Are You For Real?
Some of my clients feel like impostors who will be found out at any moment. They feel like they aren’t really as good as other people think they are, and it’s only a matter of time until the illusion is shattered and their lives fall apart. These people are highly competent and are by no means coasting and pretending to be someone they’re not. So why would they feel this way?
The answer comes from childhood. If a child deals with certain kinds of family dysfunction, she is forced to grow up prematurely. Possible sources of this dysfunction include parental alcoholism, drug addiction, chronic mental or physical illness, or narcissism. Having a parent who is absent physically or emotionally can create this dynamic, as well. Having a chronically physically or mentally ill sibling can produce similar results.
So if you’re a kid in a family like this, you realize you’re on your own. Your physical needs for food, clothing, and shelter may be met, but your emotional needs will not. It’s more likely that you’ll find yourself trying to meet a parent’s emotional needs, which is an impossible task.
What does this lead to? It usually leads to a kid who is very mature for her age. She is like an adult in a child’s body. As she grows up, she will probably be seen as someone who has it all together. She will be really good at taking care of problems and of other people; taking care of herself, on the other hand, will feel selfish. And heaven forbid that someone else try to take care of her!
This child grows up physically and takes on more responsibility in the world, but she’s still emotionally a child. Instead of being an adult in a child’s body, she becomes a child in an adult’s body. This is the reason for her feeling like an impostor. While she looks and acts like an adult, she feels like a little kid pretending to be an adult.
If you’re one of these people, the good news is that you’re not actually an impostor. While you are not grown up emotionally, the rest of you is grown up. You actually can do the things that others think you can. What you need to do is to reassure the part of you that is a child (your “inner child”) that you, the adult, are in charge, and she doesn’t need to worry about anything.
It may seem weird to think about a child inside of you, but everyone has an inner child. Treat this inner child like you would an actual physical child. You wouldn’t expect a child to take on adult responsibilities, would you? I hope not! That’s what happened to you when you were growing up, and it wasn’t good for you. You can treat your inner child the way you should have been treated when you were a kid, by making sure she is only responsible for what is reasonable for her. Your adult self can handle the rest.
There are many good books that can teach you more about inner child work, including John Bradshaw’s Homecoming: Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child, Charles L. Whitfield, MD’s Healing the Child Within: Discovery and Recovery for Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families, and Cathryn L. Taylor’s The Inner Child Workbook: What to Do With Your Past When It Just Won’t Go Away. My book “Me” Time: Finding the Balance Between Taking Care of Others and Taking Care of Yourself also includes inner child work.
Jennifer Beall is a psychotherapist in private practice near Annapolis, Maryland. She is the author of “Me” Time: Finding the Balance Between Taking Care of Others and Taking Care of Yourself, available on Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com in print editions, and as an e-book for Kindle, Nook, and all other major e-readers.