Explore Your Imposter Syndrome as a New Therapist
This tip is for graduate students completing their internships and early-career social workers, counselors, and psychologists who feel inadequate or unprepared to work as therapists.
As a new therapist, maybe you’re wondering if you’re smart enough, articulate enough, insightful enough, or fill in the blank enough to really do this work. These worries aren’t surprising. After all, people who are drawn to become therapists tend to be sensitive and introspective, and therapy is complex, delicate, and important work. The problem is, new therapists frequently have unrealistically-high expectations for themselves and get bogged down with imposter syndrome.
Imposter syndrome is that pesky voice in your head that tries to keep you safe by telling you to avoid taking professional risks and putting yourself out there. When the volume of that voice is set too high, it becomes difficult to hear balanced evidence about your actual competence as a new therapist. Sometimes, the voice of imposter syndrome isn’t even your own. Instead, the voice may be composed of negative internalized messages you received from your culture and the people around you about your worth as a human. So, how can you reality test your sense of inadequacy to discern if it’s really you or instead imposter syndrome?
Here’s a few heuristics you might use to assess how well you measure up to realistic expectations for new therapists. Keep in mind that these questions are just a starting point, and no matter how you answer them, remember that becoming a therapist is a process and takes time. And at the Center for Growth, all of your work with clients are video-taped or audio-taped, specifically so that you can get the best support possible. You will have an opportunity to not only self-reflect on the work that you did, but gain guidance from experts in the field. Your clinical work is heavily supervised. No one is expecting you to be perfect. Mistakes are a normal part of the growth process. With that being said, answering the following questions will help you make sense of your inner doubts:
Are the majority of clients coming back for more than one session?
Am I getting documentation finished promptly?
Am I able to take in feedback and reflect critically on it during clinical supervision?
Am I open to working with people who are different from me, in terms of their clinical presentation and social identities?
Do I have enough self-awareness to see when I’m reacting to clients due to my own life experience?
Am I a good listener?
If you answered no to some of these questions, don’t fret! You’re just starting your journey as a new therapist, and you have plenty of time to learn from supervisors and peers. If you answered yes to most of these questions but still feel that nagging sense of inadequacy, chances are you may be experiencing imposter syndrome. Now, let’s explore that imposter syndrome to prevent it from limiting your professional growth as a therapist.
How to Work with Your Imposter Syndrome as a New Therapist
As therapists, we don’t need to beat or conquer our imposter syndrome. Contrary to popular self-help wisdom, our difficulties aren’t demons to be vanquished. Whereas in other career paths, one may think about their imposter syndrome as a problem to be solved in order to climb the professional ladder, as therapists, we know that suffering is part of life and can often be our greatest teacher. Learning about who we are in session helps us to learn about who we are in life (and vice versa!). In short, your imposter syndrome is a gift (really!), a transcendent window to the mysteries of your inner experience. Feeling therapized yet? Good.
Using the tips below, we can learn how to integrate imposter syndrome—rather than pushing it away—to gain insight from it, feel more at peace with ourselves, and ultimately grow as therapists.
Label and allow the emotions underneath the imposter syndrome. Maybe it’s insecurity, embarrassment, shame, or fear. If you can name it, you can tame it! Sometimes, just having awareness about the emotions beneath imposter syndrome can take away some of its power. And remember, being a competent therapist doesn’t preclude you from having vulnerable emotional experiences of your own.
Investigate your imposter syndrome as a type of countertransference. Chances are, certain clients or clinical issues will provoke a stronger reaction in you than others. Which ones make you feel teary, angry, hurt, stubborn, or invested in a certain outcome? Your emotionality suggests that these clinical interactions may be triggering something from your personal life. If you aren’t aware of this countertransference—when therapists feel emotionally triggered by their clients—it can bias your clinical judgment. To understand how countertransference may be provoking imposter syndrome, you might ask yourself which clinical experiences are the ones that make you feel de-skilled, inadequate, or insecure? How does the answer to that question relate to other experiences you’ve had in your life outside of being a therapist? These questions will provide you with critical information about your imposter syndrome and how to more skillfully work with it. Raise these insights in supervision, with your own therapist, or with a trusted ally who can provide space for you to reflect.
While you don’t have much experience as a therapist, validate the experiences you do bring to the table, including your clinical internships, non-clinical professional experiences, and even personal struggles. Good therapy is about creating safe, trusting relationships that enable others to thrive. Even if you’ve never been in a counseling role before, think outside the clinical box to reflect on ways you’ve created such relationships like that in your life to date, whether with a colleague, peer, friend, or family member. Acknowledge the ways that difficult personal experiences have provided you with a deep well of empathy that you drew on in past relationships and will continue to use with clients.
Don’t judge your worth as a therapist exclusively based on how one client is progressing in treatment. This one seems obvious, but when you care deeply for your clients, it can be hard not to feel a strong sense of responsibility for their healing. When that sense of responsibility becomes intertwined with your sense of professional competence and ends up making you feel like a wet rag, it may be imposter syndrome talking. Remind yourself that one client is too small a sample size to accurately judge your therapeutic skills, and therapy is only one piece of a client’s life. If you notice yourself reacting strongly to a client’s treatment progress, it may be a sign of countertransference (see above). Try to become aware of the countertransference so that you can moderate your reactivity. After all, if a client feels you become upset or impatient about their treatment, you risk damaging the therapeutic rapport.
Explore how your cultural conditioning may contribute to your experience of imposter syndrome. Race, gender, age, class and other social factors may affect your confidence, sense of entitlement, and self-esteem. Be sure to question any beliefs about what a therapist should look and sound like. While all therapists abide by their profession’s code of ethics, there’s significant flexibility for you to develop your own authentic style and represent your identities authentically. Every human is different, so it’s important therapists reflect that diversity. Consider, too, how your experience of structural oppression, whether due to race or gender or something else, can give you tremendous empathy to understand a client’s psychosocial experience. In short, your difference can be a source of power for you as a therapist.
Acknowledge the silver lining of difficult clinical experiences, including the ones that provoke imposter syndrome. As humans, we learn best when we’re stretched a bit outside our comfort zones. The same is certainly true for therapists. By reframing imposter syndrome as a learning opportunity, you can challenge yourself to do research and network with others who may have expertise in the areas where you feel less prepared. If you can find meaning in difficult experiences, you may end up with a stronger sense of professional purpose and a career direction that’s changed for the better. In a sense, your imposter syndrome is just a sign that you’re on the edge of growth.
Recognize that most good therapists feel imposter syndrome from time to time. As therapists, we have to constantly learn and evolve to stay current in the field. In some ways, we’re always beginners. So, if you’re feeling imposter syndrome, it suggests you’re reaching for your growth edges and probably reflecting deeply about yourself and your clients, which ultimately will make you a better therapist. It’s normal to feel inadequate and imperfect when starting something new and challenging, so treat your imposter syndrome with warmth and tenderness rather than stress, frustration, and self-criticism. Connect with peers or colleagues who may be going through the same thing. Doing so can help make the imposter syndrome feel less personal.
If you’re a therapist and want more support for integrating your imposter syndrome, working with a seasoned supervisor can be a powerful tool for exploring countertransference in a deep way.