Impostor Syndrome is defined as “the persistent inability to believe that one's success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one's own efforts or skills.” First described in a research paper in 1978, the syndrome has subsequently been found in people of all demographics and is common in the medical fields. A recent review of the literature published in 2020, utilizing 62 studies and over 14,000 subjects, found that 9–82% of people experience Impostor Syndrome. The numbers vary depending on who participates in a study, but the research revealed that Impostor Syndrome was common among men and women and across a range of age groups (adolescents to late-stage professionals).
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When seen in medical professionals such as veterinarians and physicians, it can adversely affect career success and satisfaction. The characteristics of Impostor Syndrome include: self-doubt; not able to accurately judge your own abilities; giving the credit of your success to external factors; overachieving; constant fear of not standing up to the expectations of people; self-sabotage; fear of isolation, exposure, and rejection; rumination; and anxiety and depression.
Five types of behaviors common to those with Impostor Syndrome include perfectionism, expertise, soloist, over-achieving and natural genius.
Perfectionists set excessively high goals for themselves, then, when they fail to meet that standard, they experience self-doubt and anxiety about measuring up. Because these people have a high need for control, they might feel like if they want something done right, they have to do it themselves. This often leads to micromanaging, failure to delegate, and excessive rumination about deviations from perfection. Because of these impossible standards, perfectionists always believe they could have performed better.
Those that exhibit expertise behavioral traits measure their competence based on their knowledge base and skillset. They believe they will never know enough, and they have a fear of being exposed as inadequately prepared or unknowledgeable. If or when they are termed an expert, they feel anxious rather than proud. This can be particularly daunting for doctors who graduated many years ago.
Soloists prefer working alone and feel asking for help is a sign of weakness. They have the need to accomplish things on their own without assistance. If forced to ask for assistance with something, they will frame the request in terms of the needs of the patient, typically, rather than their needs as a person.
The behavior of over-achievers is to always feel that they have not done enough. They will underrate their own worth, and they feel inadequate compared to their colleagues. Because of this, they often push themselves to work harder and harder to assuage their insecurities. These people might become stressed when they are not working because they interpret downtime as unproductive. As a result, they abandon hobbies and passions as they strive to feel worthy by sacrificing themselves at work. This need for external validation is common among those with Impostor Syndrome. Unfortunately, the excess workload can harm not only their own mental health, but also their relationships with others.
Those with natural genius behaviors have been nurtured to believe they have unusual talent, and as a result their internal standards are set very high. They believe they must complete the work perfectly in the first attempt or they feel a sense of failure. Because they judge their competence based on ease and speed as opposed to the quality of their results, they might experience shame if they struggle to master something.
Overcoming this condition requires self-awareness and diligence in reshaping mindset.
In Part II, we’ll discuss how to change this way of thinking.
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