Are you racked with self doubt? Do you tell yourself that you’re a terrible therapist? Do you feel anxious and not good enough? Do you often feel like you don’t know what you’re doing? Are there times when you feel like giving up completely and doing something else instead?
Then you’re suffering from Therapist Imposter Syndrome. New therapists often report that they have these feelings. As they are new, they assume it is their inexperience causing these feelings. But experienced therapists often feel this too. And a good thing too, as you’re about to discover.
In this article, I want to show you that
- Your doubts prove that you are brilliant (and a Nobel prize says so)
- Messing up produces better outcomes (so it’s okay to mess up)
- Simplifying your learning can boost your confidence
By the end of this article, you will understand that the negative voice in your head proves you are a good therapist.
Your doubts prove your brilliance
What if I told you that those doubts prove that you are an excellent therapist? It seems counter-intuitive. After all, those negative voices are telling you the complete opposite. They tell you that you aren’t good enough. Yet the science says that this means you’re very good.
Not just any old science either, but Nobel Prize-winning science. It is called The Dunning-Kruger Effect.
David Dunning and Justin Kruger wanted to find out how accurately we evaluate our own performance. So they conducted an experiment. Volunteers sat a test and afterwards reflected on how well they had performed in it.
They discovered two things from their research.
The first is that incompetent people overestimate how good they are. They think they’re fabulous, but in fact, they are nowhere near as skilled as they think.
We have all seen the Pop Idol contestant who thinks they are the next Sinatra, only for them to sing and reveal they can’t hold a note! This is an example of that first finding.
Their second finding was that competent people do the opposite. They underestimate how good they are. Even though they’re extremely skilled, they think they’re average.
A good therapist, according to Dunning and Kruger, would suffer the very self doubt that you are struggling with. It’s not a sign that you’re bad at what you do, but a confirmation of your skill.
Think about it this way. What kind of therapist is most likely to be reflective and to keep learning? The one who thinks they are brilliant, or the one who has self doubt?
It may not be a comfortable experience, but as a good therapist, you will at times finish your day and feel utterly useless. Why? BECAUSE you are a good therapist.
Dunning and Kruger found that when people are genuinely skilled, they tend to assume others have the same level of skill. When things feel easy, we assume that it is just as easy for others. So we discount the things we are skilled at.
Dunning and Kruger were awarded the Nobel Prize for their work on this. So next time you feel full of self doubt, take a pause. These doubtful voices are evidence that you are good at what you do.
Messing up gets better outcomes
So you’ve had a session and you messed up. You caught the mood wrong and somehow put your foot in it. The client is upset with you. Doesn’t this prove that you’re an imposter?
Again, no. It is an opportunity for a better outcome. It’s called the Mae West principle and is based on the phrase: “When I’m good, I’m very good. When I’m bad I’m better.”
Research has shown that a rupture in the therapeutic relationship is not a problem if repaired well. In fact, it produces better outcomes.
Of course, this doesn’t mean we should deliberately try to create ruptures. But it does mean that messing up is an opportunity for you to show your therapeutic skill.
You don’t have to be perfect – and you are human so can’t be. When things go awry, you can attend to it in such a way that you put the relationship back on track. When you do, your outcomes will be better than if things had gone well all along.
From a memory reconsolidation perspective, this kind of rupture repair may even provide the kind of mismatch that makes transformational change possible.
Simplify your learning
There is a lot to learn as a therapist. When we feel doubtful or stuck, we can find ourselves returning to our books, or seeking new learning.
This can be helpful, but also risks a kind of information overwhelm. Soon, it can feel like there is so much to learn, and so much that we have already forgotten.
How do we bring all this knowledge into practical use in the therapy room and still focus on the client?
It’s a common experience for therapists to berate ourselves and ask “shouldn’t I already know this!?”
The answer may be to simplify learning so that you focus on the common factors that really matter. One of those common factors is the therapeutic relationship itself. For instance, getting more comfortable with simply being with the client will make you a better therapist.
A key common factor when it comes to transformational change is the brain mechanism of memory reconsolidation. This is the only known brain mechanism that is capable of overwriting trauma responses.
If transformational change has happened, irrespective of the model or approach, this brain mechanism must have been triggered.
This realisation allows you to simplify your learning. You can get off the merry-go-round of learning modality after modality, and instead focus on why they work.
Learning the few steps of memory reconsolidation is easier and clearer than learning multiple modalities. Sometimes self-doubt emerges from an inability to remember and apply the intricacies of a given model during a session.
Memory reconsolidation, by contrast, has just a few steps. So applying them in the therapy room is a simpler task. This act of simplification alone can result in you feeling more confident and effective.
Of course, you’ll still experience doubts from time to time because you’re a good therapist. But there’s no reason why you can’t gain confidence and potency at the same time.
It isn’t just new therapists who suffer from Therapist Imposter Syndrome. Experienced therapists do too. Yet whether novice or veteran, you have one thing in common – you are good therapists.
Dunning-Kruger has shown that it is the doubtful who perform best. Applied to our work, the good therapists are the ones who will suffer the discomfort of self-doubt.
Moreover, even when you make mistakes that negatively impact the therapeutic relationship, it is not the end of the world. Instead, it is an opportunity for you to repair the relationship and so get even better outcomes. A self-reflective self-doubting therapist like you is more likely to notice the breach and care about repairing it.
So it seems that the self doubt is here to stay, at least from time to time. But that doesn’t mean you can’t gain confidence too. Simplifying your own learning can help you remove clutter and create therapeutic focus that is easier to apply.
Dunning-Kruger offers an important reframe. When the demons of self-doubt show up you can recall what this Nobel Prize-winning research teaches you: “Ah, I must be doing well.”
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