The saying goes, “doubt is a good servant but a bad master.”
In 1978, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes coined the term impostor syndrome. (Befitting coincidence as it’s the year I was born).
It’s a term I hear alot from helping professionals that I work with.
From early-career, mid-career and seasoned practitioners alike, many are often plagued with self-doubt; sometimes categorised as impostor syndrome.
When we think we are an impostor I speculate it’s because of a mismatch.
And the mismatch is between the projected illusion of what what we think a good therapist should look like, compared with our perceived limited capabilities.
We think that we are not inadequate for the job.
But this doesn’t mean to settle for good enough.
This paradox invites us to embrace the contradiction of
- I am good enough,
- I have alot to learn.
Often mistaken for simply being passive, Carl Rogers seemed to have a direct grasp of this:
The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.
Both of these statements I am good enough, and I have alot to learn recite under the first principle of paradox, which is acceptance and change.
Let’s explore each of them.
1. Good Enough (to Play)
The roots of doubt often comes from feelings of inadequacy: I’m not good enough.
Rogers noted in one of The Evolution of Psychotherapy conferences that I kept close to my memory:
If I can fully accept what I have, what I have is enough.
In other words, in moments of self-doubt, I have to exercise trust in what I know, and what I can bring to the table for my clients.
Can we simply allow to trust ourselves a little bit more? Can we accept our constraints and use them to our advantage?
Artists know this. Constraints are actually helpful. Constraints promote creativity.
When we intentionally exercise trust, then we will have an interior, an inner landscape that is free to play. The moment we constrict and tensed up—a form of non-surrendering—we lose the ability to be flexible.
Donald Winnicott believed strongly that therapists working with children had to be able to play and could enjoy playing. I would go even further to say that when you are working with any age group, you have to be have a spirit of playfulness in tact.
In one of our web-based workshops Deep Learner, many participants were moved when they explored their own play history in a particular module.
Play simply means doing something for it’s own sake, rather than a means to an end. No outcomes or results attached. Some were surprised by how far away play is in their lives, others felt a spark lit up but revisiting simple joyous activities that made them feel alive.
In other words, I believe that one of the antidotes to self-doubt is play.
Transformation of Doubt :
“NOT GOOD ENOUGH” —> TRUST —> PLAY
But make no mistake. Being in the belly of feeling utterly useless is a depressing experience.
Here’s a journal entry I made a couple of months ago that mirrors an experience of being in this pit for some weeks:
13 Aug 2020 There are moments in my career that I go "I can't do this anymore." Today is one of those days. Today is one of those days when I feel utterly ineffective, and I question and doubt my ability. I mean, it's not just the "Imposter syndrome" complex, but it's more of a sense of "what the heck am I doing!?" And this isn't an unfamiliar territory... I notice I experience this at least 2-3 times every year. Self-reminder: Wrestle with my shadows, not to eradicate it.
2. I’ve got lots to learn.
But if you only do point #1 above, and overplaying that Winnicott mantra that so many therapist love, “The good enough (parent)”, we end up pacifying our doubts instead of listening to what it has to offer in fueling our development.
I am not saying that good enough equals not enough. What I’m suggesting in point #1 is not to seek perfection but to be playful. When we are playful, we are more open and flexible, less closed-off and rigidified.
And once we have this spirit of playfulness, we are able to learn better as well.
If we are to give our doubts a chance, Doubt fuels curiosity. If Doubt is the cold winds, Curiosity is the fireplace. In turn, Discovery warms you up as you tolerate the chills.
DOUBT —> CURIOSITY —> DISCOVERY
And the cycle continues–Life-long!
Wear Your White Belt
When Jigoro Kano, the founder of the martial arts Judo, was quite old and close to death, he called his students around him and made one specified request. He wanted to be buried in his white belt. 
Are we willing to strip away our stripes–the suffixed credentials after our names–and wear our white belts?
When you are doing something worthwhile, when you are pushing further at your zone of proximal development, and when you are are the pursuit of your own frontier, you will feel like an impostor. This is an uncharted territory within you.
Besides, if you were a living in a new country and trying to adapt to a new culture, you wouldn’t say that you are an impostor. We call that tourism.
We need to learn to make doubt our servant and not let it become our master. What Doubt can teach us is a willingness to fully embrace our constrains (and to be playful), and take us on a road of discovery.
Remember, it’s not an either/or situation of settling for good enough, or working hard to improve. It’s both/and.
According to Lao Tzu, the words of truth are always paradoxical.
As you embrace the contradiction, Let the words of poet Theordore Roethke accompany you as echoes within the hallway of doubt.
I learn by going where I have to go… I learn by going where I have to go…
* Hat-tip to Layla Davis and Mary Hosbrough questions in one of our supplementary live webinars that accompanied the web-based workshop, Deliberate Practice. Your question prompted me to write this.
Image by Jonathan Pendleton
 I learned about this story from the book Mastery by George Leonard.
p/s: People who experience “professional self-doubt” are also the people who have the fervor for real development. If you are one of them, you might be keen to join Scott Miller and I for our 2nd cohort of the Deliberate Practice web-based workshop. It’s both deep content and a trusting community of practitioners from worldwide. Click here for more.