Should we be thinking differently about imposter syndrome?
Eric Howey • March 06, 2020
Before you read. I write from a place of significant social privilege and my experiences are not reflective of everyone’s experiences. I work full time as a mental health therapist and have a Masters in Social Work degree. References are at the end.
I was at a mental health training recently where the presenter talked about the concept of “professional self-doubt” - feeling like an imposter - as it relates to therapeutic effectiveness. Interestingly, it turns out that moderate degrees of professional self-doubt are actually associated with better therapeutic outcomes (Nissen-Lie et al., 2017). When therapists are less certain we do a better job.
Wait what!? You might be thinking that doesn’t make sense. But stay with me.
The presenter went on to show an interview with one of the best therapists in the world according to their research data.
She was a quiet, unassuming and humble British woman; she smiled often, laughed easily, and was very relaxed in her body language and appearance. In her work with clients she encourages them to give her critical feedback. She spoke about regularly doubting her own abilities in therapy.
Maybe not what you imagined? She certainly wasn’t what I imagined. No power suit. No white hair. No aloof, over confident, always right attitude. No convoy of letters after her name.
Why is this? Why would a low to moderate amount of self-doubt or feeling like an imposter, actually make someone a better therapist?
Answering this questions Nissen-Lie et al., write that:
Clinicians work more effectively when they are more conscious of challenges and uncertainties of their work and less ‘blinded’ by their own competence: Therapists who are more aware of their natural limitations, and more realistic about the likelihood of poorer client outcomes, are more alert to indications that their clients are “off-track”, enabling them more frequently to resolve barriers to therapeutic progress.
Lost in false confidence and expertise. When we can see clearly, we are able to be more useful, to stay on track.
What if some of the same things are true about feeling like an imposter in other areas of work like software development? What if sometimes feeling like an imposter actually makes you a better developer?
In Zen Buddhism there is the concept of Shoshin, or beginner’s mind. That we should approach life like a beginner might; with openness, curiosity, and a lack of preconceptions. Willing to take risks and fail, open to trying new things, curious about the why.
Could it be that feeling like an imposter, feelings of inadequacy and uncertainty, help us to be in this ‘beginner’s mind’ more of the time? That we are not immediately reaching for preconceived judgements, making assumptions about what happened, or playing the expert fixer?
This connection between beginner’s mind and self-doubt is supported by academic research which shows that therapists generally have worse outcomes over time (Goldberg et al., 2016). Yep, you read that right. Therapists gradually deteriorate in effectiveness as our careers progress.
Put another way - we do our best counselling work as brand new therapists. When we are beginners. Full of professional self-doubt. Feeling like an imposter.
I believe this link between effectiveness, beginner’s mind, and self-doubt, which exists in mental health, is transferrable to other careers and fields of work. When you are open, curious, and unassuming you do a better job in many areas of life. You write better code, test more thoroughly and most importantly, see unique solutions to old problems.
Conversely, when you are misled by over confidence and expertise you make assumptions and quickly leap to conclusions. Deluded in the false belief of your abilities. Less willing to try new things and make mistakes because you know ‘the way’.
So when those feelings of being an imposter next crop up in your mind consider this an invitation to view them differently and challenge the negative thinking. Try seeing it as an opportunity to be a beginner and a learner again with all of the advantages this mindset offers.
Maybe it is an opportunity to look at an old problem with a fresh set of eyes? Maybe it is the chance to learn something new? Maybe it is the moment to connect more deeply with someone as you ask for help?
Whatever the case we need to challenge the enormous social pressures people are facing to know everything and always be an expert. We need to recognize feelings of self-doubt as an asset because this is the person who is critically thinking about a problem and is the most likely to find a new path forward.
In case you were wondering about me. I am in that middle part of my career in mental health, on the downward slide of effectiveness according to research, lost in over confidence and experience. I am working on this, trying to feel like an imposter more of the time so I stay open, humble and curious.
Goldberg, Simon B., et al. “Do psychotherapists improve with time and experience? A longitudinal analysis of outcomes in a clinical setting.” Journal of counseling psychology 63.1 (2016): 1-11.
Nissen‐Lie, Helene A., et al. “Love yourself as a person, doubt yourself as a therapist?.” Clinical psychology & psychotherapy 24.1 (2017): 48-60.