W hen I served in the military, we would call cadence as we marched. Those call-and-response songs helped to build camaraderie amid challenge and established a rhythm that brought comfort and familiarity.
Similarly, in my role as a clinic manager, clinic director and site supervisor, I have heard an exasperated expression of uncertainty repeated by dozens of supervisees and interns — “I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing.” Those nine words have become as familiar and comforting to me as a cadence. In fact, the expression has transformed in my mind from something despondent into an indication of growth because self-doubt is a seemingly necessary step in the taxing process of professional development.
Doubt as part of development
I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing. I have come to recognize those words as a sign that the person speaking them understands the gravity of our profession and desperately wants to be able to help the clients in front of them, even if in that moment the person has little to no faith in their ability to do so. Although I empathize with the discomfort of that phase of development and growth, I also celebrate counselors-in-training’s awareness of their internal struggles and their willingness to confront the hard truth that the work we do is as intensely complicated as the human beings we’re called to help. As a supervisor, I’ve learned to cherish the opportunity to meet developing counselors in this place of doubt and help them understand — and even embrace — the normalcy of their insecurity and its role in our profession.
I feel confident in saying that we, as mental health professionals, have all been there — that place where our professional identity intertwines with the hesitancy embodied by those nine words: I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing. We so easily get lost within that phrase and the enormity of its implications.
What if I chose the wrong career?
How could I possibly start over in a different field after spending so much time and money on this one?
What if I cause harm to this client because I say the wrong thing? What if they find me out and tell people how awful I am?
In good company
Self-doubt is part of the human condition and can plague professionals in any field. The term impostor syndrome, coined in the late 1970s, encapsulates the idea that regardless of our accomplishments or skill, we can feel fraudulent in our own skin and fear being exposed as such. This fear becomes exacerbated in the counseling profession, where confronting the complexities of the human condition is a daily (OK, an hourly) requirement. In the face of such complicated realities, it is only natural to be uncertain about how to move forward and then to conclude that the confusion one feels is a sign of inadequacy.
During my own five-year supervisory journey, in which time I have trained more than 100 counselors, I can recall encountering two individuals who didn’t admit to having these struggles. Two. That means that, at best, in my small nonempirical sample, roughly 2% of the early career counseling professionals I have supervised have not vocalized doubts indicative of impostor syndrome.
Perhaps those two students just didn’t feel comfortable telling me about their difficulties, or maybe they were too fearful to disclose this truth to anyone, let alone their supervisor. It’s also possible that they truly never had experienced insecurity as a professional, in which case they were the enviable two who genuinely made their way through the early phase of their professional development unscathed. That would make them the exception, of course, and not the rule.
Diversity and discrimination
I find it critically important to also highlight that other aspects of our identities can influence how we experience impostor syndrome. For example, if a person has faced discrimination throughout his or her life, this can have a dramatic impact on the intensity of impostor syndrome’s doubts.
As a white person who has benefited from systemic privilege in certain ways, I may have an entirely different perspective on my accomplishments and credentials than does a colleague who acquired those credentials in the presence of prejudices against them. I therefore recognize that each person’s doubts and identity are affected in very different ways on the basis of cultural differences. For that reason, we cannot assume that impostor syndrome will affect each person similarly, and it is wise to self-reflect on how our personal experiences might mitigate or exacerbate our struggles with impostor syndrome.
“I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing.” With this whispering refrain of insecurity in mind, the question now becomes, “How do I unbury myself from the weight of this doubt and find self-confidence?”
To answer this question, it helps to start thinking like a counselor because, let’s be honest, often we have to therapize ourselves and practice what we are preaching to our clients. Remind yourself of the difference between thoughts and feelings, and acknowledge that “I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing” is not actually reflective of a feeling. This gentle challenge reminds us to check in with ourselves and acknowledge the emotion we are actually experiencing, which is almost always the same for everyone: fear. Sometimes intense and paralyzing fear.
Having acknowledged that we are fearful, I find it helpful to then assess one’s perspective — why the fear is present — and test it against reality. This step can be made easier by recalling that all emotions have a purpose. Anxiety’s job is to prepare us for daunting or intimidating situations. Next, I find that a little rudimentary reframing, self-grace and reassurance make the process smoother.
Here are six important reminders to help you reframe your fear and self-doubt and reassure you that what you’re feeling is normal, all in an effort to combat impostor syndrome.
1) You already have the skills to overcome insecurity. Chances are that you experienced doubt before even enrolling in graduate school, yet you found a way to push through and find yourself face-to-face with actual clients. I would assert that simply by arriving at this stage of accomplishment, you have demonstrated the skills needed to overcome whatever doubts you may feel about your abilities as a professional. When a person’s doubts prevent them from even attempting to pursue their ambitions and career goals in the first place, I call this prodromal impostor syndrome. You found a way to get from prodromal to professional, so try to recall what helped you then and use those same skills to help you overcome your current obstacles.
2) You are in the top nine. Did you know that only about 9% of Americans have a master’s degree? That number will vary slightly depending on your source for statistics, but even so, let that number sink in: the top 9%. When it comes to educational and professional achievement, you are an outlier in the most positive sense. That doesn’t happen by accident or luck; you did that. Trust your knowledge and skills. You know what you’re doing.
3) Our normal is someone else’s goal. We often forget that our version of normal is not where a large number of people — including many of our clients — find themselves. That’s because we have worked so hard and long on our own garbage and made it past many of the obstacles that used to prevent us from being relationally healthy. Through that journey alone, we’ve developed skills and understanding that many of our clients just don’t possess yet or are unable to see in themselves. Sometimes by simply showing up and modeling hope and health, we are doing more for our clients in one hour than they are getting anywhere else in their week.
Sure, we all still have our own “stuff,” but we have to remember that we have earned advanced degrees and chosen a profession that, at its very core, is about achieving better emotional and mental health. You have the tools that clients desperately need. Meet them where they are and reassure them that such development takes time. Through a bit of work, they’ll get there too.
4) We don’t always get to see the results. Just because we shared the same moments in the session room with our clients does not mean that we shared the same reality. Our perceptions are often very different from those of our clients, and that is to be expected, because we’re very different people with very different backgrounds.
Strict adherence to a session agenda or a particular intervention is not a requisite for healing or progress. I have come to learn that during those times when I didn’t adhere to my initial plan for our time together or when I didn’t feel that I was a therapeutic master, my clients often felt differently and had takeaways that I wouldn’t have imagined. Our perfectionism is not reflective of our clients’ process. Our self-denigration is not reflective of their growth.
Additionally, we often work with clients who are only at the beginning of a very long journey toward healing and growth. As professionals, it is tempting to set goals or have expectations for our clients that are overly ambitious. Overcoming our own self-doubts often requires removing the pressure we put on ourselves to work unrealistic objectives.
It can help to try to remember that sometimes we are merely planting the initial seeds in clients’ lives and that these seeds will bloom only after clients have left therapy. We may never be aware of clients’ later successes even when we played a pivotal part in making those successes accessible. Learning to accept that results are not always visible to us can dramatically strengthen our ability to trust ourselves and our interventions.
5) See yourself in context. Having a title, a certification or a professional license doesn’t mean that we should compare ourselves (or our perceived shortcomings) to someone who has been doing this work for 40 years. I often see new professionals striving to be just like the counselors they look up to — those with decades of experience — even though they are so fresh out of graduate school that their degrees haven’t even arrived in the mail.
Measuring yourself against someone who is at such a drastically different level of professional development than you inevitably makes you feel like a fraud. It is important to see yourself in the context of your level of experience while remembering that even on day one, you bring value to clients and to the mental health field itself. Take time to celebrate that now and then — and rejoice that you will only move forward and improve from where you are now.
6) Mastery in mental health is a lifelong process. Confidence often coincides with mastery, and yet, in this field, mastery will always be elusive. As counselors, we do not get the advantage of clear-cut problems, let alone clear-cut solutions. Human beings will always be complex, meaning that our jobs will always be difficult.
It’s healthy to continuously strive to improve and learn more about one’s field; that mindset prevents complacency and arrogance. We can be skilled and competent and will always be privileged to do this work, but mastery is always an ongoing process. Being the “best” (as it may look or feel to most of us) isn’t a destination. Rather, it is an ongoing journey of humility and self-improvement that ultimately yields better client care.
The authentic professional
These six reminders can alleviate some of the uncomfortable symptoms of impostor syndrome. They can also highlight the need for us to accept the reality that some of those symptoms may always be present.
No matter what your background or where you are in your professional development, try to enjoy the thrill and uncertainty of this field’s learning curve. It helps to remember too that you are not alone. Your cohort and fellow professionals have experienced — and perhaps still are experiencing — the very same struggles as you.
It is likely that you will periodically allow that worrying impostor to enter your therapy office, but the trick is not letting it take control of the room. That impostor does not dictate your professional development. In fact, you can learn to accept the normalcy of those nine words — “I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing” — as a comforting cadence and an expected step in your professional growth process. Self-grace and compassion are vital. Remind yourself of your strengths and celebrate victories, no matter how small (or big) they may be. You are a lot better than you think you are, and yet, not as good as you can be. And that’s OK.
Jamie McNally is a licensed professional counselor, a limited licensed psychologist, a certified HIPAA compliance officer, and the owner and clinic director of Sycamore Counseling Services (sycamorecc.com). Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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