One week into my first job at an outpatient clinic, I was seriously questioning why I ever decided to become a social worker in the first place and questioning my entire identity as well. I felt ashamed and incompetent - feelings I was completely unprepared for and terrified to admit to anyone.
The Thing That (Still) Terrifies Me The Most
Opening up about my fears of inadequacy hasn’t always been easy because my ego tends to get in the way.
I remember when I first started out doing individual and family therapy as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, I had deep fears of inadequacy that I kept hidden. I was terrified that if I expressed them to anyone, especially my supervisor, they would confirm my worst fear: that I wasn’t cut out for the job.
One of my first clients at that agency was a teenage girl whose mother was concerned about her and brought her in for an initial appointment. I was excited and nervous to finally be living my dream of having an outpatient client after years of schooling and hard work.
I desperately wanted to make a good impression and prove that I could help, but I was completely self-conscious about my age and lack of experience in the field. The mother could probably sense this when she talked to me on the phone before the first session and she peppered me with questions about my qualifications and experience. This only further chipped away at my already shaky self-confidence.
Despite the mother’s obvious concern (which of course I did not address for fear that acknowledging it would make her question me even more), they showed up for the first session. During that excruciating hour, the daughter refused to say more than a few words as I desperately tried to engage her. I could feel the mother’s eyes on me and knew she was probably wondering why she wasted her time.
Needless to say, that was the last I saw of them.
It’s not that I didn’t have great clinical skills, it’s that my fear of being inadequate had gotten the best of me and caused me to act inadequate!
Did I tell my supervisor at the time what happened? Of course not- I didn’t want him to think I was incompetent too!
Looking back, I can see how ridiculous my entire train of thought was. My supervisor hired me for a reason and one bad session wouldn’t have negated the skill and expertise he saw in me. I’m sure if I had told him what happened, he would have given me the support and validation I needed at the time. In fact, that’s exactly what he did later on when I finally had the confidence to verbalize my feelings about being a new clinician.
What Would I Tell My Younger Self?
At some point, every therapist deals with fears of being incompetent, a fraud, or somehow doing more harm than good, especially in the beginning.
Try to see those feelings as information, not a sign that you’re terrible at your new job. Be as open as possible about these feelings with people you trust, and try to discern what information the feelings are trying to give you.
This Tao principle pretty much says it all:
When “they” think they know the answers,
People are difficult to guide.
When they know that they don’t know,
People can find their own way
The Part That’s Hard to Admit
When we feel the need to perform, when we are too scared to say “I don’t know” or “I need help,” we deny ourselves the opportunity to grow and to be our most authentic selves.
My client’s mother had a concern about her daughter that was serious enough to seek the help of a professional. She was probably afraid that there was no solution to the problem and I could have acknowledged and explored that point. Unfortunately, my ego kept me from being where she was.
I am grateful for my mistakes because they made me a better clinician. Now as a supervisor, I can help young clinicians work from a place of presence and authenticity instead of shame and fear.
Being authentic is a daily, sometimes moment by moment challenge because it requires deep vulnerability. Writing this article required that deep vulnerability - it’s hard to be flawed in a public forum.
Luckily my desire to help others won out this time, and so here we are.