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Imposter Syndrome

by PeakCare on 27th October 2010

Home -> Articles -> 2010 -> October -> Imposter Syndrome

There’s always that feeling of “Oh, God! One day they’ll find out that I really have no idea what I’m doing.” Samantha Mathis [Seventeen, June 1992]

Some years back, I found myself in the uncomfortable position of sitting at my desk at work and realizing I felt frozen, unable to make the decision I was expected to make. The stakes were high; would I recommend the removal of a child from their family, or not? It’s not that I didn’t know how to do an assessment, or weigh risk. It was more that I knew the far-reaching consequence my decision could have on the lives of a child and a family. I knew how to do the task; but despite my education and experience, I didn’t believe I’d ever be truly equipped to make the recommendation. At the same time I felt like all my colleagues were perfectly positioned and never struggled to make such decisions.

This is not an unusual practice scenario for people working in statutory child protection. However, even if your work is in the prevention, early intervention or secondary intervention area and doesn’t bump up against statutory decision-making, you can probably identify times where you have had to make complex and challenging decisions that may not only impact on your clients now, but possibly, far into the future. Do we report or not report? Do we refer or not refer? Trust our gut, or not? Offer a service, or not? Keep a file open, or close it?

When you are working with vulnerable children and families and feel that you don’t have the qualifications, skills or experience to be managing the complexities of the work, it’s easy to slip into feeling like an imposter. Such practitioners may identify that they aren’t sure they know what they are doing, or that they are capable of doing the things expected of them. Some may even say they can’t bear the weight of their responsibilities; that it all feels like too much. This imposter feeling is sometimes a result of lack of education, professional development and training or a lack of proper support and supervision. However, even appropriately supported and qualified practitioners can find themselves feeling like imposters.

Practitioner’s suffering from imposter syndrome may:

  • Feel like they are in over their heads, overwhelmed unable to meet the expectations of their job
  • Feel like other people have an exaggerated view of their capacity to do a good job
  • Worry that someone will find out how little they really know
  • Have difficulty knowing what success looks like in their day-to-day work
  • May often say the success the do achieve in their work is due to luck, fluke, or even a mistake!
  • Have tunnel vision. Can easily identify all the mistakes, or places where they could do better or more, but miss the places where they are doing good work.
  • May be unable to manage criticism, even when well-intentioned.

Not only is it really uncomfortable to feel like an imposter in our work, it can also have some real consequences for how we go about doing that work. Doubting our abilities, being unable to make considered decisions, overworking and over compensating to cover up our feelings of inadequacy can fast track us for work related stress, anxiety and ultimately burn out.

So what can we do when we feel like an imposter?

  • Own the feeling. If you feel like you are an imposter, join the club! Most practitioners will tell you they’ve been there, felt that. It’s quite normal to feel this way, especially if you are new to your role, or are undertaking new, more complex work.
  • Know that child protection work is complex. It is challenging. We will never have all the answers or know all that we might like to know. It’s not only ok to say “I don’t know”… it can also be the most honest and professional thing you can say.
  • Practice critical reflection in your work. Critical reflection lets you begin to realistically evaluate your practice. It lets you own your assumptions and it builds your practice knowledge.
  • Work to define what a success experience looks like in your work. If you have unrealistic expectations, you will never find satisfaction in the work you are doing. Break the work down into pieces you can more readily evaluate. Some practitioners in the child protection field find it hard to celebrate the small wins; a small disclosure from a resistant client, an at risk mom who agrees to attend parenting classes, a young child who smiles. It is however, the small, steady wins that allow us to build competency and our sense of achievement.
  • Don’t minimize your success. “I got a promotion, but I just got lucky”, “My clients seem to enjoy working with me, but they don’t know my qualifications.” Leave the “buts” out. Focus on what works, don’t discount your efforts and achievements. Pat yourself on the back. Accept other people’s acknowledgement of your work with grace.
  • Seek support. Ideally you will have a fabulous, skilled, line manager or supervisor who you can speak to. If you don’t, consider accessing external supervision. A good supervisor should be able to help you unpack your practice concerns, point you in the right direction for resources or further support and discuss your ongoing professional development and training needs. Supervision is not a luxury or a perk in child protection work; it is an absolute necessity!

Imposter syndrome can make your professional life hell. Far too often people suffer it silently and alone only to eventually drift out of child protection work altogether. If you are feeling like an imposter, find a trusted colleague, supervisor, counselor or friend to speak to. The work you are doing is important, you are valued. Trust yourself!

Fiona McColl – Training and Development Manager, Peak Care