You likely know the feeling well: that gnawing self-doubt that rears its ugly head every now and again. The little voice that whispers in your ear that you are a fake, a fraud, that you lucked into all the good things in your life—including being a veterinarian. Every positive case outcome was just good luck, not due to anything you did or know.
Imposter syndrome is a feeling of phoniness, of luck being the source of your success instead of your skills and effort. It was first described by Clance and Imes in 1978 in a population of high-achieving women.1 They state that someone experiencing imposter syndrome will “find innumerable means of negating any external evidence that contradicts their belief that they are, in reality, unintelligent.”1
Another manifestation of imposter syndrome is attributing a given success to a temporary cause (such as timing, help from another person, a diligent client) and failure to a lack of one’s own abilities.
Imposter syndrome can be self-reinforcing; doubt in one’s ability in one area can spread to others. Sometimes that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as we begin to look for evidence that this negative self-impression is correct.
Since it was first described, it has been widely studied and has been found to be experienced by all types of people regardless of age, sex or race. The etiology of imposter syndrome is varied and has been suggested to be related to childhood experiences, personal traits such as perfectionism, or being labeled as “smart” or “gifted.”
The antithesis of imposter syndrome is the Dunning-Kruger effect, which describes the falsely inflated sense of confidence and competence people possess when they have a small bit of knowledge in a given area. It isn’t hard to think of individuals to whom this applies, including many novice horse owners and keyboard warriors.
The Dunning-Kruger effect is particularly problematic for those in medicine, because as one becomes an expert in his or her field, that person often gains awareness of the limits of that knowledge.
As veterinarians, we are bound by ethical principles to share potential risks or side effects with clients, never mind the inherent unpredictability of horses! As a result, an encounter with an individual who has a small bit of information and is overestimating his or her abilities and expertise can trigger feelings of imposter syndrome in us because we can be left questioning ourselves and wondering why the other person is so confident.
Generally, imposter syndrome is transient—ebbing and flowing depending on what is happening in one’s life.
There are many different types of events or experiences that might incite a given episode of imposter syndrome. Failure to meet our own or another’s expectations is a frequent culprit. This cause is particularly problematic because often we are unaware of the expectations we hold of ourselves until we are faced with a situation in which we didn’t meet them. As a result, it can be difficult to work toward ameliorating this cause.
Social media can also play into our feelings of inadequacy. More often than not, social media is dominated by stories and photos of others living the best parts of their lives—well-curated photos of vacations and major life events, as well as news of successes in people’s personal or work lives.
While reading this article, it’s easy to embrace that social media presents a skewed perspective; however, when scrolling through one’s Twitter, Facebook or Instagram feed, it’s easy to wonder what the other people have that we don’t.
If we’re not careful, we can wind up believing other people are living highly successful lives without the feelings of fear, worry or self-doubt that we have. Social media promotes pluralistic ignorance, which describes the false belief that we feel differently than colleagues or peers. In fact, for the most part, we feel the same as they do.
The primary feelings of inadequacy that occur in imposter syndrome are often accompanied by fear of others finding us out. In turn, this can lead to feelings of isolation. If these feelings remain unchecked, they can result in behaviors that isolate us from others. These feelings and behaviors stop us from having honest conversations with colleagues and peers that might help alleviate the feelings of fraudulence, or at least let us reduce the feelings of isolation.
Imposter syndrome can also directly impact one’s career. It can make one less likely to take on a new challenge, attempt a new procedure or apply for a new position. It can also result in decreased sharing of ideas due to one’s own impression that they are not worthy or helpful.
In order to begin to combat these nagging feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy, it’s helpful to understand a bit about how evolution has influenced the development of these thought patterns.
Throughout the history of humankind, survival has been predicated on one’s ability to detect and survive threatening encounters. This has led to a pervasive negativity bias, which describes the dominance negative experiences, emotions and thoughts have in our minds. It is critical to be aware of this bias, because it does not represent an objective assessment of the number or intensity of positive and negative things in our lives.
Positivity offset is the term used to describe that positive things occur more commonly than negative things; however, because they are often less intense and do not come with the same evolutionary impact, they are recognized less frequently.
Awareness of negativity bias will allow us to challenge our mind’s perceptions that we fail more often than we succeed.
Internal or External?
Another component of managing imposter syndrome is considering whether one has an internal or an external locus of self-worth. In order to enter our profession, we had to spend quite a bit of time in school earning good grades, volunteering with others and gaining experience in the field. To some degree, we were forced to seek validation from others in order to be successful (defined as admission to veterinary school).
Following graduation, things shifted and it was necessary to work with clients and patients to ensure success in practice. Throughout these experiences, it is possible to have one’s self-worth reflected by grades, by the fullness of a schedule or the success of the horses one treats.
If external sources comprise the entirety of one’s self-worth, that is a precarious position to be in. However, the more one’s locus of self-worth is internal, the less one has to look to others for validation and the less susceptible one is to imposter syndrome.
Managing Imposter Syndrome
Ways to manage feelings of imposter syndrome can include the following:
Take a deep breath. In fact, take several. Our body can perceive these feelings of inadequacy as a threat. The most effective way of calming our bodies and preventing a physiological stress response is through deep breathing. It is important to have a longer exhale than inhale and to take a “belly breath” where your abdomen goes in and out.
Reality check. Seek out a trusted friend or colleague and discuss your thoughts and feelings. Another option is to write or journal about it. A friend will be able to provide you with another perspective, and through the writing process, often feelings will change or feel less real and true. Both of these serve to move us toward a more objective assessment of what is happening.
Ask for feedback and keep track. Imposter syndrome thrives in a vacuum and can be tamed by refuting the largely unfounded fears we have of our inadequacy. Look at previous successes or listen to the feedback provided by a trusted source. Keeping a file of thank-you cards, photos of favorite patients and other evidence of one’s successes is a wonderful way of doing this.
Practice self-compassion. Self-compassion involves kindness, mindfulness and common humanity. It takes strength and courage to practice self-compassion, as it isn’t easy to turn toward ourselves in times of difficulty. Mindfulness is an awareness of what is happening in the moment in the absence of judgement. This is a critical component because often we rush to judge or take actions based on feelings, when feelings are not always true.
Further, if we are to behave in a compassionate manner toward ourselves, we must first be aware of when that would be of benefit. Common humanity is a recognition that the human condition involves struggle, failure and bad luck. It is important to recognize this, because we can often feel like others are doing better and don’t have to face the same barriers we do; however, this isn’t true.
Lastly, and in some ways, most challenging, is kindness. This kindness is best viewed as treating oneself as one would a friend. When in the throes of an experience of imposter syndrome, challenge yourself to change your internal dialogue to include the same patience, compassion, encouragement and support you would give a friend.
Adopt a growth mindset. Carol Dweck, a psychology researcher, has identified two different theories discerning how malleable one’s personal characteristics (e.g., intelligence, musical ability, sociability) are. The first is “fixed,” a belief that one has a set amount of capacity in a given area, and it is not changeable; that talent is the main contributor to one’s success.2 The second is “growth,” a belief that hard work and dedication can lead to increased ability and capacity, with one’s talent simply providing a foundation.2
Her research has shown that adopting a growth mindset improves resilience and willingness to persevere in the face of failure, among other things.2 If we believe that we can grow and change, then failure stops being a threat to our sense of self. This diminishes the power that the fear associated with imposter syndrome has over us.
(Read the article “How to Embrace and Leverage Growth Mindset” in the Winter 2020 issue of EquiManagement magazine.
- Clance, P.R.; Imes, S.A. “The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention.” Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice15, 3 (1978): 241.
- Dweck, C.S. Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House Digital, Inc., 2008.