Up until recently I felt that I was too young for my age. 29 seemed too young, too “green” as a lot of my clients would say, for me to do many of the things that I am doing. Working a professional level career, raising two kids, having a master’s degree; it all seemed as though I were living someone else’s life. But I felt that my achievements meant nothing; nothing I did mattered. Of course that was only my perspective. I had hoards of people telling me how impressive my achievements were but I just shrugged them off thinking “really, it wasn’t that hard” or “really it’s nothing.” I didn’t realize how much I was devaluing myself.
As I began to see clients as a candidate I continued to feel unqualified and inadequate. Each time I failed to answer a question posed to me by my supervisor, I felt as though I didn’t deserve to be there and that it was only a matter of time before they would tell me that I would never make a good therapist and that I should just quit right now.
A particular incident I remember occurred while I was intervening on a difficult situation with a foster mother that was unable to control a child’s tantrums. This child was a danger to everyone else in the home as there was a baby and others that were being affected by his actions. I arrived thinking I could probably handle the situation, but it tested me and I remember, after I left, having the thought and saying it to my wife, “A REAL therapist would have known what to do.”
It wasn’t until recently that I realized that I was experiencing something that’s known as Imposter Syndrome.
Imposter syndrome occurs when one feels as though they are frauds and do not deserve their successes. This is likely due to one not being able to recognize their own accomplishments as something valuable. I expect many people entering the professional field have had or continue to have this feeling, and for those soon-to-be candidates, I would surmise that it is something to expect.
There are ways to combat it. The first is to just keep going. There is no failure unless you quit; until that time there is only feedback. Eventually the mind will catch up to the body. The second is to chunk down your expectations of yourself into reasonable goals and objectives. You don’t have to be the number 1 therapist in the world, and chances are, you never will be. So only do what you can do and learn what you can learn for the moment. Books and school only teach us fundamentals; they can’t make us good therapists. It is by practice and difficulty that one learns. I’m not suggesting that you never make sure you’re learning the right things; I’m merely suggesting that you allow yourself to be where you are while pushing for what you want to become. And then allow experience to guide you.
Finally, I would recommend implementing some sort of practical measure of progress that allows you to see how far you’ve come. This could take the form of a productivity chart or a journal. These devices allow you to see the small progresses you make. For me, because I didn’t really use them for the first six months of my candidacy, I spent most weeks feeling inadequate until I had a breakthrough moment in which I realized that I am not the same as I was when I started. You’ll have those moments, but they may be more frequent if you pay attention to your progress up front.
On closing, I want to say that imposter syndrome is a normal experience to being in a new setting or role, so it becomes very important to not judge your situation based on how you feel. Your brain will not be able to do that until a few of the fundamentals are practiced to unconscious mastery, but more on that later.
In the meantime, I say this to all candidates and potential candidates, cut yourself some slack. There’s a reason you need 3,000 supervision hours. That’s your learning curve.
Also remember that you are exactly where you are supposed to be in your journey to becoming a more effective therapist. So be patient and give yourself some love because you truly are doing okay.
Dustin Walker, M.S. LPC Candidate