I had an episode of anxiety and self-doubt that freaked me out. It arrived suddenly and with force. I was gripped with fear that it was going to take me down completely. I worried that my work was in jeopardy, and I felt ashamed that this was happening to me, with all my knowledge and training.
As therapists, it can be difficult to acknowledge our own mental health struggles. The need to confidently present a professional identity, market ourselves and sell our service can seem at odds with admitting our vulnerability. Clients might be surprised or unnerved by the reality of a therapist who experiences anxiety or other mental health difficulties. They invest hope in us to bring about change and respite from distress. How can we do that if we’re experiencing distress ourselves? How can we help them if we don’t feel good enough?
During my training, I wrestled with the naïve belief that therapists are ‘sorted’, having mastered the art of living peacefully, bathed in wisdom, so that life’s problems, personal struggles and insecurities ebb and flow like a gentle tide. Since then, I have matured professionally and personally. I have engaged in narratives associated with Jung’s metaphorical ‘wounded healer’,1,2 and I have acknowledged the myth of the ‘untroubled therapist’.3
As my practice developed, I grew comfortable with an ever-present companion, whispering, ‘Will I fall short of my clients’ hope in me? Will I be able to help? Will I disappoint? Could I cause harm? Can I handle it? In other words, ‘Am I good enough?’
The origins of self-doubt
Self-doubt and anxiety once presented many barriers to my personal and professional development. Over time, it has been important to differentiate between self-doubt that is constructive and that which is erosive, loaded with anxiety, fuelled by imposter syndrome, and has the potential to inhibit my work. To do this, I needed to develop an understanding of its origins. The concept of imposter syndrome was introduced in the 1970s.4
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It is associated with feelings of fraudulence and the fear of being exposed as such. For me, this originally grew out of the incongruence of living a double life. Like so many families who face struggles, the need for mine to present a sanitised version of our reality to the outside world was necessary to maintain the resilience that underpinned our family system when I was growing up. It was a mechanism for survival. As a child, I navigated conflicting feelings of pride in the strength of my family, shame and fear of exposure about the problems playing out behind closed doors and stress induced by constantly upholding the facade. Additionally, coming from a working-class background and being brought up in Thatcher’s Britain of the 1980s, left me with a deep sense of disempowerment as a young adult. As a family, we were caught up in relentless strike action that caused financial insecurity and stress. Being sandwiched between the unions and Thatcher’s Government was a powerless place to be. I absorbed the message that there’s a ‘them’ and an ‘us’, and I experienced ‘the system’ as a barrier. I was too polite to embrace the anarchic protest of punk. Instead, I was obsessed by the fairy-tale of the TV show, Fame. I swallowed
the myth that if you work hard enough, no matter what hurdles you face, talent will shine and dreams can come true. It was a hopeful antidote to Thatcher’s war on the working classes.
However, the reality was that teachers’ strikes ravaged my secondary education, and I left school with a diminished belief in my academic potential. I carried a sense of failure because I never completed my education in the way I had planned to. A shadow of regret still lingers, even though, since then, I have gained qualifications and traversed the class divide. I enjoy the privileges afforded me as a white, middle-class, cis-gendered, female therapist. My working-class heritage and experience of disrupted education are not transparent now, but they are inherent in me and are a fundamental part of who I am. This makes sense of my feeling that I am masquerading in a world where I don’t belong and that I shall be found out to be a fraud.
The pain and value of self-doubt
My imposter syndrome is kept in check when I am actively participating, integrating, connecting with other people in a whole-body way, being visible and being brave. I should not have been surprised, therefore, when anxiety and self-doubt reared their heads after spending months in lockdown, behind a screen, mostly within the confines of my home.
However, it was when the doors to my practice re-opened and invitations to do presentations began to come my way again, that my internal protestor reappeared loud and clear, ready to sabotage my efforts once again. The comforting acceptance about therapists’ imperfections and vulnerabilities I had gained over years of practice dissolved quickly. My achievements in rising to challenges, developing competences and engaging in projects during the period of lockdown seemed to count for nothing. Those old, unwelcome, frightening feelings which threatened to diminish me had crashed back in. It was sudden, destabilising and shocking.
I found myself managing the intensity of my own fears and anxieties while working with clients on the same issues. Many of my child and adult clients alike were experiencing similar feelings about stepping back into the world. This gave power to the narrative of my imposter syndrome. How could I be working with clients trying to overcome the very issues that I was struggling with? Those internal messages of being a fraudster were demanding my attention all over again. I needed to listen and respond to the warning that I was doing too much or placing unnecessarily high expectations on myself. For a while, I needed to be mindful about over exposure and resist taking on too many projects or challenges, and I gave myself permission to slow things down. At the same time, I needed to be aware of retreating too much, in case my fears became all-consuming and fenced me in. An abundance of self-compassion is what I needed most to ground myself and rebalance. And I did.
The paradox of imposter syndrome and self-doubt, for me, is that they are of value. For example, when young clients talk about which group they want to identify with, and how this may conflict with who they feel they really are, I recognise their discomfort as they try to fit in. I hear the strains and insecurities of teachers and safeguarding leads, who work hard to uphold the weight of responsibility of their professional role, with feelings of fear and the threat of incompetence nagging away, despite their training, qualifications, experience and skills. In other clients, I see the desire to fulfil a potential that is yearning to be released from the shackles of limiting self-belief. Crucially, since my self-doubt flare up, I have experienced a heightened level of empathy, particularly with those clients who feel anxious, or those who express a sinking disappointment that dark feelings have resurfaced again, anticipating the menace of their power this time around. I have also seen parallels in my own past experiences with some of my young clients, who feel that their education has been snatched away as a result of the pandemic.
Just like my clients, there are times when self-doubt and anxiety get the better of me. It can feel like a bully, here to sabotage me, but I know it relates to the fear that is attempting to shield me from shame and failure. Within this narrative, I can muster the armour of my compassionate self to quieten down the part that is fearful about not being good enough, of letting others down, of being found out as vulnerable and imperfect.
Perhaps it is not surprising that highlighting one’s own vulnerabilities as a therapist can feel shameful,5 but professional self-doubt can be a valuable resource if accompanied by self-compassion and nurturance.6 This experience has brought me to a point where I want to own my vulnerabilities more proudly. I want to shed any residue of shame and acknowledge its value and worth. I concur with others who assert that personal experiences of distress, fallibility and self-doubt can enhance a counsellor’s skills.7 However uncomfortable my recent anxiety has been, it has enabled me to fully accept that I am a competent and knowledgeable professional, who knows what it means to sometimes be anxious, uncertain, lost, overwhelmed, afraid; unashamedly flawed and, just like my clients, beautifully human and good enough.
Class and counselling
Therapy Today, December 2021
1 Dunne C. Carl Jung: wounded healer of the soul. US: Parabola Books; 2000.
2 Henderson R. The wounded healer. Jung Journal 2019; 13(2): 115–127.
3 Adams M. The myth of the untroubled therapist. London: Routledge; 2014.
4 Clance P, Imes S. The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice 1978; 15(3): 241–247.
5 Adams M. Therapists are human too. Therapy Today 2014; 25(9): 22–25.
6 Nissen-Lie H, Ronnestad M, Heglend P, Havik O, Solbakken O, Stiles T, Monsen J. Love yourself as a person, doubt yourself as a therapist? Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy 2017; 24(1). [Online.]
https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/cpp.1977] (accessed September 2021).
7 Jones S. Experts by experience. Therapy Today 2018; 29(2): 20–23.