DR. BEN CALDWELL
August 31, 2021
If you suffer from imposter syndrome as a therapist, you’re not alone. Even therapists who have been in the business for years experience this feeling—myself included. I’ve given more than 100 presentations at workshops and conferences around the country, and I’ve been a therapist for almost 20 years now.
And I’m still occasionally surprised that they let me be one.
How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome
To some degree, this feeling is normal. Of course it feels unnatural taking on the role and responsibility of a therapist, especially when that role is new to you. That’s why we get so much training. And indeed, a lot of that training focuses on how we should change how we act, how we think, and what we do when we operate in the therapist role.
Early in our careers, maintaining that role can sometimes feel like wearing a costume. But becoming a therapist starts with letting go of a lot of your natural responses. It’s only over the course of time that we bring our full personhood back into our professional work.
If the anxiety that comes with imposter syndrome stands in your way, there are steps you can take to help overcome it.
1. Investigate it. When does the therapist role feel most unnatural? For a lot of us, imposter syndrome isn’t an everyday occurrence. It rears its head when we’re asked to do specific tasks for which we feel unprepared. Take an honest look at the times when it’s hard to be a helping professional. If you can name those specific tasks, working to get more comfortable with those tasks may help.
2. Challenge it. Remember: You finished a graduate degree. Fewer than 1 in 7 US adults have done that. Far fewer are licensed in the major mental health professions—about 600,000 out of 250 million US adults, or fewer than 1 in 400. Whether you feel like it all the time or not, you actually are your community’s expert in mental health and behavior change.
If you are concerned that you don’t know enough, you may just be spending too much time around other therapists. Conversations with friends or family members outside of the field can serve as a great reminder of just how much you do know, and how well-prepared you are to help people in distress, compared to the average person.
At the same time, if you’re concerned that you don’t act professional enough, it may be worth revisiting your expectations of how professionals are supposed to act. No one expects you to be perfect or to have a life free of struggles. If you were, you wouldn’t be able to relate to your clients. Even the most successful professionals in the world are still people, with their own flaws, anxieties, eccentricities, and mistakes.
3. Accept it. Truly overcoming imposter syndrome isn’t a matter of curing it. Use investigating and challenging imposter syndrome to minimize the sensation, and then work to accept what’s left.
Every time your professional role calls on you to do something that you wouldn’t necessarily otherwise do, it’s easy and normal to feel like you’re wearing a therapist costume instead of actually being a therapist. If you understand that as part of the job, rather than something you’re doing wrong, then you change your whole relationship with imposter syndrome. You’re not a faker—you behave professionally even in times when it isn’t easy. That’s what our clients want from us, and what we ask of our ideal selves.
4. Embrace it. For an advanced approach, take that acceptance a step further. What you’re feeling is transition. You are achieving a more idealized version of yourself. Imposter syndrome may be some part of your mind resisting a very positive change in who you are. Stop fighting it, and embrace that change.
You are an expert, and now is the time to start referring to yourself as such. Invest in your practice with the expectation that you will succeed as a professional and as a leader.
If you’re in private practice, move past the dreary office space and second-hand furniture that agencies rely on, and give yourself and your clients a space that truly communicates safety, professionalism, and healing.
You’re not an imposter. You’re a professional. That role isn’t always easy, but it’s precisely the thing you spent years preparing for. You’re not faking, you’re changing, and both you and your clients are better off because of it.