Embracing Your Inner Expert: Perfectionism and the Impostor Syndrome in Mental Health
“The problem was that I carried around with me a tendency to feel that other people’s respect for me would vanish if what I did was second rate. And while I accept that this ‘perfectionism’ is likely to stimulate the production of better work, it doesn’t, unfortunately, go hand in hand with a relaxed and happy attitude to life.”
— John Cleese, television and film actor
Have you ever felt that your best isn’t good enough? Have you faced pressure from yourself or others to be better than great—to be perfect? Even though we all know no one really is, this unrealistic self-expectation can still creep into our minds regarding our relationships, our hobbies, and especially our jobs.
Mental health professionals are no exception. Due to the demanding nature of their work, therapists and counselors may feel the need to know everything and have all the answers for the people they serve. And if they don’t have all the answers for their clients, they might feel unknowledgeable or unqualified for their job.
Even though such thoughts and feelings aren’t based in reality, they can fill us with anxiety and slowly eat away at our confidence. Over time, we might even start to feel like we’re living the life of an impostor.
The Impostor Syndrome: A Threat Lurking Under the Surface
In 1978, Dr. Pauline Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes published a study on 150 high-achieving women who did not believe they deserved their accomplishments. Despite their educational honors, professional successes and recognition from peers, they secretly considered themselves to be intellectual frauds and lived in constant fear of being exposed.
This was the first documentation of the impostor syndrome. Today, we know this condition affects both women and men equally and is especially prevalent in academic and workplace settings. People who have this condition don’t believe they are as competent as others think, and they attribute their successes to luck or hard work rather than innate ability.
Someone suffering from impostor syndrome has an internal monologue that sounds like this:
“I feel like a fake.”
“I must not fail.”
“I just got lucky.”
“If I can do it, anyone can.”
As mental health professionals, we’ve spent a lot of time and effort to obtain the proper certifications and licenses. It’s been ingrained in us that we need a certain level of expertise and permission from people who are smarter than us to practice psychology. Ironically, even once we’ve obtained that expertise and permission, we may wonder if we’re really good enough for the job.
We can fall prey to the impostor syndrome if we let these feelings get the better of us. Fortunately, there are several things we can do to prevent this.
Unleashing the Expert Within
Just like with other anxiety-related issues, combating the fears of perfectionism requires us to examine and adjust our thought patterns. We can start to regain confidence in our professional worth by confronting our faulty self-perceptions with reality.
Here are some of the best ways you can do this:
- Recognize your expertise. The simple fact of the matter is that if you have the education and certifications to be a practicing counselor or therapist, then you are an expert in your field. This doesn’t mean there’s no room for you to continue building on your expertise, but it does mean you’re more than qualified to provide treatment for your clients.
- Give yourself permission to make mistakes. Mental health professionals sometimes develop the belief that because their job is to counsel others, they aren’t allowed to make any errors themselves. This is simply not true. Everyone messes up from time to time, and therapists and counselors are entitled to the same forgiveness for mistakes as the people who are seeking their help.
- Reframe thoughts of self-doubt. If you find yourself repeating the internal monologues of the impostor syndrome, change your mental chatter to focus on your strengths and abilities. Instead of obsessing that you aren’t good enough, remind yourself that you will continue to improve over time. Reframing your negative thoughts can be especially helpful right before an achievement event, such as before an appointment with a client.
- Talk to your peers. The worst thing we can do when struggling with negative thoughts is stay inside our own heads. Discussing your feelings with your colleagues can create opportunities for positive reinforcement and provide you with a realistic perspective on your abilities. You might also discover that they have perfectionism fears of their own, which can help you feel less alone in your struggles.
Those working in mental health may sometimes feel the need to be perfect, but we should remember that being professional does not mean being infallible. The best way to serve our clients is to be confident in our abilities and let our inner experts shine through.
If you liked this post on perfectionism and the impostor syndrome in the field of mental health, you might also enjoy our blog post on peer-based recovery support!