Imposter syndrome – Why do we feel like frauds? A pluralistic counselling perspective
Through much of my student days I constantly weighed the issue of belonging. Was I really good enough to be there? Some of my friends on the course would talk in depth about some therapy modalities or concepts when referencing client work, essays or lectures. I always did well in essays, my placement clients had mostly good outcomes, I read as much as I could with a full-time job, placement and Uni work to do. I wasn’t the best in the class by any measure but then again, I wasn’t the worst. In some ways I had counselling experience that many didn’t have as I had been a counselling administrator for a few years before beginning my training. Still, I had this niggling thought that I wasn’t good enough.
Completing my masters with Distinction was an achievement akin to climbing Everest with all I had to overcome to get there (see my blog post on overcoming adversity). You’d think I’d have been pretty confident going into that stage of my career given what I had to overcome and still doing so well. Still, I felt like an imposter. I’d see clients and feel like I did OK but real experienced therapist would say something else or get an even better outcome. Then I’d get a client with an unfavourable outcome (or more likely little change in outcome) and blame myself. What did I do wrong? Why was it my fault? In reality, on reflection and through supervision, I know I did my best, and any number of factors from the timing of the therapy to the client's readiness to explore or accept what they were bringing to therapy, to the number of sessions in brief therapy not being adequate for the size of the presenting issues.
Let’s bring this to the present day. This week I changed my zoom background to improve connectivity in a week of internet issues and service problems. I changed my professional counsellor room background for a blurred background. Immediately I would feel the need to explain myself like not having the room background made me less capable or less effective as a therapist, a client seeing the bed and pictures on the wall of the spare room I work from would delegitimise my practice. Now of course I know that’s silly, the relationship I harness with clients is much more stable than a zoom background would break but still I doubt myself.
My clients tell me the same. Some of them are training to be therapists themselves, some doing their day-to-day jobs, some of them are students. All of them tell me they doubt their abilities, or ‘feel like a fraud’.
Albert Einstein, the celebrated Genius and Theoretical Physicist, said of his work: “the exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.” (blog.neuronation.com) Those are big words by someone considered by many to be one of the greatest minds of all time. If anyone was to be considered “good” at their job, it would be Einstein.
Where does it come from and how do we tackle it?
Imposter syndrome can show itself in perfectionism, feeling like a fraud, feeling like we have to work more than others and always comparing ourselves to others (theawarenesscentre.com). The roots of imposter syndrome can often link to our past, and our relationships, be that childhood bullying, our parents, difficult romantic relationships as we’ve grown up, among other things.
In Pluralistic therapy (Cooper and Mcleod, 2011) we can address imposter syndrome in many ways. We can work with the client to check in with them about how imposter syndrome affects them. We use timelines and in those, discussing the client’s past to look at potential causes. We can also look at how that’s affecting clients now and how coping mechanisms can help. From there we can bring in methods from different methodologies to suit the client’s needs.
I personally have also used methods from Narrative therapy in Naming and externalising their imposter syndrome or their self-worth and storytelling (thriveworks.com). I’ve encouraged clients to consider what their partner or their best friend would tell them about themselves. Mindfulness in therapy is also something I find helpful with the overthinking related to Imposter syndrome (see my blog post on Mindfulness) It’s important in Pluralistic therapy to understand that what works for one client, may not work for another.
Personally, I think Imposter Syndrome is about as normal a feeling as it gets. I think we all get it in some doses and within reason, I think, it breeds the best therapists and people because it encourages us to work hard, not take things for granted and never feel like we know everything. The problem as I see it is when imposter syndrome starts to take over our lives, what if we feel that way all the time and can’t escape it? For me I’m confident I am “good enough” despite my moments of feeling like an imposter but for some, If it feeds anxiety and overthinking and affects day to day mental health then I think it’s important to speak to someone about it.
References (All accessed 17 June 2021)
Cooper, M. and Mcleod, J. (2011) Pluralistic counselling and psychotherapy. London: London : SAGE.