Imposter Syndrome: Surviving Feeling Like a Fraud

By Heidi Tobe on August 21, 2017

 

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You recently finished grad school and got hired on at your very first job doing clinical work (or, if you’re like me, you might be on your second or third job feeling this way!). You face your client as they begin to share with you the issues that brought them to therapy. You try to focus on their words and stay present in the moment, but there is a battle going on. Your anxious mind is throwing constant attacks your way: You don’t know what you’re doing. You aren’t competent to help this person. You’ve never worked with this issue before. You don’t have the skills you need to be an effective clinician. No one should be paying you for your services. In a multitude of ways, your anxious mind is yelling at you, “You’re a fraud! And just wait- it’s only a matter of time before your client finds you out.”

Have you been there? I know I have. It’s one thing to learn CBT in grad school. It’s another to try and take that knowledge and apply it to a real-life situation with an actual person. In school, we often learn a little bit about a lot of things, but come out lacking the knowledge and experience in any one area to feel competent in our practice. I was incredibly lucky in grad school- I had an amazing practicum that provided me both experience and excellent supervision in DBT. Even so, the Imposter Syndrome I had both during and post grad school were overwhelming and downright debilitating at times.

Nearly every social worker and MFT I’ve spoken with has experienced Imposter Syndrome at some point during their careers. While some clinicians are very open about this experience, others bury these anxieties and fears deep beneath the surface, afraid they are the only ones feeling this way. These feelings can shake us to the core. Genuine human interaction is foundational to our experience as clinicians, and feeling like you are performing the role of a therapist instead of actually being one is counter to all that we hope to be in our clinical work. It can make any and every client interaction exhausting and overwhelming. And ultimately, being caught up in our own minds rather than fully present in the room makes us less effective clinicians, thereby reinforcing our Imposter Syndrome.

So how do we get out of this? How can we make it go away?

Unfortunately, there is no quick, easy fix to make it disappear. Overcoming Imposter Syndrome is something that takes time, acceptance, and experience to get through. There’s no fast-forward button. While there’s not a way to entirely bypass these feelings of inadequacy, we have found some helpful strategies to make this uncomfortable experience more tolerable and fruitful:

1. Sit with the anxiety.

So often we try to fight against our feelings of fear. We try to push them away, bury them, or act like they don’t exist. Instead, try accepting these feelings as part of your present, lived experience. The feelings of anxiety that you are experiencing mean that you care about the quality of your work. If you didn’t care about being an excellent clinician, you wouldn’t feel anxiety. Make it a regular practice to validate yourself. Continually remind yourself that you are at the beginning of your career and that’s where everyone starts. No matter how skilled and experienced a clinician is, we have all been at a minimal place of competence. Rest assured, you’re improving and growing every day. This is the beginning and it’s okay to be where you are, not having all the answers (and even experienced clinicians will tell you, you’ll never have all the answers!). It’s okay to not know what to do sometimes. That’s exactly why your supervisor is there!

If you have a supervisor that challenges you (which I hope is the case for each of you!), remind yourself that it is helpful to be challenged. A supervisor who is able to highlight what you could have done differently or what you can do differently going forward will help to make you a better clinician. While this may not feel good in the moment, and can certainly heighten that sense of feeling like an imposter, it is a key element in growing into a more confident and competent clinician.

2. Be vulnerable.

The more I talked about my feelings of fraudulence with others, the more I realized I was not alone. I was so ashamed of the fear I felt, but found comfort in knowing so many of my peers were going through the same thing. As I spoke with supervisors and mentors further along in their careers, I realized that the people I looked up to the most had spent years feeling the same way I was feeling. In her book Daring Greatly Brene Brown states, “Shame derives its power from being unspeakable…If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” While opening up about my own experience didn’t remove the feelings completely (even now, I still have moments where I feel like the only real fraud out there who just happens to do a really good job of appearing competent), it helped remove some of the power those feelings had over me. It reminded me that this is all a part of the process. It doesn’t have to be shame inducing, it won’t last forever, and none of us are immune from or alone in it.

3. Remind yourself of what you do know.

It’s easy for me to mentally spiral. One stroke of incompetence can lead to a slippery slope that lands me at a place where I convince myself I know nothing. It’s important that we remind ourselves what we do know. In my work with individuals preparing for their social work exams, I encounter a lot of people days (or hours) before their exams who feel like they don’t know anything. I remind them of how far they’ve come from their first pretest to their final mock exam, as well as the intangible ways I’ve personally seen them progress in their reasoning skills. It doesn’t erase their anxiety, but this dose of encouraging reality is often a soothing balm to the sting of unyielding fear.

When I get to a place where I feel like I know nothing, possess zero rapport building skills, and lack the basic personality traits to be an effective clinician, I remind myself that my feelings are not facts and that in reality there is a lot I am very good at. I remind myself of where I started back in 2012 and where I am now. When you find yourself at a really insecure place, it may be helpful to ask others for feedback on your skills and strengths. If you do this, write their responses down and use them in the future when you need a kick starter for self-validation. And don’t wait until you’ve crashed to the bottom of the pit of self-criticism. Start now practicing self-validation on a daily (or multiple times daily) basis. When your anxious mind feeds you lies about your incompetence, combat them with encouragement and truth. While it’s easier in the moment to let your mind run wild with insecurity, each time you choose to fight back with truth you come one step closer on your path from incompetent imposter to confident clinician.

4. Engage in this quick activity:

Think of something you are really good at now, but that was at one point new and difficult. Maybe it’s a sport, musical instrument, second language, or a challenging hobby. What did it take to move you from a place of ineptitude to a place of proficiency? For me, I think about my first time driving a car. I remember feeling as though driving would never feel natural-that it would always be scary and take immense amounts of mental energy. Now, it feels completely natural and takes minimal effort. I remind myself that in many ways, I am still like a new driver as a clinician, but it won’t always be that way. When I want to run far, far away from the clinical world, I think about the fact that if I gave up on driving when I was 16, it wouldn’t have become second nature like it is today. It took a lot of practice and a lot of uncomfortable moments (if my memory serves me correctly, I was at a complete loss as to how to pump gas the first time. Pre cell phone days and in the middle of a Michigan winter, I stood out in the snow red faced and confused for a good ten minutes before finally asking a kind stranger for help), but over time I moved to a place of competence. What would it have been like if you gave up on the very things that were once hard and are now second nature? What would you have missed out on in life?

It’s a long journey, fellow clinicians, but know that you are not alone. Seek out peers going through the same things you are and individuals further along their career paths who can empathize with you and encourage you along the way. I’ll leave you with the wise words Christopher Robin shared with his best friend Winnie-the-Pooh: “There is something you must always remember: You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”


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7 Responses to “Imposter Syndrome: Surviving Feeling Like a Fraud”

  1. Diane

    Thanks so much for the article on feeling like a fraud….this is a monumental obstacle to get over. Well written…I’m sure it will be appreciated even if it’s not admitted to.

    Reply
    • Heidi

      Hi Diane, It is definitely a monumental (and challenging) obstacle to get over. Thanks so much for the comment and positive feedback!

      Reply
  2. Shohreh Fanaeian

    Thank you so much for your inspiring and powerful words of encouragement! It made me cry just remembering how I came to a place I am now! I had beautiful spiritual moments reading this post and how I related to it.

    Reply
    • Heidi Tobe

      You’re so welcome, Shohreh! We are so glad it was a meaningful blog for you.

      Reply
  3. Margie

    Perfect timing to read this blog as I was going through my usual Imposter Syndrome. It really hit all the high points of what I think about but now feel validated. Thank you!

    Reply
    • Heidi Tobe

      We’re so glad you came across it at the right time and it was able to validate your experiences!!

      Reply
  4. B

    There needs to be more support around this for clinicians. It has an ebb and flow that comes up throughout a career, and especially with the past two years of pandemic changes, I’m sure many of us have had great anxiety at times, especially if out of practice because of the pandemic. Thank you for being part of that voice.

    Reply

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