3 Things I Needed to Hear as a Rookie PT

No one was available to help me manipulate my patient’s neck, and my frustration levels were rising. Solid manipulation skills were the only thing I was missing! But in three months, that was going to change. I’d already planned to take a course on spinal manipulation.

The course finally came, and for the next few weeks, manipulation was my go-to answer for my more challenging patients. Over time, however, I started to run into the same sort of problem. As it turned out, manipulation was not the one thing I was missing.

Becoming a PT was a strange transition. I graduated, passed my boards, and was ready to get all my patients better, but then I would feel insecure in my abilities. I had also come to the difficult realization that not all patients get better.

Right after I took that course in manipulation, I realized that I didn’t know how to talk to patients with chronic pain and I wasn’t strategic in my assessment of patients with radiculopathy. I’d improve one aspect of my skills but feel little overall improvement. New information only temporarily increased my confidence, and I spent my first few years in a perpetual state of feeling not good enough.

The Fear of Failure

Experienced clinicians continually told me to not be afraid of failing, but this did very little to reduce the fear, and it made me angry at myself when I couldn’t do it.

I didn’t want to fail! I wanted to help every patient get better! I wanted to be an expert!

But no matter what I did, I felt like I wasn’t good enough.

Being afraid of failing is how we survive. I think it’s unfair to tell someone to not be afraid of failing. We’re all going to feel like we aren’t good enough, and I don’t think this is something we need to avoid. In fact, I think we need to embrace it.

I want to tell you that this feeling is fleeting, but I’d be lying. Even years out, there are still days when I feel like I’m not quite good enough. But when I look back, I can recognize that the fear of failing actually pushed me to constantly seek growth.

I finally realized that the feeling of being not good enough never disappears completely, but we can learn ways to use it to our advantage. I want to tell you the three things I wish people had told me instead of “Don’t be afraid of failing,” as well as how you can minimize those feelings. These ideas are what made being a rookie PT not only tolerable, but empowering.

The Three Things I Wish I’d Been Told

1. You won’t be perfect, but you will see progress.

I wanted to help everyone get better—we all do!

You’re not going to be perfect. But if you’re not too hard on yourself, you will see your progress.

For the first few years, I allowed my weak areas to undermine my treatment sessions. This affected my mood, made me frustrated, and blinded me from seeing my own improvement. The truth is, we learn from both our failures and our successes. Sometimes the most challenging patients can be the most meaningful and the most difficult cases can teach us the most.

Not every patient will get better, but we can learn from these experiences. We learn as much from what doesn’t work as we do from what does work. Celebrate the successes and learn from the failures. In fact, I’d argue that if you learn from a failure, it wasn’t a failure at all.

Action Step #1: Weekly Reflections

Reflection is paramount to seeing progress. It’s so easy to get caught up in the day-to-day requirements that we never take a step back to see where we’ve succeeded and identify where we have room for growth.

Ask yourself:

  • What were my big wins?
  • In which areas did I need help?
  • What can I do to make next week better?

2. You’ll want to be an expert, but you will continue to learn.

You will never know everything, so there is no need to pretend. My pride hindered my learning. Nothing slows down improvement and knowledge acquisition like trying to preserve your self-image. Ask questions, seek help, and don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.”

Forget being an expert and just focus on getting really good. You’ll discover that the more you learn, the more you’ll feel you need to learn. Expertise is a process, not a destination. You’ll never feel good enough because as soon as you improve in one area, it opens up a whole new level of things to get better at!

Remember—feeling that you aren’t good enough is the precursor to improvement. We don’t get to become better without first feeling that we aren’t good enough.

Action Step #2: Continued Learning Written Plan

The reflection questions from Step 1 will help identify the areas in which you need to continue to learn. Without a plan, we rarely accomplish our goals. Always have an ongoing written list of continuing education physical therapy courses, topics, and interests. You can also pursue certifications or board-specialty certification.

3. You’ll want to do it on your own, but you’ll need guidance.

When you feel like you aren’t good enough, the tendency is to hide your insecurity. We don’t want people to know that we don’t have it all together! I tried to keep up the appearance that I knew what I was doing and didn’t need help. I wasn’t willing to let others see me struggle, but what I ended up doing was stunting my progress. I didn’t get the help I needed because I was too busy trying to appear like I didn’t need it.

Over everything else, seek guidance. And I don’t mean this in just a clinical sense. We all seek clinical mentors, but not all of us will find a professional mentor. As a rookie PT, we only have one lens and we lack the experience to navigate new terrain. But very few things are more empowering than knowing you are on the right track.

A professional mentor or coach is able to give us the 10,000-foot view. As we progress in our careers, we continue to need a more experienced viewpoint.

Action Step #3: Identify Clinical and Professional Guidance

We all need clinical and professional guidance as we begin our careers. This can take many forms, from a specific mentor to online training options and certifications. What’s important is to identify someone or something that will always make you reach for more as well as help you get there.

Embrace “Not Good Enough”

Being a rookie PT is uncomfortable, and you will feel like you aren’t good enough, but this is actually the key to a fulfilling career. The more time and energy we invest in education in the beginning, the greater the return on our investment over the course of our careers.

Embrace the feeling of not being good enough. It’s the only way to become the PT you want to be.