Am I a Fraud?
By Liz Sharkey
I love professional development courses and I love swapping massages with fellow therapists but the thought of doing these things also fills me with a deep sense of dread and fear. I am terrified that other therapists are going to realise that I don’t belong. That I don’t really know what I am doing. I suffer from a long-term case of impostor syndrome.
First identified in a 1978 paper by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, impostor syndrome is the idea that you’ve only succeeded due to luck and not because of your talent, qualifications and hard work. Originally, they thought it was unique to women but it turns out that guys feel it too.
Many high achieving, famous people have discussed their own experiences with feeling like a fraud. Speaking at a Harvard event in 2015, Natalie Portman shared how she never felt like she deserved to be at the university during her time there. Writer Neil Gaiman tells the story of being at an event with “artists and scientists, writers and discoverers of things”, where he struck up a conversation with astronaut Neil Armstrong, who “pointed to the hall of people, and said words to the effect of, “I just look at all these people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.” I’m in good company!
So why, after nearly 15 years in this industry, do I feel like a fraud?
The training I received to get my massage diploma was less than stellar. Like many others, my RTO was later closed because the standard of their delivery was questionable to say the least. That did not mean that when I graduated, I did not think I knew everything. Turns out, though, that the more I learnt, the more I realised I knew pretty much nothing and what I knew turned out to be nothing more than massage myths and old wives’ tales.
Put me in a room with other therapists and I question everything I have previously been confident with. What if I’m not doing it right? Am I palpating the wrong muscle? It becomes a “fake it until I make it” situation and I sit back and avoid engaging in discussion lest my secret inadequacies be discovered.
Have you ever been working on a client and applied pressure to a particularly tender spot? You hear a slight intake of breath and you know it’s tender? The client asks, “Is it a knot? Is it tight? How did you know that was the spot?”
What should I answer?
Here is my confession – I do not think I have ever felt a mythical trigger point. I know intellectually what it is but can I say that what I am feeling is the same as other therapists would feel?
I envy those who can say with absolute certainty that they know what they are palpating. I realise that what I have always thought I was doing, although it works for my clients, may be completely different to what I have actually been doing.
I suspect some of the problem may be that the more I learn, the more I question. When I started, no one dared question a trigger point, a referred pain pattern or the treatment required for an issue. Palpate, get a reported referred pain and, voilà, there’s your trigger point. Now there is an entire community that have conducted research to debunk those theories and to question the basis of the whole Travell and Simons philosophy. That leads to the question: if trigger points do not exist, then why am I doing trigger point therapy? Is it any wonder that I frequently have existential crises and question what the hell I am doing?
Related article: A Massage Therapist’s Journey Through A Career Crisis
One of the ways I deal with my impostor syndrome is to own it. I’ve realised that it’s OK to say, “I don’t know”. I do not need to have the answer to everything and there are some things that simply have no answer. I might not be doing quite what I thought I was but if my client feels better at the end of the day, does it really matter? I may not know the name of every muscle but I am sure as hell smart enough to have an app on my phone that can discreetly remind me which ones are flexors and which ones are extensors.
The one thing that I do know is that just about every other therapist goes through some degree of impostor syndrome. Many of us are living the “fake it until you make it” mantra, both in our personal and professional lives. Whilst we may all hold similar qualifications, the standard of training across Australia is vast. What is taught well at one college may be totally missed at another college. We need to find our tribe, so to speak. Find other therapists that we trust. Find forums where we can ask questions without being talked down to in the answers. Find mentors that don’t pretend to have all the answers and always be prepared to research, question and engage in respectful discussion. Be prepared to be a little vulnerable.
I was never one to put my hand up in class. Maybe the time has come to change that.
About the Author
Liz Sharkey is a massage therapist based in Melbourne. Liz has returned to study this year as a back-up plan in response to COVID-19. She’s learning the joys of online break out rooms and has a newfound respect for all the students who did online learning last year.