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Self Doubt and Humility - Friend or Foe?



I recently read an interesting paper which explored whether self-doubt and humility could be helpful and influential in the therapeutic context. The paper referred to English philosopher Bertrand Russell who observed that the worst performers in business and academia regularly overestimated their performance, while the top performers often underestimated their own.


The Dunning-Kruger effect, as it became known, has reportedly had many therapists wondering how this same phenomenon applies in counselling and therapeutic work.

In recent studies, researchers learned that those therapists with higher scores of self-doubt (ie. those that often felt unsure how to deal most effectively with a client and lacked confidence that they were having a beneficial effect), tended to receive more positive ratings from their clients in terms of therapeutic alliance and therapeutic outcomes.


The writers also found that while humility may appear to be possibly undermining of 'expertise' and 'authority', it is in fact foundational for achieving clinical excellence.

This had me reflecting on the work of the Founder of the Taos Institute, writer and therapist Harlene Anderson, who often refers to her approach of ‘not knowing’ as an intentional way of ‘not putting her stuff centre stage’ and risking leading the conversation through her own understanding of the problem.


The approach of offering ideas as 'food for thought' rather than something as truth invites an opportunity to participate in the conversation in a collaborative way and to co-research solutions together.





Harlene Anderson believes that asking permission or checking out whether something may be of interest, rather than assuming that her way is the best, invites a collaborative exploration that privileges her clients’ knowledge and expertise of their situation over her own or that of others.


She pays attention to the timing in the conversation for when she might offer something without risking interrupting the flow of the narrative.


Harlene’s therapeutic engagement in her conversations has had me contemplating how this tentative, ‘not knowing’, collaborative approach may actually validate the research.


It could be argued that rather than buying into the construct of ‘a lack of confidence’, this approach could be reframed as an intentional ‘not knowing’ way of being with our clients, which ensures that we remain de-centred but influential in all our work.

When viewed from this lens, I feel hopeful that my humility (or ‘not knowing’) stance will support me to be influential (as an expert of the process), while always centering my client’s expertise and knowledge of their experiences rather than my own.


I would love to hear your thoughts and welcome feedback from you via the contact form below, thanks for reading.


Michelle Fairbrother


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