Imposter syndrome is something everyone will experience at some point in their life. It is not a new concept, although only recently has it drawn the attention of the veterinary media. There have been a lot of positive steps forward, making it easier to talk about mental health issues and surrounding topics. That said, the veterinary industry is more likely to suffer with imposter syndrome, as with other medical professions. However, it is important to remember that many of our other colleagues within the veterinary business may be suffering and feel unable to talk about it.
What is imposter syndrome?
The Cambridge Dictionary defines imposter syndrome as “the feeling that your achievements are not real or that you do not deserve praise or success”. Imposter syndrome has also been described as feeling like a fraud despite positive feedback to the contrary. Does this sound familiar to you?
For some, they may experience imposter syndrome only a few times in their life, whilst others suffer from it multiple times a day. Imposter syndrome, although often implied as having a negative impact on a person, can at times be helpful. For example, continuing to revise for an exam despite friends or family telling you that you’ll be fine, can lead to a positive outcome. So, in manageable doses, imposter syndrome can be both useful and beneficial.
It does, however, become detrimental when out of control and when the person is unable to ignore the “imposter thoughts” in simple day to day tasks.
What do we know about imposter syndrome in the veterinary profession?
Kogan et al. (2020) published a paper on imposter syndrome in the veterinary profession. One of the key findings illustrated that veterinarians who are five years qualified or less are twice as likely to experience imposter syndrome compared with graduates of 20+ years. This fascinates me and I believe there are two different ways of looking at this finding. Firstly, is the view that imposter syndrome lessens with experience; or secondly, the alternative view is that new graduates are not that different to graduates of 20+ years. This leads to the consideration that perhaps vets will continue to experience imposter syndrome even until retirement. If the latter is the case, then it is important to learn how to manage it.
How to live with imposter syndrome?
So, how do we learn to adjust to cope with imposter syndrome? Firstly, listen to what you are being told, rather than filling in the gaps with assumptions. Humans naturally try to fill in the gaps but consequently make assumptions that are often inaccurate. Chat to friends and colleagues about it, and also about mistakes you’ve made and how they made you feel, rather than the witty anecdotes that ended up okay in the end. There are lots of great resources out there including the “The Chimp Paradox” to help you understand imposter syndrome better, and leadership courses such as the Edward Jenner Leadership course can also be useful.
Imposter syndrome in your workplace?
I would encourage you to have a meeting on imposter syndrome in your workplaces. The discussions that lead on from it may surprise both you and your colleagues alike. Having run a journal club on the paper mentioned above at the end of 2020, of the 22 vets who attended 100 percent had experienced imposter syndrome at some point in their careers. A surprising number experienced it daily, with the common phrase of ‘’… someone else would have been better/faster/more professional than me’’. With the additional consideration discussed earlier, that it is not just vets in a veterinary practice that are likely to suffer from imposter syndrome, it is vital to make such sessions available to other members of the veterinary team. Breaking down barriers that may exist in some practices between the administrative and clinical teams is important; these barriers may be invisible to one side of the team, but very visible to others.
Don’t forget, we are all human
I will never forget, hearing from professors as a student about mistakes they had made in their early careers. Each case had clearly left its mark on each individual. This openness and honesty showed us how it is okay and only natural to make mistakes – we are all human after all, no matter how many letters are after your name. It’s important to remember you aren’t alone and I leave you with a quote from Albert Einstein, “the more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know”.