ACA Blog

Ryan Thomas Neace
Mar 07, 2011

“I’m a Phony” Baloney: Moving In and Through Clinical Self-Doubt

I’m connected to a lot of counselors in training via the counseling courses I help teach and the peripheral contact that accompanies them. I’m also part of a Facebook group for counseling students in our program, and occasionally comment-worthy notes catch my eye. Recently, I saw a student who posted a particularly grim comment about a recent experience he’d had at his internship site. Some counseling giant (please note heavy sarcasm) asked this poor chap how many counseling modalities his program required him to master (my word) by the time he graduated. He felt so torn apart by the resultant gaps he now perceived in his learning, it left him wondering whether he’d made the right decision about his school and his vocation from the start. I felt badly for him. So, Facebook friend, this blog’s for you. Truth be told, there probably isn’t one of us who hasn’t felt shell-shocked by some similar circumstance or person in our counseling career or scholarship. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been doing it – there’s always someone who dwarfs you by contrast. You know what I mean, don’t you? Just when you think you’re really getting this whole “counseling thing”, some jerk comes around the corner and helps you realize you have no clue what you are doing. When I was reaching the end of my counseling education I ended up interviewing at a local agency specializing in strategic therapy for my internship site. I’d been only minimally briefed on it in a theory class, but thought, “Why not?” Within the first 5 minutes of the interview, I knew I was not getting the job. They were asking me all kinds of cryptic questions that (I believe) were ultimately designed to determine how much I already knew about strategic therapy, which I discovered was just north of nothing. While I didn’t walk away completely devastated, I did feel out of my league. And guess what? I was! That in mind, here are 3 tips from my experiences to help you move in and through your clinical self-doubt, no matter when or where it pops up. *** 1. Stop Fighting It. The hardest thing about being really good at anything is that, unless you are a savant or some sort of prodigy, the only paths that lead to expertise are those that start with the humble admission that you are not very good. In the basic counseling techniques course I help teach, I’m always trying to remind students of this as resistance knee-jerks to the awkward feelings produced by poor execution of new skills. And why wouldn’t they resist? Most of them are entering the field because they’ve been told over and over by others, “Hey…you’d make a really good counselor!” And some have been working in bachelor’s level or ministerial positions for years and have gotten used to their way of doing things. Sure, some will have more natural ability than others, like that irritating kid with hair under his arms that can throw a 70-mph fastball in the 5th grade while his pre-pubescent peers are still picking dandelions in right field. Some people gravitate more naturally toward empathy or reflective listening or some other basic skill with or without much actual clinical experience. But for the most part, counseling skills are…well, skills. And it is very difficult to learn things if you already know them all. Two powerful CBT techniques are known as the Acceptance Paradox and the Paradoxical Magnification (Dr. David Burns). Sometimes people use so much mental energy defending themselves against shaming voices in their heads that the end result is little more than exhaustion and emotional toxicity. In that case, accepting and even magnifying the claims of shaming voices can be a welcome relief. “You know what? You’re right! I wasn’t introduced to all the modalities I’d have liked. But it’s worse than that – I don’t even know anything about the ones I have been introduced to! I’m a horrible failure, I’m clearly going to be the worst counselor the world has ever known. I’ll never help anyone, and I should probably go jump off a bridge!” (NOTE: probably not the best intervention for those with a history of bridge jumping) We could probably learn a lesson here. We don’t know all there is to know. And at the end of a counseling education, I’ve got news – it’s worse than we think – we really don’t know much atall. Not because our school was inferior (though some are), and not because we’re not skilled (though some aren’t). It’s because there is an awful lot to therapy that is hard to learn until you’ve been doing it for a while. I’m still learning that lesson myself. Acceptance of these facts, paradoxically, has saved me quite a few lashings from the “I ought to know more” switch I previously used on my own rear end, which makes sitting through 50 minute sessions a lot more comfortable. 2. Aspire to Admire One quality I possess that can be pathological if not kept in balance is my tendency to be drawn to star power. Don’t get me wrong – I find self-righteous celebrities vomitus. George Clooney or Sandra Bullock waxing eloquent about some political or social issue, as if it was self-evident how enlightened and informed they are by virtue of their celebrity status itself – that’s not what I’m talking about. Instead, I have this tendency to find brilliant people who have some intellectual or spiritual quality I admire, and become a fully devoted follower. You may have noticed I unintentionally reference Stanford CBT Psychiatrist Dr. David Burns over and over again. He’s one example. I literally plan to name one of my yet unborn children Nouwen, after spiritual giant Henri Nouwen. There’s another one. Like I said, I get carried away sometimes, swept up in a reverie of admiration. When I find out these people put their pants on one leg at a time like the rest of us, I can feel a little disenchanted. Yet, it is precisely this ability to canonize that has taught me an invaluable lesson - recognizing what I don’t know enables me to learn it from those who do. As I said above, of course, it starts with a humble admission of shortcoming, whether it is experience-based or because of some deficit in my training. This is the sine qua non of true educational upward mobility. But if the journey ends at that station I quickly become despondent with the sinking feeling everyone is in the fraternity but me. On the other hand, if I can learn to truly admire and appreciate others who possess what I do not, I can become like them. And I can learn with the best of ‘em. I haven’t met a bad teacher. Oh sure I had some that were less than helpful, but all had something I didn’t, and therefore, something which I could learn. But this requires a refusal to equate my own shortcoming with a negative statement about my worth as a helper. That is, my lack doesn’t say something negative about me, but something positive about others. This removes the morbid inward focus and clears the obstacles that prevent true growth. It allows me to aspire toward that which I admire. 3. All that Glitters is Not Gold The illuminati in most any field possess one prize one nugget of truth above all others. It is guarded with an elaborate anti-theft system and an entire army of gatekeepers. It is so crucial to the illuminati’s existence that it is utterly shrouded in secrecy and denied even to exist. I’m about to reveal it for you here as a renegade – the therapeutic Neo of the Counseling Matrix. Are you ready? “Do not try and bend the spoon. That is impossible. Only realize the truth…there is no spoon.” Of course, that will only make sense to you if you’ve actually seen the movie “The Matrix”, so let me remove the mystery even further. In some ways, all of our counseling heroes are caricatures. For the most part, we’ve only seen their successes, not their failures. They are archetypes. And we fail to realize they lived in an era where counseling was so unregulated, you could, essentially, do most anything you wanted. They had all of the freedom that came with being pioneers, and virtually none of the pressure we feel to emulate. So, just because people seem enlightened doesn’t mean they didn’t make things up as they went along. They did. In a day and age where so-called “empirical validation” is king, remember that a monarch is only as powerful as his subjects are loyal. As an adjunct professor of Research Methods and Psychological Measurement, I’m all too familiar with the notion that research can be and often is bent to portray what the interested parties wish – a true case of the tale wagging the dog. We need only look at the contrast between the financial boom of the psychopharmacological industry’s “clinically proven” treatments, and the fact that the woes they claim to treat exist in record numbers. Something’s not right here. Also, the father of psychology, Sigmund Freud, had some unbelievable, astounding, revolutionary ideas about our functioning. I’m a fan of the man. He was a genius in most every sense of the word. And yet, much of what he is said is profoundly inaccurate. To boot, the first counseling license was issued in the long past year of…1976. 1976! Kind of sheds some light on our professional high-horsedness. What’s more, there is an increasing body of evidence that suggests lay counseling can be just as effective as the educated, licensed kind. I just read an article on Medical News Today a few weeks ago by British and Indian researchers saying it again (contact me for the link). I’m not saying we have nothing to offer, just that we don’t know as much as we claim. Anytime anyone around you insinuates you’re less than because you can’t flawlessly execute the collective techniques of Rogers, Glasser, Beck, Ellis, Wertheimer, or whoever, remember this. There are some horrible counselors out there, and some very good ones. I’m still trying to figure out what causes each. But I can tell you the answer is not solely comprised of those who “know and do” all the right things in therapy. Sometimes they are the most ineffective of all. When someone condescends to you, remember that even the great and powerful Oz was just an old man with a smoke machine standing behind a curtain. He was ultimately revealed by the likes of a curious dog. I’m guessing you’re at least that capable. *** So, this doesn’t have to be so intense, but I understand why it feels that way. Most of what fuels our anxiety and self-loathing around clinical (in)ability is pretty simple: fear. Fear that we can’t do enough, can’t be enough, can’t help enough to really make a difference. My experience is that sometimes this is true, and sometimes it is not. But my response to these fears dictates whether it will fester and grow or simply dissipate with time. In the sense that they can be self-fulfilling, the more my fears dissipate, the less they are true. Finally, before we go holding a grudge against our local counseling agency false prophets, it behooves us to bear in mind that their penchant for self-grandiosity doesn’t necessarily make them evil, or worthy of our disdain. They too are likely responding out of their own fear and self-doubt, and have learned to manage the world as best they can – even if it means playing someone they’re not. Let us here remember one final lesson from Oz, when a tearful, hurt Dorothy chastised, “You’re a very, very bad man.” “Oh, no my dear,” said the old man. “I’m a very good man! I’m just a very bad wizard.”

Ryan Thomas Neace is a counselor, professor, and entrepreneur. He is the co-founder and managing director of The Change Group. More at

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