yeah, I like I like we’re all constantly building and supporting each other, and all the folks out there that are struggling with things. So for me, I think with high achievers, and maybe some, what some therapists might miss is that there’s a tendency to kind of treat the symptoms and not kind of look at the root cause. And so what happens is that you’ll see someone come in, and they’ll have anxiety kind of symptoms, or depressive kind of symptoms. And it doesn’t really make sense, because, you know, what we’ll see is that they’re really crushing it in life, they’re doing a fantastic job. And so we might kind of say, like, they’re all just high functioning depression or high functioning anxiety, but I think it takes some effort to kind of pull back the layers to say, Well, what, what’s going on that you’re not able to connect to the success you’re having? And as you start to ask more questions about like childhood history and, you know, family origin history, or experience that they’ve kind of just had across their lifespan. Then you start to kind of make these connections to say, Oh, there’s something about you, or about your experience to where you’ve been told or received a message and adopted it, that for whatever reason, you aren’t responsible for the good things that happen to you.
Curt Widhalm 5:16
Say more. Because my practice, I work with a lot of high achievers too and typically high achieving teens and their families. But I get a lot of like, Yeah, I did that. And then there’s just kind of this minimizing of like, you know, sure, I agree that this accomplishment was done. It’s, here’s a checklist on that task. Now, I need to feel that feeling more.
Stevon Lewis 5:41
That’s exactly it is. High achievers are kind of what I say, addicted to the pursuit of achievement. Yeah, yeah. So like, they are constantly chasing the next goal and the next thing. So once they kind of crest the hill, you’ll love this, because you’re a cyclist, too. They don’t enjoy the downhill. And that’s the problem is like, you know, that’s the reward. And so you disconnected yourself from the actual good part that you earn. And so what you tell your brain as a result of that the message gets is, you’re not really doing anything of value. Because once you’ve done something, it no longer retains any of its importance or significance. You moved on to I am now climbing another hill. And, again, I don’t think it’s intentional. But what happens is your brain says, well, we aren’t doing anything, because we’re always working hard to get somewhere.
Curt Widhalm 6:30
I like this, you know, because even, you know, speaking from personal experience going downhill on the bike, like you start making up like things to do to make the downhill worthwhile, like, Alright, I gotta get Strava to like, hit the next mile marker or speed marker that I haven’t hit before. That’s just like, I love that getting addicted to the pursuit.
Katie Vernoy 6:52
And it seems like it really lends itself to moving forward. And I think there’s reward because each time you get further and further and further there is that, you know, there’s that second hill, that second mountain, that third mountain, that fourth mountain, like you just keep going and keep going. And it fuels the energy. And I think I was actually talking to someone yesterday who’s also a high achiever. And she was saying, like, I just can’t sit still. I don’t know what to do with myself when I’m not doing something. And so to me, it feels like it builds this life that doesn’t allow for celebration of what you’ve done. But it keeps you very well equipped to be productive, right and get lots of little tiny hits of praise from other people that then you of course, dismiss, but like it’s that little bit of stuff that just keeps you moving forward and potentially keeps you from thinking about all the reasons why you can’t allow that to hit. I mean, it seems like there’s some stuff that you’ve talked about, like commonalities of the people who present with this. It seems like there might be some stuff that they’re just not wanting to think about too. Right? Keep busy, don’t, keep your head down, don’t think about all the crap.
Stevon Lewis 8:01
And that’s the paradox, right, is that you have people, you know, high achievers who are constantly doing something and so no fault of their own, their self worth starts to get attached to their accomplishments. And so in order for me to feel value, or feel good about myself, I have to continue doing. Also we live in a world where praise is given to a lot of the traits that someone with impostor syndrome will exhibit. So again, working hard accomplishing a lot, staying late at work, being very detail oriented, because I’m wanting to make sure that you know, nobody figures out that, you know, I don’t really have what it takes. Those things get rewarded, and they get applauded. And the thing that’s missing is the, I guess, the catalyst for why that’s happening. It’s all done to kind of cover up. And I think it’s coming from a negative place. And so part of my work is trying to get people to attach these against good behaviors, for a good reason so that it’s not coming out of a place of fear or anxiety, you know, that you’re going to be found to not really be as talented or that your past accomplishment doesn’t matter. Yeah, there’s there’s like, like you were saying, there’s no time spent in I guess, kind of relishing in the idea that you’ve done something well. It’s I have to continue doing things that are amazing, or keep accomplishing in order for me to have value or add value. And so they have these lofty dreams and goals that they are constantly chasing, because they have an ability and skills to do so. Also, I look for balance. Like there’s also the missing piece of but you also don’t talk about the things you’ve done already. And so I try to get people to live in a space where you can be happy and proud of what you’ve done while you’re still working to be and do more.
Katie Vernoy 9:41
The other element that you were talking about that I was thinking that was also really praised is humility.
Stevon Lewis 9:47
Oh, you struck a chord with me now. Oh, man, so I have a gripe with all of society.
Katie Vernoy 9:58
Okay, tell us more.
Stevon Lewis 9:59
Everyone on planet Earth but myself. No, no imposter here. That our definition of humility is not one that I think I subscribe to. I think that people operate with a definition of humility that goes something like this, that I ought to not talk about the things I’ve done as much in order to kind of not appear as conceited or pompous, or better than everybody else. And my definition is tweaked a bit, it says that, I don’t think humility is really talking about what you’ve done less, or what you’ve accomplished less, it’s not making people feel less, or treating people less than because of what you accomplish. And I think that’s the difference. So if I go out, and I play basketball, and I score 40 points, that’s just the fact. Right? Like, that’s just something I did in that game. Why can’t I talk about that? It’s just as real as if my name is Stevon. I don’t see any problem with that. Now, if I say, Well, you guys all suck as basketball players, because you aren’t as good as me, because I scored 40 points can you didn’t? That’s different, right. And so I think what people are trying not to do is the latter. And what they do then is send a message to themselves that like, I’m not talking about what I’ve done that was of quality. So then maybe I haven’t really done anything of quality. It’s kind of the message the brain receives.
Katie Vernoy 11:14
Curt Widhalm 11:15
I’m sitting here trying not to turn this into a therapy session for myself. Well, I mean, cuz I am one of those people where it’s like, okay, yeah, I’ve accomplished something. And like, you know, I’ve got a marathon coming up here in a couple of weeks. And I’m, you know, I’ve done a bunch of them before. So, you know, this is kind of getting back into some of the things that I really enjoy. But there’s that part of me that’s, like, really struggling with, like, I don’t want to sign up for the next marathon yet. But I’m already looking forward to that next achievement sort of thing, like, you know, once I get through 26.2 miles, like, there’s a free banana at the end, then I start looking at the next thing. So, you know, this is guiltily, you know, just a little bit of working through my own stuff, but also trying to turn this into something like, Alright, you’ve got this great theoretical idea that you’re talking about here. How does this play out in sessions with clients who are addicted to that pursuit? Or who are you know, just kind of like, okay, yeah, that’s done, I’m ready to do something, you know, the ones that Katie’s talking about of like, I can’t sit still. What does that look like in sessions?
Stevon Lewis 12:24
It looks like me slowing things down. So the way you speak about it, it’s like really pressured, it’s, I’ve got to get on to the next thing.
Curt Widhalm 12:33
Okay, so I’m going to reframe that as I want I want to do the next thing.
Katie Vernoy 12:37
And cut Stevon off in the process.
Stevon Lewis 12:43
I like that change in language, because I’m huge on language. So that’s really good for you to say, it’s not a need, it’s a want. That tempers kind of the demand you’ve placed on yourself. So you want to do this next thing. That’s cool, right? You’re always going to want to do a next thing. Because that’s the type of person you are, you are a person that does not stop doing things. You will always be doing something. What you’re not doing is also congratulating yourself or acknowledging what you’ve done and what you’re doing right now. And I think that that’s a disservice to you. So that after you’ve accomplished something, there’s all this hard work, and you’re attaching yourself to the hardware, I got to work really hard to get to this next goal, you get to the goal. And immediately you move on. What I asked people and this is, this is an interesting thing like so for yourself, you being a dad, you have kids, I’d ask would you do that to your children? Like if they worked really hard to accomplish something? Would you like Ah, like, you know, congrats, and then say, Hey, what are you going to do next, immediately? And oftentimes, what I get is that no, they would not. And so I’m saying Why do you treat yourself that way? If you wouldn’t do it to somebody else, why would you do that?
Curt Widhalm 13:47
Because it’s too late for me and my kids could do something different.
Katie Vernoy 13:52
Because my kids have more value than I do.
Stevon Lewis 13:54
Oh, that’s done. That’s done Out. Out. But that’s how it is, right? Is that they treat other people in a way that I’m just trying to get them to treat themselves. Like if they had a friend who accomplished something, they would celebrate their friend to no end. Oh, this is amazing. I’m so glad you did that. Let’s tell everybody. They won’t do that for themselves. And I’m saying if it’s okay for your friend, Why could it be okay for you?
Curt Widhalm 14:20
So I can wear my marathon medal for two days rather than just one. If…
Stevon Lewis 14:29
It took you 26.2 miles. Wear it for 26.2 more miles. Like, wear for all the training you did. You know, you don’t just wake up and run that distance. You know, you had to put a lot of effort, a lot of sacrifice, a lot of time from family, from work, factoring or fitting in time to training runs and stuff like that. You did all that work, to not really sit and revel in that for any bit of time? And I’m not saying you’re gonna live there and these past accomplishments because I definitely don’t think that what you’re saying Like, if I’m saying slow down, I’m telling you to live in mediocrity. I’m saying, You mean, you can’t just enjoy this for… I don’t know, another week or two?
Curt Widhalm 15:09
Sure. And I think that some of this stuff deals with culture. And you know, part of this is, you know, Marathon culture and that kind of stuff. And…
Stevon Lewis 15:17
Oh, there’s marathon culture? I’ve never heard…
Curt Widhalm 15:19
Oh, totally. Yeah. Like, yeah, there’s, there’s kind of a community sort of thing of like, you know, how long you can talk about, like, you know, what’s your personal best? Like, if it’s more than, like, five years ago, that’s not representative of like, where you’re at as a runner sort of thing. Like, you have to start to qualify again, like, yeah, I ran, you know, 309 marathon like 10 years ago, I’m not, I’m not in that kind of a space anymore. I’m going out and enjoying this one for this. But that’s, that’s a community of marathon runners. And I have to imagine that any sorts of communities are gonna have their own versions of this, whether it’s based in I don’t know racism, sexism, ableism, any of this kind of stuff, where there’s just kind of certain internalized aspects of thi. And I can laugh and joke and poke fun at myself of things that I do like to accomplish. And I recognize my vantage point on this, but are there other community type things where you’re seeing this kind of stuff come up with clients?
Stevon Lewis 16:19
Sure, like, I think that when you start to talk about, like, you know, maybe racism as as an example, you know, you put pressure on yourself to become the representative of said race. If you’re in, you know, spaces where there aren’t a ton of people that look like you. If we’re talking about sexism, you’re the only woman in a space and so there’s more pressure you put on yourself to be all things, to be the best version, because I am now representative of all women, or all black men, or, or whatever. And I think that’s unfair for us to kind of accept from people. And so what I, you know, try to get people to do is kind of push back against this tendency to take ownership over how others are responding to or I guess, kind of treating me right. Like so I think that for me, I have a physical kind of response, or like, I’ll have a feeling about what’s happening to me. And I try to get people to say, use that feeling to do more investigation. Do you immediately take ownership over the fact that maybe you’re doing something or have done something, or that you need to now prove to others that you are what they don’t think you are. Like, I’m okay with other people telling themselves their own truth about all sorts of things, as long as it doesn’t, you know, negatively impact me too much. And so I think like the compassion piece is really important. So when you talk about like, the community saying, Well, you know, 309, was five years ago, underlying that is this message that you need to always be improving. And being a better version, which, realistically, like, if we’re talking about age, like the older you get, the harder or more difficult it’ll be to continue to perform at that level.
Curt Widhalm 17:49
Stevon Lewis 17:49
So it’s like, where’s the compassion we’re giving to ourselves? Or to other folks to kind of say, like, Hey, are you doing what’s best expected for you, based on what you are, what you have and where you are in this moment? And if someone is expecting you to do more than do you need to take that on?
Katie Vernoy 18:05
Well, I think there’s other elements to it. Because I think when you’re talking about being kind of whether it’s the token or the representative, or owning what people think about all black men, or all women, or whatever it is, I think there’s that element of feeling like you need to behave a certain way in taking that on. But I think there’s also those additional elements of of being told that you’re an imposter. You’re the token and you’re the you were just hired because of, or you’re, you’re invalidated, or there’s, you know, obviously microaggressions, those kinds of things. And so to me, it seems like, are you an imposter? Or are people just telling you that you are?
Stevon Lewis 18:41
Right, right, right, right.
Katie Vernoy 18:42
Do you have impostor syndrome? Or are you just internalizing racism, sexism, ableism, you know, all that kind of stuff? How do you sort that out with people? Because I feel like you get intersectional. And there’s so many different reasons why people might be being told that they’re not good enough.
Stevon Lewis 18:58
And you’re absolutely right. And so some of my work that is like a section of it right that for I mean, we’re going to kind of be open and honest here on this podcast, that I have clients who are black males, and being a high achiever, they’ve kind of gotten to places in their kind of profession, companies or organizations to where the higher up they go, the less people look like them. And so in those environments, they do get treated differently. And what I tried to get them to do and like you talked about is that, you know, this internalized kind of racism or like this internalized experience of well, people are treating them differently.
Katie Vernoy 19:32
Stevon Lewis 19:32
Or they are responding differently to my passion or, you know, I’ve got to be really cautious about like not appearing angry, or that I’m, you know, if I check out or pull back some, then I’m not also going to be viewed as lazy. You really have to contend with those things. Also, I am working with them to say don’t take ownership over that. That’s the environment. So what I try to talk to them about is that you’re in an environment where there aren’t many people that look like you. Why would you operate from a narrative that suggests that this was made for you to be successful, for you to thrive and for you to grow, I saw a good quote on the internet once on social media where it said, like, you know, when a flower doesn’t grow, we don’t blame the flower, we change the environment. It’s a, you know, letting them take that kind of compassion, or place or stance for themselves that like, is this environment designed for you to be the best version of yourself? If it’s not, then let’s throw that or take that off the table as something you need to be striving for, and say, How can you be successful in a place that is not designed for you to thrive and to be successful easily?
Katie Vernoy 20:36
It seems like there’s an element of sorting out what’s environment and what’s more internal. And it seems like that’s pretty messy. But what about kind of what we’ve grown up with? I mean, what are we bringing to the table that can impact this? Because it seems like for you, you thrived in environments where you weren’t necessarily looking like everybody else in the room. And so how do we dig into all the pieces, I guess, is what I’m asking,
Stevon Lewis 21:00
Oh, you’re gonna take it back, people are gonna get mad at you now, because you can talk about their parents parental issues. So some of the commonalities, like I kind of found when, and you know, research supports this is that for people who struggle with impostor syndrome, a lot of that stuff started early on for them. So they had experiences where they had parents who were really critical, you know, kind of always telling them little things, sit up straight, hold your fork like this, you know, smile when you are talking or look at someone directly in the eye like, and again, I don’t think these are bad parents, I don’t think they hated their kids. I think that they just wanted their kids to be the best version of themselves. But what you hear is that you’re getting critiqued more than you’re getting praised. And so the feeling becomes then that like, I must be doing things wrong or incorrectly, you know, again, in families where you see this, oftentimes maybe like, immigrant families. A best friend’s Nigerian, and so like, academics are paramount thing, you don’t bring home an A, you might as well it brought home a fail. Like, that’s…
Katie Vernoy 22:01
Stevon Lewis 22:01
…that’s it. And so there’s this thing, again, we’re sending a message that unless you’re the best, you are the worst. And kids internalize that. So praise isn’t really given, critiques are given more. Also, then you have people who are coming from families, where they’re the only one who kind of has done the thing that they’re doing. So the level of success that they have, no one else in the family is really attained, that starts to say, a little like, what’s so special about me because I came from them, so I must be more like them. I don’t know that this is like genuine, I must have lucked out somewhere. So like, there’s all these things that happen like in our childhood, or like, you know, as we kind of grow and evolve, that send messages to us that like maybe you don’t really have what it takes. And like, there’s all these reasons why you shouldn’t be where you are. And I’m trying to get people to focus on the other side of that, like, Yeah, that could be possible. Also, you are where you are. So then let’s talk about why that is.
Curt Widhalm 22:54
Well, it sounds like underneath that is really working through feelings of avoiding shame, as opposed to what you’re talking about, like embracing more mindful of like being towards the moments and following kind of feelings of belonging or feelings of, you know, creating a new path for yourself.
Stevon Lewis 23:14
Which you’re absolutely right, it is really difficult to do when you don’t feel supported in doing that. Right. Like, I think that’s the part that becomes difficult, because I’m wanting you to not feel bad about what you’ve done and who you are and how you operate, that you’re deserving of that stuff. And you’re contending with the idea that there’s all these reasons why, for all intents and purposes, what I am doing shouldn’t be possible. So it’s you know, that pushback between what’s happening internally and what you’re getting externally. And so I try to operate from a place that’s really logical and rational. And saying like, Well, if the evidence really supports that, you do have what it takes, let’s just go with that. Like, let’s get rid of this inner bully this you know, voice that’s telling you, Hey, you don’t have it, look at your family, you’re so different from them. Nobody else in your family is doing this stuff, you’re in this room, you’re the only person in here, they’re gonna find out you don’t belong in this room at some point, let go of all that. And let’s go with the part that like, you know, the other side of that story is, but you are here. So how did that happen? And people will easily dismiss the good and attach to the negative side of things. And it comes from a fear because I think what we tell ourselves is that if I focus on where things can possibly go wrong, then I can protect those better. And that may be true, you’re also ignoring what’s going, right? So we put these blinders on. And that’s problematic for me.
Katie Vernoy 24:42
It seems like there’s just such a level of fear and worry and a lack of self trust that if something were to go wrong, if I put my hand off the wheel a little bit, that I’m going to fail, fail miserably. I’m going to not only be a disappointment to myself, to whoever I’m doing these things for, but to all people who look like me or whatever, and also potentially, to my family to all of the people. Like I’m going to disappoint every single person. And I think that that’s so interesting, as you were talking, I was just really struck by, you know, one of the things that popped in my head, I guess was Dr. Joy DeGruy’s work about post traumatic slave syndrome, which is really looking at if you are successful, you are then used, it is almost dangerous to be successful. And so there’s also a legacy of that for black people. I think I’m going to defer to you on that. But it seems like there’s that element of like, success is so fraught, and it’s so tentative, and so scary. And so like, even if I achieve this thing, what does that even mean? I don’t know, maybe I’m going way off the rails, but like that was what was coming in my mind when you were talking is this notion of success being terrifying.
Stevon Lewis 25:56
I love the language you use, because there was a lot of really high extremes. For me, it’s, I’m going to not only fail, but fail miserably. I’m going to disappoint everyone. And that’s the narrative that people take on. But to your point, yes, I do think that that’s, you know, so like, what we were talking about being in groups that you know, may been historically marginalized, then absolutely, we can be exploited for our gifts. Like, that’s not a uncommon thing. I mean, capitalism suggests we ought to do that, right?
Katie Vernoy 26:25
Stevon Lewis 26:25
I think that what happens is, there’s another author, I forget his name, he has a book called Plantation Theory. And he talks about how this happens, kind of in corporate America. Where you are not rewarded kind of financially or anything for your, if you’re like a person of color, or in one of the marginalized communities, for your success and your great talents, they will try to use the word leverage your your abilities and skills, and not really rewarded or compensate you for that…
Katie Vernoy 26:52
Stevon Lewis 26:52
…much like on a plantation, right. And so I think there is this fear of if I’m too successful, and I stand out too much, I’m going to have a spotlight on me and having a spotlight on me could be a bad thing. And so now we’ve attached succeeding too much is not being good, or like we need to be fearful of that or become more paranoid or anxious or worried about that from a good place. Because things have happened.
Katie Vernoy 27:13
Stevon Lewis 27:14
Also, if you’re a high achiever, it’s hard to not want to continue to do well.
Katie Vernoy 27:19
Yeah, it’s like you keep running towards the fire.
Stevon Lewis 27:23
Because you can’t, you can’t not do because everything else will feel like mediocrity. Because I posed that question to people, I’m like, Oh, well, if you don’t want to feel, you know, nervous about the becoming something or you don’t want to have this fear that you’re going to fail, then just stay where you are. Because it sounds like you’ve got that down, and don’t do anything more. And that’s like, repulsive to them. They’re like, I can’t do that. I have to, I can’t like Well, no, you’re fine. Here. Let’s just stay here. Don’t do anything more. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, I’m the issue. When I point that as a as an option for you.
Katie Vernoy 27:57
Curt Widhalm 27:58
You know, you’re talking about this in marginalized communities too, and what I’m thinking of is there’s also a lot of, you know, majority presenting cultures that have things like tallest poppy, you know, sorts of things where people who stand out get cut down, because even just the culture around them tends to, you know, not want to disrupt things too much. That this is something where there’s a, I think, an intersectionality, here, that definitely does come within marginalized communities. But this is probably a lot more common from places that don’t celebrate, you know, growth or pathways as much just because of the nature of whatever community it’s in, too.
Stevon Lewis 28:42
I agree. I think that for whatever reason, there’s this tendency for difference to be seen as negative. So like, if you’re saying, again, you’re doing something innovative, there’s pushback, and I don’t know that that’s kind of only reserved for marginalized communities. I think like, when you are outside the norm, I’m using air quotes here, then there’s some kind of reticence around what you’re doing and what you’re accomplishing. When in actuality, like, the things we value and stuff that’s made life better for all of us have been because somebody was like, Yeah, nah, this doesn’t work, I’m gonna do something different. They push past that.
Katie Vernoy 29:19
Stevon Lewis 29:20
But for whatever reason, whenever that’s presented to us, you know, that person is going to have to feel a lot. So it’s in you know, not making things political or anything like that. I mean, it’s just an everyday thing. I mean, the move from away from like, I don’t know, fossil fuels to like using electricity more like, that’s like, not cool. I remember, you know, when the airport we had to start taking our shoes off and stuff after 9-11 it was like, that was like, you know, oh my god, they’re scanning us and it’s a bad thing. It’s like, also it might be making us more safer. And you know, not to say that it won’t be misused, and we are now targeting specific people, like that’s a human error problem. But again, the things that make life better for us the internet. Again, it can be misused. But I think there’s like this fear again, it’s like when you start to do something different, and it starts to be more successful, people don’t know what to make of it. And there’s like this, I don’t know, caution or fear that it’s not going to be okay, or that the difference is negative. And so like when Curt you’re talking about, it’s like, yeah, you do probably get pushback for just being different and doing things well, because we were like, Well, wait, what are you going to do with that? I think it’s like a power thing, maybe even?
Katie Vernoy 30:25
Well, I think it seems like you know, and we’re getting a little bit low on time. So I want to kind of make sure we’re getting back to imposter syndrome. But it seems like there’s so many different factors at play. There’s kind of how success was acknowledged or not, as you were growing up. How perfectionistic maybe your parents were with your behavior and how much they celebrated or didn’t. And then there’s kind of whatever situation you’re in whether it’s, you know, that you’re different from the people around you, or you’re standing up and doing something innovative and being cut down. That seems like there’s external forces that are basically telling you, or, or testing you, potentially, and then your own response to all these other things. And so, we can’t change society. We can’t help society to redefine humility. We can’t change folks from feeling suspicious of different folks or people with different ideas. So what does healing look like for someone, especially for a high achiever with impostor syndrome in today’s society.
Stevon Lewis 31:29
It’s, for me, I talk about the term kind of radical acceptance of self. And so it’s the idea of healing is getting free from for me. So all those things you mentioned, are real, and they’re happening, you get to control how you want to choose to respond to that. And I think that it becomes easier, maybe, or you get to be better at enduring or kind of navigating that stuff, if you can align with who you are in what you’re putting out into the world. And so that, you know, radical acceptance of self, to me is kind of saying, hey, I can love myself, I can be proud of myself, even though I know I’m not perfect. And I’m still working to be a better version of me. And so when somebody says something about me that suggested that I do have an imperfection or that whatever my you know, imperfection is is not okay, I can be okay with that, because I’m working to improve it. But also I am good as I am right now.
Katie Vernoy 32:28
Well, I think sometimes the person that’s telling you that you have an imperfection and it’s not okay is yourself.
Stevon Lewis 32:33
Yeah, that’s where you have to come with the compassion part is like, Hey, you don’t have to be perfect to be good.
Curt Widhalm 32:42
Where can people find out more about you and the work that you’re doing?
Stevon Lewis 32:48
Oh, well. So for me, I have a unique name, Stevon Lewis. There aren’t many of us out there. So if you Google Stevon Lewis, you’ll find all my stuff. My website is stevonlewis.com. Instagram, I’m very active on there doing a bunch of stuff that seems like I’m, you know, attacking people, but I’m not it’s coming from a place of love. And…
Katie Vernoy 33:08
Stevon Lewis 33:09
Yeah, that’s Stevon that’s @StevonLewisMFT, the letters Francis Thomas. I mean, go to my website, stevonlewis.com, you’ll find everything. I just wrote a journal called Silencing Your Inner Bully. It’s an acknowledgement journal that help people kind of work through their own impostor-ism, and quiet that inner bully’s voice.
Katie Vernoy 33:27
I love that.
Curt Widhalm 33:28
And we’ll include links to all of that in our show notes over at mtsgpodcast.com and follow us on our social media. If you like our show and want to find other ways to support us, please consider supporting us through Patreon. And until next time, I’m Curt Widhalm. With Katie Vernoy and Stevon Lewis.
Thank you for listening to the Modern Therapist’s Survival Guide. Learn more about who we are and what we do and mtsgpodcast.com. You can also join us on Facebook and Twitter. And please don’t forget to subscribe so you don’t miss any of our episodes.
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