Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote, “Instruction does much, but encouragement everything.” This is as true today as it was 250 years ago. While lifelong learning, in the form of professional development, does wonders for keeping your vocational skills sharp, it doesn’t necessarily help push you forwards with confidence. That’s where a mentor can help.
It’s been more than eight years since I last had a formal relationship with a mentor. I was completing the practicum component of my master’s degree in counselling psychology. That was when the demon known as imposter syndrome first began haunting me. I didn’t know what I was doing, I didn’t think I was capable of doing what was asked of me, and I questioned whether I was the right fit for my role and responsibilities.
My mentor was supportive – not by coddling me, but by getting me to challenge my assumptions that seemed to ‘prove’ I wasn’t capable of doing good work. This helped me not only in the moment, but ever since then. In the years that have gone by, I’ve also come to appreciate many of the other reasons it’s useful to have a mentor.
Whether you’re guiding a client through psychotherapy or preparing marketing communications materials for an entirely different type of client, there’s no such thing as too much experience. Often, mentors have been working in your field longer than you have, and as such they have the ability to share with you the situations they’ve faced, problems they’ve encountered, and solutions they’ve discovered. Knowledge is power; partnering up with a mentor lets you learn as much as you can.
My counselling psychology supervisor was also excellent at debriefing. She always knew just what to ask to get to the core of a given issue, which helped lead me towards the most appropriate course of action. A good mentor can dig deep, asking the best questions to get you thinking in the right direction. And let’s be honest, nothing beats talking through a problem to find a solution.
In this age of information, we certainly aren’t starved for knowledge, facts, and statistics, but perhaps you’ve noticed what I like to call the ‘supermarket effect’, where there is so much to choose from that you aren’t sure what to go for or which brand to trust. These days I don’t even know if I should rely on online reviews! Your mentor can help identify what you need to learn and who you need to learn it from. Don’t get stuck with unreliable information from websites that turn up on the first page of your online search results – they just have good SEO, not necessarily good knowledge.
And then there’s confidence. There is enormous value to being told you’re doing fine, being reassured you’re on the right track, and being supported in your professional decisions – all by someone you trust. This is priceless! When imposter syndrome has a stranglehold on your faith in yourself, and all you can think about is how your work won’t be satisfactory and your plans will fail and your goals will be missed, many times all it takes is a short conversation with a good adviser to get you back on track.
The last thought I want to leave you with is this: if you find yourself in a work environment where no suitable mentor exists, or a new geographic location where you have no network yet, don’t overlook how valuable a small group of peers can be. Everyone, everyday, is gaining new experience and making new connections that could be useful to you. And sometimes having a listening ear to bounce ideas off of is all takes to set you off in the right direction.
The first step is to realize that nobody knows what they’re doing (but some do an impeccable job of hiding it) and everybody struggles with imposter syndrome from time to time. Commit to pushing yourself a little and find someone who will support you: there, half the battle is already won!