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Does the Impostor Syndrome Apply to Relationships?

Wei wu wei can help you ride relationships through storms of self-doubt.

This post is in response to
Do You Feel Like a Placeholder in Your Relationship?

A comment from C.A.H. on my post about the placeholder syndrome in relationships was so good that I wanted to respond to it in a new post rather than in the comments.

C.A.H. begins:

Useful article about how the placeholder faces a self-fulfilling prophecy. I appreciate the internal logic, and wonder if you see a parallel between the romantic "placeholder" and the professional or scholastic "impostor" (of the impostor syndrome)?

As someone who is very familiar with both, I would say “yes,” absolutely. Both reflect an underlying lack of confidence in yourself and a sense that you don’t belong in the situation you’re in, whether it’s a romantic or professional one. Both involve feelings of self-doubt and even guilt that you’re making the situation worse, both of which lead you to believe that you don't deserve to be there and someone else deserves to be there more.

Even though some people may experience both at the same time, I also think self-doubt can be situational, as I wrote here. A person can be confident about her job skills but not her qualities as a romantic partner, and vice versa. In such cases, people can try to leverage their greater confidence in one area of their life to increase it in the area in which they feel less confident. For people with more general self-loathing, however, this is not an option, and they have to confront the source of their feelings of general inadequacy directly (ideally with a therapist).

Then C.A.H. continues:

I think the advice to focus more in the present can do wonders to alleviate the pressure coming from fears of inadequacy. If you are in the present, you're not worried about being "found out" as not up for the future, because you're obviously good enough for the moment at hand and you're appreciating what it has to offer. Still, the question remains what the placeholder should do when it comes time for the relationship to "move forward", and asking whether it will "last" gets placed by implication unavoidably on the agenda? Of course, if the advice was targeted at those not looking for a long-term relationship, this doesn't apply, but I read it more as a way for "placeholders" to launch to the point where such questions get entertained, not to avoid them.

In general, I think the principle of wei wu wei or "action through inaction," which I invoked in the earlier (and which I’ve discussed at more length in previous posts), is a great way to deal with this. By focusing on each day as it comes rather than what will happen the next day, you give your relationship room to improve (assuming no other issues, of course) and “move forward.” Maintaining this attitude through transitions (as well as the normal problems that occur along the way) will help avoid the anxious moments of realizing the transitions are coming.

Some couples make a huge deal out of taking “the next step,” but the wei wu wei approach would caution against overthinking these steps and encourages you instead to let them happen naturally. Even the steps that do merit some serious thinking—such as moving in together and getting married—will prompt less self-doubt and anxiety because the relationship will be stronger going into them, and you can still treat as changes in day-to-day life rather than dictating your future (with all the expectations and worries that come with it).

Best of all, none of these steps depend on the relationship “lasting”—they just make it richer and deeper while it lasts, which in the end, is all we can really ask for.

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For a select list of my previous Psychology Today posts on self-loathing, relationships, and other topics, see here.

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