How to Combat Imposter Syndrome as a Therapist
Do you ever feel like you’re masquerading as a therapist? Do you experience a niggling voice that whispers, “Who am I to provide therapeutic advice and treatment?” or “Am I really qualified to support the mental health of others?” or even, “Why should clients listen to me?”
Many therapists struggle with similar types of intrusive, unhelpful thoughts. Thoughts that can indicate the presence of imposter syndrome.
What is imposter syndrome?
The term imposter phenomenon was coined in 1978 by psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. The authors used it to “designate an internal experience of intellectual phoniness.” Since then research in this field has evolved. As has the name. The word, phenomenon, has been replaced by syndrome: imposter syndrome.
According to a study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine:
Imposter syndrome… describes high-achieving individuals who, despite their objective successes, fail to internalize their accomplishments and have persistent self-doubt and fear of being exposed as a fraud or imposter.
This phenomenon, then, is experienced by intelligent, able individuals who struggle to internally match their capability, capacity, and achievements with their sense of self.
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Unsurprisingly, feeling like a fraud has negative consequences. Imposter syndrome can upset well-being, harm job performance and satisfaction, contribute to burnout and diminish career progression.
Tip: Wondering if you might experience imposter syndrome? Take Clance’s free 20-question assessment and calculate your results to find out.
Why do therapists commonly experience feelings of imposter syndrome?
Simply put: therapists are human, too. Feeling unworthy, incompetent, and doubtful is part of the human experience. So much so that more than half of us may have an intimate relationship with this foe.
Specifically, therapists are high-achieving individuals. People who’ve attained significant academic success, fulfilled practitioner and governmental requirements and licensing, and undertake a role imbued with trust and authority. This lofty position can lead to a gap between actual and perceived capacity.
We’ll dive into this in greater detail in a moment. But first, what does imposter syndrome look — or more appropriately, feel — like?
Symptoms of imposter syndrome may include:
- fear of failure
- guilt regarding success
- the belief that suffering and self-doubt are required for success
- the dread of evaluation (believing this will result in being “found out”)
- an increased association with anxiety or depression
- attributing accomplishments to external factors like luck or help from others
- ascribing failures to internal factors like inadequacy or incompetence
- over preparation or procrastination
- the setting of perfectionist goals (and feeling gutted when perfection isn’t attained)
- struggling to accept a compliment
- finding reasons why praise or credit isn’t deserved
There is a range of reasons why some people — therapists included — might experience imposter syndrome. Let’s look at why this experience may arise.
Where does imposter syndrome come from?
This is a fascinating question!
The original research by Clance and Imes, conducted on high-achieving women in the 1970s, pointed to beginnings within the family. In particular, in children faced with two conditions: those who were not dubbed the bright child and those who were told they could achieve anything they wanted, without work.
The authors noted, “Feelings of phoniness [which were] further affirmed by the differential between high achievement and low societal expectations.”
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As research expanded, studies were conducted on women and men. Some studies indicate an increased risk in women, while others don’t.
Regardless of gender, the answer is multi-faceted. There is no single cause. But there are risk factors; elements that heighten the probability of experiencing oneself as a fraud. These include:
- poor social support
- low self-worth
- a pessimistic outlook
- perfectionistic traits
- the experience of racial discrimination
- belonging to an ethnic minority
How might these feelings affect you and your work?
Feeling like a fraud is exhausting. But its toll extends past flagging energy.
An article published in the journal, Frontiers in Psychology, looked at the manifestation of imposter syndrome in the career space. They noted those who experience this phenomenon:
- tend to be poorer career planners
- encounter internal blocks that hold them back from career advancement
- are less motivated to step into a position of leadership
- have higher levels of negative job satisfaction
- experience reduced employee wellbeing
- can struggle with affective and continuance commitment (fear of staying with, and fear of leaving, an employer)
They often work diligently to complete tasks within their assigned role to an exacting standard. This focus, however, leaves no bandwidth for the extra-role positions that benefit the overall work culture, business success, and career progression.
Unsurprisingly, imposter syndrome experiencers also face increased stress and burnout levels, as well as diminished job performance and satisfaction. This may worsen with less supervision and greater responsibility.
This can make it difficult to excel as an employee and within your own practice…
And the voice continues to whisper, “Who am I to succeed?”
How to overcome imposter syndrome?
Given the impact this experience can have on your quality of life and practice, it begs the question: How to combat imposter syndrome as a therapist?
If you resonate with these experiences and feelings, complete Clance’s 20-question assessment. As with any recovery, awareness is the first step.
Next, let’s get healing! How?
Address any confounders
Because imposter syndrome often coexists with anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem, be honest with yourself about these conditions. Address any potential root causes or confounders. As a therapist, you are in the privileged position of knowing what works and where to start. This might include:
- cognitive behavioral therapy
- talk therapy
- regular exercise
- prioritizing sleep
- a healthy brain diet with berries, green, leafy vegetables, oily fish, and nuts (including walnuts)
- ensuring a sufficient intake of mood-boosting nutrients like B12, folate, and zinc
- consuming a diet that avoids refined sugar and processed foods
Illuminate your blindspots
Therapists with imposter syndrome often have a long list of achievements. A degree or two, additional qualifications, licensing, clients who benefit and recover, valuable experience, and expertise that falls outside of the societal norm marking you as an expert.
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To accumulate these accomplishments, you undoubtedly have a proven capacity even though you doubt yourself.
Write your accomplishments down. List your qualifications, licenses, client (and other) compliments, success stories, and how you’ve positively impacted the lives of others.
These are signs of your competence and capacity. You — not someone else — achieved these difficult things because you are able.
When you feel inadequate, shine a light here.
Ask for support
If you work as an employee or have others — including management — in your practice, ask for support. This can reduce pressure and may ease feelings related to imposter syndrome, including feeling alone or overwhelmed.
Learn to accept praise
That is praise about your skills, your capacity, your results, your value.
Imposter syndrome can make it difficult to accept genuine compliments because you believe your successes are due to luck, the help of others, or because you have people fooled.
Instead of dismissing authentic praise, stop. Take a breath. Listen. Begin to embody your capacity by accepting praise.
Talk about it
As a therapist, you know the power of therapy. You witness its benefits every day. Take advantage of what you know.
Find an appropriate therapist and begin treatment.
Want additional tips?
Due to widespread interest, there is much information about imposter syndrome available online. Two additional resources we recommend are:
Dr. Ben Caldwell’s article, 4 Ways Therapists Can Overcome Imposter Syndrome. Learn four simple, powerful steps to help you overcome this experience.
Jane Travis’s article, How to beat imposter syndrome: a guide for therapists, details 11 strategies she recommends to therapists to beat the imposter bully.
Imposter syndrome is a common experience, including in therapists. It can tire, undermine, and sabotage. By identifying its presence, you can begin the recovery process. You can combat the intrusive thoughts and negative impacts this phenomenon places on your life and in your practice.
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