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How Self-Doubt Can Be a Gift for Therapists and for Parents

Self-doubt can help us to connect more deeply with others and with ourselves.

"The combination of self-affiliation and professional self-doubt seems to pave the way for an open, self-reflective attitude that allows psychotherapists to respect the complexity of their work, and, when needed, to correct the therapeutic course to help clients more effectively." —Psychologist Helen A Nissen-Lie

In March 2020, days before the world went into lockdown due to Covid 19, I was preparing to take the stage at the annual Psychotherapy Networker Symposium in Washington, D. C. I was slated to share a story with my fellow therapists that blended my clinical work with my personal life. I had picked out an outfit for the occasion (my costume), rehearsed my lines, and was prepared to enter the spotlight with confidence. And somehow, I missed the irony that the tale I was to tell illustrated how necessary it is to embody the humble humans we are "backstage" in order to be fully present in our work, our relationships, and our lives. When the symposium (along with life as we knew it) was canceled, I felt a pang of loss. But I also awakened to the raw fact that by delivering the talk from my couch—during my toddler's nap no less—I could show and not just tell the story I genuinely and deeply wanted to share with professional peers, fellow parents, and the world.

Click here to see the video of my piece, "The Audition" or "When You're Wrong for the Part." (It was also published in Psychotherapy Networker magazine.) I begin the story by describing a therapy client who would often look at me like she wanted to fire me. This, not surprisingly, would induce feelings of failure and inadequacy in me, reminiscent of my days as an actor when the occasional casting director would flash me a similar glare of devastating disappointment the second I entered the audition room.

As I continue the story, I recount how I began to learn to use my self-doubt in my “scene work” with this client to great effect, just as the emotional stakes in my personal life were raised with the entrance of my newborn son. He, as it turned out, also seemed to want to fire me, which he conveyed to me with his inconsolable screams, as infants do. Despite the loss of ego satisfaction in both examples of trying and failing to help other people, I illustrate how both of my disgruntled "scene partners"—my client and my son—ultimately showed me not only how to love and understand them, but also to embody versions of myself I could not have found without them.

I hope this tale inspires you to embody your own authentic experiences of self, even when it's humbling and painful.

When we meet ourselves where we are—as opposed to where we think we "should" be—-we can escape the ubiquitous, pre-Covid misconception that to be fully alive we must perform in the stage lights of “success”; or what I now refer to as “success drag.” Having lived through the past year and a half, and talked intimately with so many people during that time, it has become clear to me that by embodying who we are "backstage," in reality, at the core, with all of our doubt, vulnerability, limitations, pain, and loss, we help to give ourselves and the people for whom we care, the opportunity to be as fully and freely alive as possible.

Copyright Mark O'Connell, LCSW-R, MFA


O'Connell, M. (2019). The Performing Art of Therapy. New York: Routledge.