Running start… to a great career: overcoming professional self-doubt

This is a column geared toward early career psychologists working in practice settings. "Running start…to a great career" features topics typically not covered in graduate school and includes tips and advice from psychologists.

Overcoming Professional Self-doubt

Do you ever feel like a fraud? Worry you’re not qualified to do your job? Wonder when others will find out the truth about you?

2016-07-update-witherallYou’re not alone. These feelings, which some might refer to as “imposter syndrome,” can hit anyone facing new challenges, such as practicing under a supervisor’s license one day and your own the next. “People often feel it’s just them,” says Jay Witherell, PhD, a psychologist at the Center for Forensic Psychiatry near Detroit. “But it’s a normal part of adjustment. To some extent, everyone has it.”

“Imposter syndrome” is not a syndrome at all but rather the emotional transition that occurs when a student becomes a professional, and may reoccur with any new professional challenge.

2016-07-update-niverThese feelings aren’t necessarily always bad: They can increase your conscientiousness when you’re tackling new tasks, says Laura Niver, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Saint Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C. Taking some extra time to double-check things and do more research helps Niver feel she’s providing optimal care to her patients, for example.

But strong doubts and worries about your professional competency can mean pushing that conscientiousness to extremes, such as obsessively double-checking everything you do. That means subjecting yourself to unnecessary stress. It also means you’re focusing on yourself at the expense of your patients or others in your professional orbit, Niver says. When supervising interns, for instance, Niver sometimes feels tempted to provide citations for everything she tells them. That would be a mistake, she says. “If I’m so focused on trying to project a particular image for myself, I’d miss out on being able to assess where they are developmentally,” she says.

Niver and others offer tips for overcoming self-doubt:

  • 2016-07-update-wright Remind yourself of your accomplishments. Vaile Wright, PhD, director of research and special projects in APA’s Practice Directorate, started having feelings of doubt and anxiety when she began giving media interviews. “I find myself thinking, ‘Am I really an expert on this?’ or ‘Isn’t there someone more qualified to talk to radio stations?’” she says. “But the fact that there’s always someone who knows more or has more experience than I do doesn’t mean I don’t have the ability to do the task.”
  • Turn your clinical skills on yourself. Positive affirmations, breathing exercises and all the other coping mechanisms you teach to patients can also help you, Wright says.
  • Avoid perfectionism. Don’t review things beyond the point where you’re adding any value, says Witherell says. “One of my supervisors always said, ‘Don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good enough,’” he says.
  • Seek consultation. If you’re feeling unsure of yourself, says Witherell, ask for help. Find someone with the particular knowledge or skill you haven’t yet developed and ask for advice or feedback.
  • Help others. “One thing that has helped me overcome ‘imposter syndrome’ is being in a position where I can offer consultation to others,” Niver says. “Being a source of ideas and support for others has helped.”
  • Share your worries. These particular anxieties usually fade over time, Wright says. If they don’t or are causing you distress, talking these issues over in therapy can help. Also, share your concerns with your peers. “Being open about your fears normalizes them for everybody,” she says.