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Overcoming Impostor Syndrome: A Therapist’s Growth Through Immaculata’s Counseling Program

Erica Ricciardi

Erica Ricciardi ’20 M.A. felt lost after she graduated from a Tennessee university with a bachelor’s degree in business and realized she wasn’t interested in the business world. She moved back home to Pennsylvania and considered what mattered to her and where she felt she could make a difference. She was seeing a therapist for help with social anxiety, and she felt drawn to a career in counseling where she could help people find more happiness and confidence.

Because her therapist had studied at Immaculata, Ricciardi looked into IU’s M.A. in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and met with Professor of Counseling David Martinson, Ph.D. Ricciardi admired his passion for therapy and saw in him the kind of caring clinician she aspired to become.

Once she enrolled in the program, Ricciardi started to experience impostor syndrome, because she didn’t have a bachelor’s degree in psychology and worried she was behind her classmates. “But it didn’t take me long to realize that there were a lot of people just like me who were doing a total career change,” she said.

In her Counseling Skills and Techniques class, Ricciardi learned about active listening and rapport-building and then practiced those skills in mock counseling sessions. When she began her practicum and internship, she had to record her sessions with clients and discuss them in class. “This really tested my social anxiety,” Ricciardi said. But she valued the way the feedback she received helped her to improve. She learned not to steer her clients toward an answer, but to let them discover insights for themselves.

Ricciardi completed her M.A., earned both state and national counselor credentials and began working at the private practice where she interned, the Center for Hope and Health, which offers specialized mental health treatment. “This is my dream job,” she said, “and I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Immaculata.”

During the four years she has spent in her position, Ricciardi has enjoyed deepening her skills and receiving specialized training for treating mental health conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and eating disorders. She leads her clients in doing difficult inner work to confront and cope with fears, and she enjoys seeing them make steady progress.

For clients with OCD, Ricciardi uses a type of therapy called exposure and response prevention. She establishes a safe, supportive environment for clients and asks them to expose themselves to distressing situations—touching dirty floors, for example—without engaging in compulsive behaviors, such as repeated handwashing rituals. Ricciardi gently helps clients accept that they will not necessarily make their whole families sick. “It’s retraining the brain to tolerate uncertainty,” Ricciardi said. “This is why rapport is so important—they have to trust me, that this is for a purpose.”

With her in-depth training in exposure and response prevention, Ricciardi contacted Martinson, her former professor, and offered to share her knowledge with current counseling students in a one-credit course this past spring. “I was really proud of myself for reaching out to Dr. Martinson, because I knew I was going to be very nervous, but I knew I had a lot to offer,” Ricciardi said. She felt her impostor syndrome recur, but as she stood in front of the class, she thought, “I know what I’m doing.”

This fall, Ricciardi will teach another one-credit course about treating eating disorders using enhanced cognitive behavioral therapy, a specialized methodology she learned through her work with the Center for Hope and Health. “Eating disorders are complex and can be very dangerous,” she said. “I’m always seeking feedback from my supervisor, because I do want to make sure I’m doing things as correctly as possible.” However, once clients reach a healthy weight range, they begin to improve dramatically. “The body and brain need to recover from malnourishment,” Ricciardi said.

Reflecting on her career so far, Ricciardi commented, “It took a bit for me to find the confidence I have now. … I had to learn how to take constructive criticism early on. And now I want it, because it makes me a much better therapist in the long run.”

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