Feeling Like A Fake

Impostor Syndrome in Massage Therapists

By Allissa Haines

Thinking that you don’t really belong in a room full of business owners. Having a mostly full schedule, but feeling like you “just got lucky” with running a business. Turning down a chance to talk about massage to potential clients because you don’t know enough.


These are feelings many business owners experience. They’re also common indicators of “impostor syndrome.” Impostor syndrome is common and pervasive in all professions, including massage. I’ve got some going on right now as I write this article. Who am I to write about this topic? I feel it when someone asks about massage for migraines. What do I know? I’ve only taken a few CE classes about headaches; there’s so much more to learn!

These feelings of inadequacy and uncertainty of our place and skills are human, normal, and not entirely a bad thing. Take heart: there are plenty of techniques to help conquer these feelings that can limit our success. But let’s back up and get some real definition.

The term impostor phenomenon was coined in the late 1970s by psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance and was later popularized as impostor syndrome, a term commonly used for the phenomenon today. They found the phenomenon occurs among high achievers—especially women—who struggle to internalize their success.1

Rowan Blaisdell, former massage therapist, current psychotherapist, and host of the Therapy for Humans podcast (www.therapyforhumanspodcast.com), describes impostor syndrome as the feeling you don’t belong or haven’t earned your place. It’s feeling not smart enough or not experienced enough. Impostor syndrome often includes the fear you will be “found out” and uncovered as a fraud. 

Blaisdell says impostor syndrome is often rooted in low self-esteem, performance anxiety, and the fear of failure. A work or home environment where people are harshly criticized for mistakes can increase these feelings.

Impostor syndrome is common in people starting a new endeavor, like beginning massage school or opening a business. While it is normal for a new venture to cause self-doubt, impostor syndrome can allow the fear to overtake the feeling of accomplishment that has truly been earned.2

The Impostor Cycle

Impostor syndrome can manifest and repeat in a predictable pattern, aptly called the impostor cycle. The cycle begins with a specific task or project. Imagine you need to prepare a 10-minute presentation about your massage practice for a new networking group.

The first stage is characterized by anxiety and self-doubt. Maybe you think about how embarrassed you’ll be if it doesn’t go well. You imagine you’ll never get a referral from anyone who saw you flop, and even worse, you’ll need to hide when you see Bob the insurance guy at the grocery store. It’s going to be a nightmare.

At this point, the cycle can take two tracks: overpreparation or procrastination (or a combination of both).

You stress about every potential detail. You overthink what you should say, what kind of media to use in the presentation, how much research to incorporate. You worry that it will be boring, so you add some humor, then take it out because you worry you’ll look unserious. In short: you put a whole bunch of effort into proving you are worthy of being a massage therapist.

Or maybe you’re a procrastinator. You feel paralyzed by all the ideas and by the fear of getting it wrong so you put off working on the presentation until the last minute. But you get it done in a whirlwind of adrenaline and coffee.

Once the presentation is complete, you feel an initial sense of relief and accomplishment because it’s over! You did it! You likely get a good response. Yay!

But here’s where it gets tricky again. In cases of overpreparation, you may attribute that positive feedback to the depth of effort you put into the project. You may feel like you have to work much harder than others, because you’re terrible at presentations and talking about massage. It’s so hard for you.

In cases of procrastination, you attribute that positive response to luck, pure and simple. You did well because you got lucky with the right audience on the right morning.

At this point, you ignore or resist any positive feedback and fall into the final stage of the impostor cycle: feeling anxious—maybe depressed—and like a fraud who may get found out. This cycle repeats and may lead to you turning down every new experience offered. As a massage therapist and business owner, impostor syndrome could lead you to:

• Turn down an invitation to talk to a group of oncology patients about self-care because you feel unqualified even though you have advanced training and several years of experience working with people with cancer.

• Not speak up about how massage can help when an acquaintance mentions their rotator cuff injury.

• Feel uncomfortable accepting money for your massage services or resistant to increasing your rate.


Annie LaCroix, massage school owner and host of the Brainy Boss podcast (www.brainyboss.co), notes that markers of impostor syndrome are often seen in students. Students might:

• Avoid talking in class because everyone else seems smarter.

• Not ask questions of clients because they “should” know.

• Not practice newly learned techniques because someone else in the class “does it better.”

At the same time, impostor syndrome isn’t all bad. Blaisdell points out, “It can keep us humble, keep us fact-checking the work we’re putting out there. It adds up to extra due diligence.”

Some of the same traits of impostor syndrome are motivators to keep improving as practitioners and having the self-awareness to stay in our scope of practice. Self-awareness is contextual and flexible and helps you accomplish your goals. Impostor syndrome is pervasive and repetitive and holds you back.

A successful balance of humility and confidence doesn’t come easy, but it is worth the effort. If you see traits of impostor syndrome in yourself, fear not. There are plenty of simple techniques to conquer these feelings of inadequacy that may be holding you back.

Change your language. If you tend to brush off compliments and pass along credit to others, reframe those responses. For example, “Oh, it’s not a big deal” could be “Thank you, I worked hard on that and it feels wonderful to be recognized.”

If you and Betty create a self-care event and get rave reviews, resist the urge to push the credit to someone else. Instead of “Oh, Betty did the hard work,” try saying “Thank you, it was great to collaborate with Betty, and I know we’re both pleased with the final product.”

You can take credit for your work, truly own your accomplishments, and still remain humble. The balance is a wonderful place to inhabit.

Keep track of client successes. When you get great results treating a client, make note of it. Of course, you’ll keep the client’s notes in their chart. But you could also put a little star in your calendar or a sticky note with a happy face inside a closet door. Keep doing that and soon you’ll have a fun visual reminder of your success.

Have a document handy where you can record client reviews and verbal feedback. When a client leaves a good review online, copy and paste it into your document. Do the same when a client emails you with positive thoughts and when a client tells you in person that they’re feeling great. When you feel low, review this document.

Avoid comparisons. Today’s world has us hyperconnected. When faced with constant images and posts about Jenny’s thriving prenatal massage practice and Edna’s innovative mobile massage RV, it’s easy to feel dull and unsuccessful by comparison.

I remind myself often to not compare my inside life to someone else’s outside life. In truth, the colleague with a beautiful office featured daily on her well-curated Instagram account may have trouble balancing her checkbook. The colleague with a shining LinkedIn profile tanked her business twice before finding her niche and finally succeeding.

Make a list of things you appreciate about yourself. This is an important exercise and often quite difficult. The act of considering and writing down your strengths and the traits you’ve worked hard to acquire is powerful. We’re all growing and evolving as people and practitioners. Truly acknowledging and internalizing what you like about yourself and what you’ve accomplished is key. Make a short list and keep it with you to review when you’re in a negative spiral.

Seek deeper connections. A small community of trusted massage therapists and other business owners can be extremely helpful in combating the tendency to compare. Deeper, more personal conversations lead us to the understanding that most business owners have struggled in one way or another.

The loneliness of running a small massage practice can trick us into believing we’re the only person struggling. Finding a few colleagues, locally or virtually, with whom you can be honest and share thoughts and feelings is invaluable.

Mindfulness. LaCroix strongly encourages (and practices) a regular mindfulness routine. Blaisdell notes that negative thoughts will always occur, but you can choose to not latch onto them. A mindfulness practice will help you travel through these negative thoughts without letting them drag you down.

Mindfulness looks different for everyone, and it can take some experimentation to find what resonates with you. A structured class may be right for you, or just a daily routine of quiet and order. I love the Calm app (www.calm.com) for short guided meditations on everything from happiness to productivity to self-esteem (and ambient music while I’m writing).

Consider a professional. If you can’t seem to break the cycle and you feel that your happiness and success are impeded by self-doubt, get some professional help. Blaisdell notes that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can be helpful for self-esteem related issues. CBT uses a variety of techniques to reality-check our negative thought patterns, and the tools are easy to practice on your own once learned.

You Got This

With a little bit of work and the right support, you can find your healthy balance between humility, self-awareness, and confidence. That balance will lead to an excitement about new opportunities and a whole new satisfaction in your business. 


1. Kirsten Weir, American Psychological Association, “Feel Like a Fraud?” accessed March 2019, www.apa.org/gradpsych/2013/11/fraud.

2. Kirsten Weir, American Psychological Association, “Feel Like a Fraud?”

Allissa Haines runs a massage practice and collaborative wellness center in Massachusetts. She partners with Michael Reynolds to create business and marketing resources for massage therapists at www.massagebusinessblueprint.com.