A therapist's reflections on being an imposter and being authentic
As a therapist, the attribute I have begun to value more than any other is authenticity. I am who I am whether in a therapy session or in a coffee shop. I fidget, don’t always know how to sit properly, mispronounce words and overtly correct myself, and spill coffee often. In fact, in a therapy session I ask questions about things I don’t understand without hesitation, unlike at a coffee shop where I wouldn’t always ask again if I haven’t heard the first time.
I haven’t always been like this. All through my training as a psychologist, I felt that going into a session was a bit like a stage performance. I had to be dressed for the part and I had to sit, speak and conduct myself like a ‘professional’. I had to reflect back to the client the emotions they brought to the sessions. "This must have been so hard for you. You have been so brave” I would say. The problem is that dressing, sitting and talking like this doesn’t come naturally to me, or many of my colleagues I suspect. I have never spoken like this to anyone in my ‘real’ life. So I faked it.
This wasn’t the first time I was faking it of course. Many years before I was seeing clients, I had moved away from home, shortened my name and had shaken off the person I had been. I wanted to do away with all of those labels that get associated with the part of the city you lived in, the city itself, your culture and your size. I became cooler, skinnier, better travelled and had fewer strings attached. Other than that I didn’t know who I was.
When you fake it, you have to lie. When you have to lie, you are afraid of getting caught. So in the time I was faking being a different person, I was terrified of bumping into a relative, being called out by my parents or even meeting my friends from high school. When I started working with clients, I was terrified of clients who had been to therapy before. I was always wondering if the therapists they had met been more impressive than I was and if the client was judging me. I feared that the client might want deeper insights into their patterns than the (surface-y) techniques I could offer. I was both scared of and craved to meet a supervisor who could see that even if I knew all the textbooks, I didn’t really know what I was doing. I guess that’s what us imposters feel like – afraid of being caught but also dying for someone to see us for who we are and show us the path.
What has helped me is distance from structures and systems and time to find out who I am. I have found supervisors who want to challenge me to discover myself. Now when I reflect back to clients how hard it’s been for them, I’m okay feeling it with them and saying what feels natural to me. Sometimes that can just say "I really don’t know what to say". What I do know is that I’m not faking it.