Coping with Imposter Syndrome as a Therapist
You graduate with your Master's Degree, start a new job and now you have a caseload of clients who need your help. A couple of months (or years go by) and the confidence and glow of graduation decreases and you start to doubt that you belong. You push through because this is what you spent almost $50,000 on and it's something you're passionate about. But in the back of your head, you hear the doubts; your inner thoughts become overwhelming and you second guess your every thought. "What am I even doing here?", "This client knows I'm a fraud?", "What am I even saying right now?", "Nothing I'm saying makes sense?". Sounds familiar? This is something I've experienced for a while now and it's commonly known as imposter syndrome. For me, imposter syndrome shows up as extreme dobut, comparing myself to others, second guessing myself and a dash of anxiety for spice.
What is imposter syndrome?
Imposter syndrome can be defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. ‘Imposters’ suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence. Impostor syndrome was first identified in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. In their 1978 founding study, it was originally thought to apply mostly to high-achieving women. Since then, it has been recognized as more widely experienced by all.
As a black woman, imposter syndrome hits a little closer to home. I already walk into rooms feeling as though I have to overcompensate or do more than my white counterparts. The syndrome becomes even stronger when I'm working with affluent white families. I find myself overanalyzing and being more of a perfectionist. Trying to "prove" to these families that I am respectable and qualified for my position as a therapist. I'm sure it's an internal perception that is tied to racism (as all things are) but those emotions are very real and something I struggle with. At times I also find myself comparing my work to my colleagues. I find myself listening to their success with their clients and automatically think, "Wow I'm an awful therapist, what am I even doing here?" These automatic negative thoughts can feel very overweming and lead me to feel unworthy.
Coping with imposter syndrome
Its important to remember, I can feel like i'm worthless or a failure, and as powerfuland 'real' as that feeling is, it doesn’t make it true. Feelings aren't facts. Over the past couple of months, I've been doing much better with my imposter syndrome. I still feel it but it's a much quieter voice. Here are 5 things that help me cope with my imposter
Self-compassion- Understanding that I am deserving of nice things. I am deserving of good things to happen to me. I am doing the best I can with what I know and have experienced. Self-compassion is a daily choice to be kinder to me. Guilt and shame are not effective tools for change.
Acknowedgling my accomplishments- This has been a game changer for me. Acknowedgling my accomplishments helps me change the narrative that i've written in my head of inadequacy. I rewrite that story by telling myself: "I would not have graduated, passed licensing exams, and be hired by a reputable organization if I wasn't qualified". This really helped me with the understanding that I deserve to take up space. I earned my space by doing the work by graduating from my Masters's program and passing my licensing exam. I went through an interview process and was chosen, not just by chance but also by the work I put in. As a black woman, I deserve to take up space; I earned it.
Dealing with perfectionism- There is no such thing as a perfect therapist. I really had to understand that perfection is not the goal but progression is. My colleagues are not perfect and neither am I and that is OK! I am still growing as a person and as a therapist. I can't accept only perfection from myself. How realistic is a perfect therapist anyway?
Reframing thoughts: Combining self-compassion, checking the facts, and managing expectations I've looked at imposter syndrome as a way to sharpen my skills. If I feel that I'm lacking in a particular area or lacking understanding of a topic. I try not to automatically think, "You don't deserve to be here" but reframe those thoughts as, "Maybe this is an area for future growth. I'm doing the best I can." In the mental health field, things are always changing and it's ok that I may be lacking knowledge or experience in one area. I can always take the time to learn and grow by reading, talking with others, taking classes or workshops. Also acknowleding that there are things that i'm doing very well and areas that i'm excelling in.
Support system: Having a good support system has been such a huge help for me. They help me practice better self-compassion through processing these thoughts and feelings and finding more positive thoughts. They listened to me vent and provided comfort. They also modeled ways that I can be nicer to myself. Being around other like-minded therapists who also verbalized their struggles with imposter syndrome was very helpful for me. Imposter syndrome is completely normal, you are not alone.
This has been my experinece managing imposter syndrome. If you're struggling with imposter syndrome don't be afraid to seek help. There's no better time to talk to a therapist. Check out these resource to find a black therapist in your area or virtually:
Here are some books that can be helpful:
I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn't): Making the Journey from "What Will People Think?" to "I Am Enough" by Brené Brown, LMSW, PhD