(My Twitter friend @leenie 909 passes this along about having confidence in your professional life. My thanks to her for this excellent essay.)
Last week, I received the sad news that Dr. Steven Boggs, child psychologist at University of Florida passed away. He was one of my favorite supervisors when I did my turn there as a Child Psychology intern. Upon reflection of my time with him, the foremost thought in my mind was a story I’ve told to many people over the 14 years since I had the pleasure of working with and learning from Dr. Boggs. The story involves the greatest professional lesson I ever learned from him—possibly from anyone. And he taught it to me purely by accident.
One Monday morning, I came to work at the hospital psychology clinic. Dr. Boggs was my supervisor that day, and he had just come back from a two-week vacation. Before patients started arriving, we all stood around sharing events from our weekends, and Dr. Boggs from his vacation adventures.
Then he told us that when he got home the previous evening he was greeted by a voicemail from the internship director saying that he needed to see Dr. Boggs as soon as possible when he came in that Monday morning. I don’t know what the big urgency was, but apparently it was a pretty benign matter. Dr. Boggs shared this with us though, describing how it felt to listen to that message. I’m paraphrasing here, of course. I wish I had thought to write it down:
I heard it, and I’m like “Oh God, what did I do? I’m in trouble. What did I do? He’s found me out. Everyone has figured out I’m a fraud, I don’t know anything, and I don’t belong here. It’s all over.”
Then he laughed his characteristic giggle.
Let me tell you about this “fraud.” When I knew him he had already spent at least 15 years researching and publishing important studies on childhood emotional and behavioral problems. He helped pioneer of a groundbreaking treatment for childhood behavioral problems (Parent-Child Interactive Therapy, or PCIT as we always called it).
He’d trained hundreds of students and interns and chaired more masters and doctoral theses than I can count. He was Phi Beta Kappa and had received a slew of prestigious awards over the years. Not UBER-famous in the child psych world, but pretty far up there.
And yet, somewhere inside him, something still believed that he was illegitimate. That it was only a matter of time before he was found out for the charlatan that bit of him thought he was.
My psychology training, for all the ways it changed my life for the better, was the low point of my life. I loved my internship—every minute of it. But getting there was the most traumatizing time of my life.
I entered my studies as a person who had never known one moment of academic adversity. Everything I touched was gold for my entire childhood. I was unstoppable. Unbeatable. I got to grad school and I knew a fat lot of NOTHING and had to struggle for every last bit of success I managed to attain, interspersed with more than a fair bit of failure.
I felt like a fraud every moment of my eight years in grad school, including on internship. Fourteen years out as a licensed clinical psychologist, functioning daily as a child neuropsychologist, well regarded in my professional community and sought after by parents desperate to help their children, I still feel that way some days.
But Dr. Boggs’ one-off story taught me that that feeling is normal. Universal, in fact. Look at the most brilliant, accomplished, esteemed professional in your field and be well-assured that there is at least a small part of that person—or maybe not so small—that feels just like you do. Just like I did. And still do sometimes.
Steve, you gave me a gift I pull out and use on my darkest professional days when I feel like I’m in over my head and that everyone, EVERYONE, can see it. You thought you were a fraud and you SO very much were not. And neither am I, no matter how much I fear that I am.
Surely there can be no greater gem a mentor can pass on to his or her student. I’m in your debt forever for that totally unintentional lesson.
As for my PCIT? Well, let’s just say I may have gotten a bit rusty.