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The ‘Impersonator’ Syndrome

Updated: Nov 16, 2023

I thought it would never come. It felt like university went on forever. Friendships of a life time have been formed. Now I can hold my degree certificate aloft in joy and adulation. But I remembered that I just finished my psychology degree. This now marks the start of clambering towards a clinical psychology course. It was my aim all along, despite the warnings of competition and lack of guarantees. But I want to help people!

I was sometimes seen as ‘the smart one’ during the undergraduate years (I did however work approximately 10 hours per day and went on a night out twice in third year). Now, in my first Assistant Psychologist role, I was working with humans. The clinical team doubted my skills. To be fair, they have every right to do so! There’s little on a psychology undergraduate degree that can prepare someone for the first time you’re sat across a table from a child sex offender whom you’re supposed to be providing ‘rehabilitative therapy’. It’s a mind fuck of emotions.

When Alan Bennett penned the play ‘The History Boys’, he wrote that “to put something in context is a step towards saying it can be understood and that it can be explained. And if it can be explained, it can be explained away…” This is the crux of what I learnt about Clinical Psychology in my first Assistant Psychologist job. I learnt to formulate, but it drew out all sorts of emotions from anger to empathy. I thought. I rethought. I formulated. There was no ‘answer’. No first class grade. I took the formulations to my supervisor. I needed to reformulate. I doubted myself. It wasn’t punitive. I was just becoming more aware of what I didn’t know. The cycle continued and only broke when I got my hands on the next Assistant Psychologist position. However, to get there, I suffered a spattering of rejections that forced me to doubt myself and my career once again.

Fast forward a few years and I was relieved to finally get an offer to train as a Clinical

Psychologist, but the scars of rejection after rejection, and knowledge of what I don’t know took its toll. It won’t ever be forgotten, although it was temporarily quashed by the offer of getting onto training! I was one of the ‘chosen few’. Looking around the room on my first day I was suddenly confronted by people I used to call my competition. They’re now my course mates. I had to remind myself that there’s no need to proverbially elbow others out the way anymore to reach the front of the queue. The problem was that everyone else is talking about their experiences prior to getting onto training; the lectures started and I was once again confronted with all the things I don’t know. We were told that we’d feel this way, but it didn’t cushion the blow. I doubted myself and felt like an imposter. This time there was no sticky plaster to provide temporary relief. Only a generous offering of 27 days annual leave.

This isn’t a plea for sympathy. It’s an attempt to understand why Clinical Psychology as a profession is not well represented in the public eye. During my undergraduate, Tanya Byron was the only Clinical Psychologist I was aware of in the media. I don’t believe this is a niche she has carved and is attempting to monopolise. Only recently she visited our course in the hope that she could increase the representation of Clinical Psychology in the media. However, in a cohort of 50+ second year trainees, not one responded to her request of standing in front of our peers to explain trauma in a thirty second soundbite. My own reason for not doing so? I do not want to open myself to the scrutiny of my peers. Flash back to the start of the course: others here have first hand experience working with trauma - I’m not an expert. I’m the imposter. I’m a fraud. Despite Tanya Byron’s confidence that we are all capable of explaining trauma in thirty seconds, I was left doubting myself more than ever. I went home, looked over my trauma notes and still felt frozen. Maybe trauma just isn’t ‘my thing’. My thing is statistics and neuropsychology, so maybe I should try a 30 second soundbite about intelligence? Once again I didn’t feel comfortable to assert something that would open me up to scrutiny from my peers. I don’t think I’m alone in this feeling. Qualified psychologists whom I’ve worked with have expressed fear of representing themselves in the media for fear of misrepresentation of either themselves or the profession. I’m told reporters have tips and tricks to get you talking before the interview so that they’re more clued up to play good cop/bad cop when you’re live on air. The end result can leave the psychologist looking foolish. An old supervisor of mine told me how he refused to participate in media work after a bad experience on LBC.

Leaving space for the impersonators…

I can argue to death the fact that there’s just not enough representation of Clinical Psychologists in the media. But what would the wider public say? I’ve pondered this question many a time. We live in an era where mental health difficulties are spoken about more openly. There’s an appetite for it to be discussed, and the media is responding to this. So who is leading the conversation in public spaces? In some instances it is well meaning celebrities and royals who are getting the ball rolling. That’s great. It’s created space. The problem is that this space appears to be ever increasingly filled by ‘psychologists’. Note that I use the term in inverted commas. These are not qualified psychologists. They’re impersonating a clinician. A quick back catalogue of my memory brings rise to a couple of prominent ‘psychologists’ including a ‘TV psychologist’ from This Morning, whose website curiously has a section labelled ‘brands’, for whom she has a corporate partnership with. She offers TV Psychological Assessments. She also proudly displays the British Psychological Society logo. She’s not contravening any rules. However, she is not a ‘Practitioner Psychologist’, as designated by the HCPC. She holds qualifications in counselling, and an undergraduate degree in psychology. She’s no more qualified to conduct a psychological assessment on television that any other psychology graduate; of which there are many! Having been someone who has previously held this as their highest title, I’m frightened about how these assessments, and more importantly, how the aftercare is managed. When ‘Julie’ from the Wirral calls into This Morning about her low mood, who is the responsible clinician following up the ‘experts’ advice? Who else is this ‘expert’ influencing when answering questions?

I can also add into the mix an infamous ‘Relationship Psychologist’, who has also appeared on ‘This Morning’, along with BBC Breakfast, The Wright Stuff, and Sky News to name but a few. This issue? This person is not a ‘Practitioner Psychologist’. She holds qualifications in counselling and a certificate in cognitive behavioural coaching [what the fuck is that?!]. Both ‘psychologists’ hold no more qualifications to practice under the banner of the title ‘Psychologist’ than my hairdresser (whom I disclose all my deepest and darkest secrets to).

There’s a personal deep frustration to seeing these people navigate the public arena to good effect. It’s taken a bloody long time and some sleepless nights to get to when I am now as a Trainee Clinical Psychologist. To see someone speak from a place that lacks qualification, but with such authority is infuriating! I don’t see the difference between this and old fashioned quackery.

I often wonder how these people have the proverbial bollocks to put themselves into the public eye without the fear of retort that seems so prominent in my mind. I believe that it’s because they don’t belong to a profession! They are lone wolves navigating the public sphere, hijacking the increased attention to mental health difficulties in recent times, hoping to make a few quid. As a result, they haven’t experienced what I, and many other trainees/qualified psychologists, may have experienced in terms of continual knock backs and rejections that sit at the forefront of their mind when they think about making a public assertion. One way or another, Clinical Psychology as a profession need to think about that feeling of being the imposter. We can laugh and joke about it at times, but we forget the potential ripple effect that it can have. Whilst I’m only speaking for myself, I doubt I’m the only one to have been effected. I genuinely believe that working with this feeling, rather than acknowledging and ignoring it, will eradicate the impersonators, and enable responsible clinicians to guide this ever increasing discourse in the public sphere.

Author: Ben Hannon, Trainee Clinical Psychologist

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