Therapist Imposter Syndrome: The Struggle is Real

Therapist Imposter Syndrome

The biggest obstacle I have faced in my licensure process has, hands down, been self-doubt.

I remember the day before I saw my first client. I sat in a ball and said, “I can’t do this” over and over. At the time, that felt very true. Yet, I woke up the next day and I did it. I saw my first client and my overwhelming terror turned into relief and assurance that I was on the right path.

Over the years I have come to expect the familiar terror of doing something new in therapy: graduating, starting a new job, leading a group, giving a presentation, applying a new concept, meeting a new client. I have learned to breathe through it and feel mastery when I’ve accomplished it.

What has been more subtle is the lurking presence of self-doubt.

It has been a constant companion throughout my licensure process. I have come to recognize this as the “Imposter Syndrome”, an unofficial term coined in the 70s to explain the very similar ways that dedicated and passionate folks downplay their accomplishments. The American Psychology Association calls it “an intellectual self-doubt…that is often accompanied by anxiety and often depression.”

Honestly, I’m just grateful someone coined a term for this feeling. For me, it takes the form of second guessing everything. It can feel a lot like shame if I take a risk and it doesn’t turn out how I wanted. It can look a lot like being in a trance, where I make sure to stay inside the rules and expectations I put on myself that limit me from trying new things as a therapist.

It can masquerade as burn out, and definitely leads to it. It makes it hard to express what I am feeling because at its core it says I am unworthy to be here-in this important role of therapist. It often morphs into personal pressure to be the expert, and if I don’t know what to do, tells me I’ve failed.

This is particularly devastating for a new therapist.

To be new is to be vulnerable, but the Imposter Syndrome adds to that by saying “you are a fraud, don’t let them find out.” Being “found out” is the core fear of Imposter Syndrome. For me, this reared its head the most in my Clinical Supervision. The idea of being found out by the Clinical Supervisor I adored felt scary. I often felt the need to cancel until I could prove that I knew what I was doing and didn’t need much help.

And yet, when I showed up despite the fear, recognizing the Imposter became a major theme in Supervision. It became a time when it was ok to talk honestly about the struggle. My Supervisor made plenty of room for doing this by checking in on how I was feeling about my work. She didn’t expect it to be an easy battle and has consistently reminded me of my ability to do this work. It has been invaluable.  

I guess that’s the beauty of being in pre-licensure purgatory.

This is why supervision is a requirement. Everyone assumed you’d need help (lots and lots of help). What they didn’t assume? That you’d feel immediately comfortable in this role. That you’d know which part of your education to apply and when. As my supervisor often reminds me: “If you did, I’d be worried.”

Pre-licensure is a phase that is meant for taking risks. It’s for trying new things and figuring out which aspect of this career you really love. The Imposter Syndrome blocks risk-taking. As this article in Psychology Today says, “Perhaps the most limiting part of dealing with the Imposter Syndrome is that it can limit our courage to go after new opportunities, explore potential areas of interest and put ourselves out there in a meaningful way”.

In general, people expect therapists to be…so many different things. The media shows experts who know exactly what to say. Friends and family think this means I will have great advice. People I meet think I can read their mind. This adds up to A LOT of pressure.

The benefit of addressing this early on (and often) in supervision is so that you can develop into the most uniquely gifted therapist because you are free to be yourself.  

We’d love to hear the ways that you have encountered the Imposter Syndrome and self-doubt in your practice. What does this look like for you? What tactics have you used to grow? Let us know by sharing your thoughts on Twitter.

Katie Woodruff, MAMFT

Katie Woodruff, MAMFT

Katie Woodruff has a Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy with a specialization in trauma-informed care. She has worked in community mental health, female prison, and in private practice. A Louisiana native and Tennessee transplant, she is currently living in post-graduate/pre-licensure purgatory and understands the need for Motivo all too well. She enjoys unpredictable weather, her misunderstood pit bull and most of all, a good sense of humor.

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