As a freshman in college, I found my calling to become a therapist. 10 years later, I emerged from graduate school with an advanced degree, specialized training, a professional license, and a job at an agency. Up until that point, I had assumed that I was equipped with everything that I needed for immediate success. I would work with clients who would get “better,” and I assumed they would want to see me regularly until they did. Unfortunately, that’s not exactly what happened.
Instead of a seamless, successful practice I anticipated, I encountered the harsh reality of canceled appointments, no-shows and getting ghosted. With little insight into what was actually happening, I came to the conclusion that there must be something wrong with me. I was devastated. I had gone into this job with the mentality that I should be able to do good work with anyone and everyone that walked through my door.
I was having some measure of clinical success with a handful of clients—but in some ways, I felt that didn’t count. I still had so many unsuccessful cases, and that’s where my focus was. I was angry and ashamed of myself, and the seeds of my internal distrust were sown. What was I thinking to have believed I was called to be a therapist?
4 Ways to Build Up Your Self-Trust
As therapists, it’s important for our clients to trust us. But it’s also equally important that we have a sense of self-trust. For one reason or another, our confidence can wane until we find that we are struggling to trust ourselves to do good work, as was the case for me. If that happens, what are we to do? How do we gain—or regain—our self-trust? Do we have to earn it or prove it to ourselves? Or is it something we can give ourselves, like a gift of good will?
Over the course of the next several years, things slowly improved with a great deal of help from my clinical supervisor, my therapist, my wife—and also myself, as I kept some degree of trust and faith in myself alive. I learned a number of lessons about myself along the way, which may be helpful to you if you’re also looking to build your sense of self-trust.
1. Know when to stay the course and when it’s time to try something new.
Because of my own struggles, perhaps not surprisingly, I’ve found a niche in working with adults struggling to find confidence and a footing in their careers. One of the biggest dilemmas many of my clients bring is whether to persist in their chosen career path or job, or make a wholesale change and try something else entirely.
When I was in the thick of my own similar struggle, my well-meaning supervisor once gently suggested that I might want to consider whether I would find more success in some other type of helping role outside of being a therapist. I considered her advice briefly, but my intuition said there was no other role I’d rather have than the one I had. When I asked myself why that was, I came to realize how much I enjoyed the work I was doing with the clients I was having success with—and there was no way I’d want to give that up.
In the end, I stuck with the overall focus of being a therapist, and made minor adjustments to my plan. I moved from an agency to a small group practice, then to my solo practice, which gave me the freedom to practice in the way that best suits me. This freedom has made a world of difference for me.
If you’re faced with the dilemma of whether to persist or move on from a path you are struggling with, a similar introspective question may be helpful. You might ask yourself “If I knew that I could guarantee myself some measure of success, what career path would I prefer to take?” For some, that may be some secret passion that has been kept hidden. For others like me, you may find success by continuing to do what you are doing, but find ways to replicate and enhance your success.
2. Look for success and find ways to replicate it.
Through all the stress and shame of my struggle, the success I was having was right under my nose. It wasn’t until my supervisor asked me about my clients that were sticking around that I started to see the success I was having. I decided that if there were a handful of clients I worked well with, then there were likely more of them out there.
One afternoon I sat down and made a list of common characteristics and themes showing up with these people, both in their personality types and the concerns they were bringing to therapy. Some definite themes started to emerge.
From those themes, I then tried to capture and articulate their “pain points,” or what the most painful part of their lives seemed to be. I then took the language of those pain points and incorporated them into my online directory listing and website. This included phrases such as “Do you find that you are especially hard on yourself? or “Do you feel stuck and out of place on your current career path?” or “Are you struggling after a breakup or divorce?”
I concluded my profile with this call to action: “Whether you’re struggling to feel confident in school, work, romance, friendships, or with family, I am confident that you can find your confidence. Schedule a free consultation on my website today.”
Since posting these updates, the clients that reach out to me for services have been much more likely to be a good fit to work with me. I have also developed the confidence to decline to work with people I think won’t be a good fit. This has had a profound impact on the enjoyability of my work, my sense of success, and of course my ability to trust myself.
3. Talk about the work you do with pride, confidence, and gratitude.
Soon after I updated my website and directory listing, it seemed that an increased number of people I talked to wanted to know what I did for work. My response started out as tentative: “It seems like I work with a lot of young adults struggling with breakups, divorces, or feeling stuck in their careers?”
Over time, however, my response grew to be more confident: “I have really found a lot of enjoyment in working with young adults by helping them find confidence when they are struggling after a breakup or divorce, or when they are feeling stuck in their careers.”
To my surprise, both lay people and therapist colleagues reacted to these statements with positivity and admiration, and so I kept them coming with more and more confidence in every interaction. I also became increasingly grateful that I had found a focus for my work, which has allowed it to be more sustainable. This gratitude has translated to how I interact with my clients as I try to express my sincere honor to be a part of their journey.
As you continue to clarify your respective niche, I invite you to use an increased level of pride, confidence, and gratitude when you share with others what it is that you do and who it is that you work best with. The more you project that outwardly to others, the more you’ll start to believe it yourself too.
4. Choose to give yourself the gifts of compassion and self-trust.
Many people have been conditioned to motivate themselves with negativity and harshness. At times, we may try to scare or shame ourselves into progress and success. This never works in a healthy and sustainable way, and certainly it didn’t work for me. Instead, every step that I took only worked because I exercised self-compassion and ultimately chose to trust myself, even after failure.
I’m grateful that this compassion and self-trust has bred even more of those feelings internally. With that growth, my clients have been more likely to trust me to walk a healing path with them. Their trust in me only helps my trust in myself grow.
I firmly believe that each of us are vital to our communities in whatever professional and personal roles we play. Your specific roles and strengths will be different from that of anyone else. Like me, your strengths as a therapist will likely come from not only your training and professional experience, but also your unique lived experience. I invite you to trust that a combination of those things will be of value to your clients and will lead you down a path of satisfaction and success.