On the last day of a clinical social work program, an instructor solicits anonymous questions from her students. “No question is off limits,” she says, as her students scribble down their queries and concerns. One question appeared more frequently than any other:
When will I stop feeling like an imposter?
If you are a therapist who sometimes doubts your ability or expertise, you are not alone. Imposter syndrome, defined as a feeling of perceived fraudulence despite evidence to the contrary, can affect anyone in any occupation. It is most often experienced in the first few weeks of a new job or role, but for some, it persists well beyond. Even the most objectively accomplished and experienced therapists can feel inadequate or fraudulent. Luckily, there are steps you can take to cope with imposter syndrome.
Step One: Acknowledge
Feelings of inadequacy are uncomfortable, and certainly inconvenient when they arise in a professional context. As such, you might feel tempted to deny or ignore them. But acknowledging your insecurities is the first step to overcoming them. Remember that it is normal to feel like an imposter sometimes, but feeling it doesn’t make it true!
Step Two: Investigate
Imposter syndrome tends to show up in specific situations or under certain conditions. Be curious about your self-doubt. When does it arise? Is it only with particular patients? Perhaps it occurs when you compare yourself with colleagues you perceive as more accomplished. Understanding what triggers your imposter syndrome can help you respond to it effectively.
Step Three: Challenge
If you’ve ever been trained in cognitive behavioral therapy, you are familiar with the idea of challenging distorted thoughts. It starts with checking the facts. Is there any evidence to support your self-doubt? Is there any evidence that refutes it? Make a mental list of your achievements. Remember that only 1 in 7 adults in the U.S. has completed a graduate degree! Whether you feel like it or not, you are an expert in your field.
Step Four: Check your expectations
Meaningful change takes time. Just because you are not seeing progress doesn’t mean that change isn’t happening. Remember that therapy is a collaborative experience, and successful outcomes rely as much on patients’ efforts and engagement as they do on clinical interventions. Moreover, there is no such thing as “perfect” when it comes to being a therapist. You are not always going to say the right thing, and that is okay.
Step Five: Keep learning
You are not an imposter, but neither do you know everything there is to know. If you are feeling insecure about your expertise in a particular area, seek out professional development opportunities in that area. You may feel more confident and competent as a result!
Step Six: Get support
Imposter syndrome is a relatively common phenomenon. Thus, you are likely to find at least a few coworkers who can relate. Talk about your self-doubt in supervision or a peer consultation group. If your feelings of inadequacy are more persistent or long-standing, consider exploring them in your own therapy.
Step Seven: Self-compassion/Self-care
Being a therapist is not always easy. Progress is rarely linear, and your patients will likely experience setbacks and failures. Take time to acknowledge these challenges. Then, give yourself the same compassion and understanding that you would a friend. And don’t forget about other forms of self-care! Imposter syndrome can be exacerbated when you are tired or depleted. Make sure you have activities outside of work that promote feelings of competence so that these things don’t depend solely on your job.
Everyone experiences self-doubt sometimes. But if your feelings of inadequacy are causing you significant distress or getting in the way of your work, you may be experiencing imposter syndrome. By acknowledging these feelings and offering yourself kindness and compassion instead of judgment, you can counteract imposter syndrome and limit its harmful effects.