Professional Self-Doubt: The Friend You Didn’t Know You Had

Professional Self-Doubt-

A guest post by Bonnie Lynch 

When things aren’t going well for you as a therapist, coach, or counselor, it’s hard not to doubt yourself. You may wonder, is this a sign that I lack knowledge or skill? Have I failed to understand my client’s problem? Am I even in the right career? However, there’s good news for self-doubters. Two studies now prove that your self-doubt can actually improve the therapeutic process. These results were somewhat unexpected but make sense once you understand the nature of self-doubt and the positive outcomes it can lead to.

It’s what happens next that seems to be key regarding client outcomes. After all, it’s not enough to dismiss the problem and say, “Nope, things aren’t going well at all here.” Something has to change in response to that recognition. This is where the beauty of science comes in.

Helene Nissen-Lie and colleagues recruited 70 psychotherapists from sixteen different clinics in Norway to participate in their study. Participants consisted primarily of psychologists and psychiatrists, but also of physiotherapists with particular mind-body training and psychiatric nurses. The researchers wanted to know how self-doubt and related factors might affect therapeutic outcomes. To answer this question, they measured therapists’ coping strategies in difficult situations, their positive self-affiliation, and their levels of professional self-doubt. They also followed up by measuring their clients’ outcomes six, twelve, and 24 months after the initial study.

I realize that no one needs another study indicating that professional self-doubters are bad helpers, continually stressed out, or that they can’t cultivate a therapeutic alliance, but the good news is that this study didn’t find any of this to be true. The study was complex and the outcomes even more so, but there are two critical findings that are fairly straightforward and worth keeping in mind as you navigate the stormy waves of your self-doubt.

1. Self-affiliation and Self-doubt Make a Good Dynamic Duo

It’s okay to think highly of yourself as a person, but having some professional self-doubt is actually good for your client.

2. The Type of Coping Strategies You Use Matter

Strategies that work well when therapists experience professional difficulties include:

  • Taking initiative to address the issue
  • Keeping knee-jerk reactions in check
  • Working with the client to solve problems
  • Seeking outside advice

Strategies linked to poorer outcomes include:

  • Withdrawing from therapeutic engagement
  • Acting out frustrations in the therapeutic relationship

One plausible explanation for the benefits of self-doubt is that when therapists openly entertain doubts about their own competence and deal with those doubts by applying constructive coping strategies, they behave in a way that serves as effective role model for their clients. It demonstrates their ability to apply similar genuineness and coping strategies to struggles of their own.

Self-doubt Doesn’t Have to be Burdensome

Self-doubt can reveal your openness to the possibility that even you best efforts can get thwarted. Nobody can single-handedly steer the universe, after all. This kind of constructive self-doubt not only feels better on the inside but also can help your clients. It can make the therapeutic process more efficient, because it can help counselors understand earlier in the process when their clients are getting off-track and when a new approach will likely be more effective. Self-doubt is beneficial when it manifests as a humble sense of uncertainty, because that uncertainty prompts earnest professional signs of difficulty, which can help you move toward a solution more successfully.

Nissen-Lie, H. A., Rønnestad, M. H., Høglend, P. A., Havik, O. E., Solbakken, O. A., Stiles, T. C., andMonsen, J. T. (2015). Love Yourself as a Person, Doubt Yourself as a Therapist? Clin. Psychol. Psychother., doi: 10.1002/cpp.1977

bonnie-headshotAbout the Author: Bonnie Lynch is a cognitive psychologist with a deep interest in using research to help people recognize and address the irrational and self-limiting thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes that hold them back. A former academic and researcher, she now devotes her full energies to applying the most innovative work in psychology and related fields to the problems of everyday living. She makes her home in the high desert of Oregon with her husband and the best dog anyone could ask for. Her company, at, is an APA-approved provider of continuing education and self-help resources with a special focus on fear, self-doubt, and procrastination in professional life.


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