August 21, 2023
By Ella Milligan
Imposter syndrome. Merriam-Webster defines it as a “psychological condition that is characterized by persistent doubt concerning one’s abilities or accomplishments accompanied by the fear of being exposed as a fraud despite evidence of one’s ongoing success.” When I began graduate school at Acadia University to become a counselling therapist, questions about imposter syndrome were floating around the classroom by the end of the first week. “There’s pretty much no avoiding it,” was my professor’s reply, “It’s going to happen.”
That was six months and eight classes ago. Six months and eight classes of full-time training before the practicum component of my course began and I would be seeing real clients. That six months in class is meant to teach us the beginning skills and guiding ethical principles of a counselling therapist. But it is also a time for our professors to evaluate my classmates and I and feel assured that we can be released on the public as counsellors-in-training and do no harm. It was left unsaid, but hopefully we can actually help along the way. They were adamant that we were ready.
Today, I am in the middle of my third week at my practicum site. At this point, I’ve met with five clients, either online or in person. I sit on my comfortable grey chair from Ikea, notebook in hand, pen poised. My glasses are big, dark, and smart looking (so I think). I listen, jot down notes, and nod encouragingly. I try to look confident and welcoming. My clients know that I am a graduate student and that I am in training. They offer their stories: their personal histories, the traumas, the lifetime of hurts, the heaviness – and sometimes the joy – that they hold and carry around with themselves every day.
I am excited to be here, to be finally counselling. But there it is: “Who am I that they are willing to trust me with some of their most intimate feelings?” Sure enough, my imposter syndrome is raging. I knew it would. As much as I thought I was prepared, the feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy that are yelling through a loudspeaker in my mind are like a protest gone wild. The placards that accompany them read, “Who do you think you are?”, “FRAUD,” “IMPOSTER.”
“Oh, another thing,” my professor had said six months ago, “You will probably have imposter syndrome on and off for a long time.” A graduate of my program who has had a private practice for the last two years confirmed this.
At the beginning of my practicum I had told my site supervisor that I was nervous to begin. Her reply was that she would probably feel a bit skeptical if I wasn’t. Similarly, a counsellor friend of mine had said imposter syndrome is a way to check yourself, to keep yourself honest – but not to get carried away with it. I take from this that there is some intelligence in this experience. That it’s true: Who am I to be receiving these stories and holding this space for people? I don’t have an answer forthis questionand I’ve decided not to look for one – for now. My practicum is four months long. I have four months before I return to the classroom for another semester to finish my training as a counselling therapist. Four months to explore this rich, inevitable territory of self-doubt while also being present and available for people who are bravely facing themselves on the counselling journey.
So my practice is to see it, appreciate the intelligence behind it, but not get too carried away with it. “Touch and go” is a favorite Buddhist saying of mine. The idea is to gently acknowledge the thought, and then gently let it go without pushing it away – again and again and again.
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