15 years in practice, 6 years of graduate school, three professional licenses, countless continuing education hours, and over 20 thousand clinical hours in the field. That’s my story. However, that’s not all of my story. Psychologist Anders Ericsson noted that it takes 10,000 hours of something to become an expert in it. I’ve surpassed that number easily in my clinical experience. I’ve completed enough classes to be just a few courses and a dissertation shy of 2 PhDs. On paper that must be pretty impressive. In fact, Dr. Ericsson would declare that my achievements are at the expert level. On some days I feel like I am an expert, too. There are days that I can say my hefty fee for services without batting an eye, there are days that I know the worth of the counseling process, and there are days that I can see the benefits in my clients. There are days that something else creeps in me. It is a mix of self-doubt, guilt, and negative self-worth. There is actually a word for this combination of feelings. Imposter Syndrome, and it is actually quite common.
Clinical psychologists Dr. Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes coined the term Imposter Syndrome in the late 1970s. They noted that the condition is seen in high achieving individuals (majority women) who have a persistent fear that they will be exposed and revealed as a “fraud.” No matter how much evidence there is to show the contrary, the individuals believe that they not only lack the competence, but it is actually just a matter of time before others will recognize their lack of ability. According to the theory, success is only more proof that the individual is deceiving others into thinking they are more competent and successful than they really are.
One of the reasons that people in the counseling fields are high risk for Imposter Syndrome is that they fit the description of high achieving, as a clinician needs at a minimum of a Master’s Degree to practice in the field. In addition, the counseling field is unique in that you are unable to see the work of other professionals because the entire process is confidential. Similarly, no one can really watch you practice to critique you. In a way, you are on your own island trusting that your training and supervision were solid. When a client gets better there is no way to know it was truly the work of the counseling services, or merely “time heals all.” Similarly, if someone gets worse it can be “evidence” that the service really is ineffective while ignoring other evidence or explanations.
Imposter Syndrome can impact more than just self-confidence in one’s practice. In fact, Imposter Syndrome can lead to depression and increase anxiety and stress. It can also lead to lower work satisfaction. Many individuals arrive in the helping field because they genuinely care for others. When Imposter Syndrome happens, the clinician feels guilty because they falsely believe are “conning” people into their services. This leads to lower mood and high anxiety.
One of the best methods to help with Imposter Syndrome is to network with others in the field. It can help you know that you are not alone in your Imposter Syndrome. It can also be encouraging to see seasoned professionals in the field and “experts” feeling the same way. Another way to help against Imposter Syndrome is to see your own therapist. Sometimes it can be helpful to experience the process in an entirely different way-the view on the other side of the couch. As a client, you can begin to respect the process of counseling. The experience can also help with negative thinking patterns and challenge illogical thoughts that you may have about your professional capabilities. When you really get to feeling down, write down your credentials; total up your schooling, licenses, continuing education and clinical hours. It can be down-right impressive to see it written down.
Even if you are new in this field, at the minimum you have a graduate degree and internship experience. That is worth something, and you are worth something! Being honest is actually a great way to deal with your feelings. Tell your clients that you are not the expert in the room, but that they are the experts of their own life. Let them know the limitations of your role. For instance, if you are a counselor then your job is to not give advice. Instead, you help the client process their emotions and explore their decision making. Many counselors begin their career under a supervisor.
In fact, many licenses require 1 to 3 years of supervision before working independently. However, just because this is the minimum number of years for supervision does not mean that you cannot continue the supervision process. There are many seasoned professionals that are willing to supervise a clinician at any stage in their career. There are also consult groups where professionals meet weekly or monthly to discuss challenging cases. This can help build confidence in your clinical skills. Consulting and bringing in a supervisor can help you feel connected with others in the profession.
Lastly, most licenses require continuing education each year. Again, this is just the minimum requirement to keep a license in good standing. If you are feeling Imposter Syndrome sneak in, go to additional training. Find a topic you are passionate about and learn more about it, read books, listen to podcasts and remember that you are always going to grow as a professional. With continued growth means that there is always more to learn and ways to perfect the craft.
If Imposter Syndrome continues then it might be a sign that other areas of your life need exploring. Maybe general worries or low self-confidence is a factor. Maybe you are having a hard time leaving work at the office. It could also be time to find a hobby after hours. Spending time with your friends, going to the gym, or taking a yoga class can be a great way to unwind after a long day at the office.