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Acknowledging Fear in Supervision

Professionalism can be a mask that perpetuates imposter syndrome and prevents us really connecting with our supervisor. Robin Shohet, whose latest book explores the role and function of this relationship, explores the importance in supervision of sharing that which we most want to hide.


Helping to reduce fear should be one of our main aims as supervision trainers, as creativity is not compatible with fear. Unfortunately assessment procedures are, in my opinion, designed to promote fear and keep the power with the assessors. Students have to second-guess what their markers are looking for, a process that promotes adaptation rather then learning. 

In my recent book on supervision, In Love with Supervision: Creating Transformative Conversations, I describe exercises that can facilitate robust conversations between supervisee and supervisor.

One of them is to ask people what they would least like their supervisors to know about their work. They finish the sentence, ‘What I would least like my supervisor to know about my work is…’ and then finish a second sentence, ‘I would not want them to know because…’. When we examine the ‘becauses’, they usually amount to a fear of being thought not good enough, shame, and a fear of judgment. We find these fears belong to most, if not all of us. Once these are shared and normalised, people often find they are willing to share more of their work with their supervisor.

Fear can manifest in us in many different forms that are not immediately recognisable to us as fear, such as comparisons, blame, judgment, anger even. Helping people to recognise that fear might be behind their behaviours can free people, not just in supervision, but in life generally.

I have a core belief that fear covers love in the same way clouds cover the sun that is always there, and I have found an interesting paradox that, once there is enough safety to share fear with others, a loving presence enters the room. We recognise our similarities rather than focus on our differences.

Here is an example of a situation in which fear was not immediately recognisable. Whilst writing this blog I had an initial skype session with a woman, an executive coach, who wanted to ask me how assessment of other coaches could be done. She was worried about standards.

I asked her if there was fear behind her question. She said there wasn’t any – she just wanted to maintain standards – but we stayed with the idea. It turned out that there had been a previous bad experience with another company, and behind that was now a strong need to get it right, to be accepted, approved. Behind this mask of professionalism was someone who, in her words, did not want to feel her feelings. She shared that she always jumped to solutions, even with her own children. Now she was ready to look beyond her coping strategies. By the end of the session, she said she felt lighter, clearer.

A final thought. Not sharing our fears and anxieties, and hiding behind professionalism, contributes, by definition, to imposter syndrome. This, in turn, increases the fear of being exposed. Hiding creates separation and increases fear. A loving acceptance of what Jung calls shadow – the parts of ourselves that we normally keep hidden from others – on the other hand, can bring us together.


Robin Shohet

Robin Shohet is the author of many books on clinical supervision, including Passionate Supervision (2007) and is co-author of the seminal training text for supervisors Supervision in the Helping Professions (with Peter Hawkins). Robin has supervised for over thirty years and co–founded the Centre for Supervision and Team Development in 1979.

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