What is Imposter Syndrome?

 

"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."

- The Oxford Dictionary Definition of Imposter Syndrome

 

Imposter syndrome (or impostor syndrome), is defined as an individual doubting their accomplishments and having a persistent, internalised fear of being exposed as a fraud. A common phenomenon amongst veterinary professionals, and beyond. Despite external evidence, those feeling this way will struggle to 'own' accomplishments. This may seem to appear and disappear or remain at a low grade.

What are the signs of imposter syndrome?

Struggling to accept praise and positive feedback. Discounting your own success.Signs of being a victim of Imposter Syndrome include:

  • You may be described as a perfectionist.

  • You may stay behind at work for hours longer than expected

  • You are worried about "failing".

  • You often compare your successes to others.

  • You focus on what you haven't done, rather than what you have. You feel like you didn't earn your qualification, or someone will take them from you.

  • You feel like you are "winging it".

  • Feeling like you got "lucky" or anyone could have done the same.
     

What are the knock on effects of imposter syndrome?

Resulting effects of Imposter Syndrome include:

  • Anxious thoughts and worry.

  • Lack of self-praise.

  • Opportunities being passed up on.

  • Lack of job satisfaction.

  • Avoidance of new tasks.

  • Career changes.

  • Over-working and exhaustion.

  • Feelings of frustration and isolation.

  • Continuous concern over "being found out."

 

How common is imposter syndrome?

Clance and Imes first documented the 'imposter phenomenon' in 1978 in high achieving women, but it has since been shown to affect all genders equally (Bravata et al, 2019). The most commonly cited frequency of those affected is from the International Journal of Behavioural Science, with 70% of the popular believed to have been affected by this phenomenon.

Is imposter syndrome a mental health condition or mental illness?

Imposter syndrome is a not a diagnosis, but a psychological reaction to a set of stimuli. Studies have shown that feeling this way is often co-morbid with depression and anxiety, impaired job performance, job satisfaction, and burnout amongst many employees (Bravata et al, 2019). Whilst imposter syndrome is not a mental health condition itself, it can progress and have wide-reaching implications; hence the importance of understanding how we can advocate ourselves when it does appear.

It is important to remember that if this feeling has a persistent, negative effect in your life, that speaking out can be valuable. You're not alone. Clinical anxiety and depression are best discussed with a mental health professional. 

How do I get rid of imposter syndrome?

Rather than getting rid of it, how about we see it differently? 

If we focus on eliminating it completely, the next time we do something big and there's even a whisper of it, we can tend to think we've 'failed' at overcoming imposter syndrome; then we feel like even more of a fraud.

When we understand it and view it in an alternative light, we can start to use tools that help us progress, even when that imposter gremlin sings the song of its people.

We dive into this more in the Imposter Hub. I explain the why, when, who, what, and where, giving you a solid starting point. The Hub is free, so check it out.

Is imposter syndrome linked to burnout?

This 'experience' has been associated with burnout indices, and studies in American medical students have also brought about calls to avoid shame-based learning. (Villwock, 2016). Remember that correlation does not always mean causation - hence there are many potential reasons why those experiencing imposter syndrome might also experience burnout, and the relationship between the two could be more complex than one simply causing the other.

I go more into this in my free webinars, but this is a brief introduction.

Do only vets experience imposter syndrome?

This certainly is not isolated to those in the veterinary profession. Medics, dentists, lawyers, business owners, sports people, teachers. Everyone. It is common. You are not alone. This is experienced by vets and nurses at all experience levels, from students to diplomates. A study by the International Journal of Behavioural Science found that up to 70% of men and women have struggled with feeling like a fraud, at some point in this lives. They note that “anyone can view themselves as an imposter if they fail to internalise their success.

What if I am actually, truly an imposter?

First up, you're not (...not even you). I get asked this question frequently, and the fact that it comes up so often speaks volumes. There is, of course, a line between self-belief and knowing our own limitations. Having awareness of this distinction can be valuable because, for example, in the vet profession it means we don't perform surgeries that are way beyond our skillset.

 

Sometimes we have listened to the imposter narrative for so long that the waters can really get muddied between "am I really not good enough to be here" or "do I not believe in myself and my skills enough?". In an ideal world, the first focus would be on self-compassion. This would involve being kind enough to ourselves to acknowledge that asking for help doesn't mean we're underperforming, or that someone will find us out; there is value in discarding the negative inner critic that labels asking for help as being evidence toward not being good enough. 

For skills-based tasks, speaking with a mentor or a more experienced, trusted colleague can be helpful. Discussing with them, and asking them to hold a mirror back up regarding your skill level can help to gain clarity to disbelieve that negative narrative, and borrow a little confidence from them. Eventually with this support, it can become easier to tune into our authentic selves and trust our gut instinct on our abilities in that moment.

Is it imposter or impostor or imposterism?​

All are accepted.

The original Clance and Imes paper from 1978 says 'impostor phenomenon', but all spellings are equally legitimate. 

Personally, I prefer the term 'imposterism' over 'imposter syndrome'. The word syndrome implies a clinical condition, or something that we own as an ongoing diagnosis. I continue to refer to imposter syndrome throughout this website for searchability, but prefer imposterism.

I don't mind which one you use.

What are the types of imposter syndrome?

Valerie Young denoted five types of imposter syndrome. Any of the five can be experienced, and most people overlap. They are known as: the perfectionist, the soloist, the super person, the natural genius and the expert.

Whilst they're useful to understand patterns and motives, I'd encourage people to steer clear of labels.

I cover these more in the webinars in The Hub.

Is there an imposter syndrome test or scale that I can do?

If you're resonating with the above, you have probably experienced imposter thoughts. Remember, 70% (and sometimes cited more) of the population have, you're in good company; it's really not uncommon. It doesn't matter how many (or few) qualifications or achievements that you have, this is experienced at all levels. We are all human. There's no such thing as being 'too qualified' or 'not qualified enough' to experience this.

 

Atlanta psychologist, Dr. Pauline Clance published the IP Impostor Scale. There is the opportunity to go through the questions in this PDF and receive a score; you may see this referenced as a tool in scientific papers.

I personally don't use the scale, and I have never taken this test. I can see a value in this for research and formulating data, but less so for individuals.  Remember that feeling like an imposter is not linear. Some days/weeks/months imposter thoughts will be louder or have more of an influence over our lives than others. Receiving a high score on the test can quickly become a label, and a part of our identity; "I am at the highest end of the imposter scale". Remember that "I am" is a powerful combination.

What now?

I have adapted a superb strategy that helps you to realise what is actually causing these thoughts, and how you can address them to move forward.

In the Imposter Hub, you will find some imposter syndrome exercises, FREE webinars, downloads, and guidance. Also check out my guest podcast episodes below.

Check out the rest of the website and see what I have to offer.

Dr. Katie Ford 

References:

Bravata, Dena & Watts, Sharon & Keefer, Autumn & Madhusudhan, Divya & Taylor, Katie & Clark, Dani & Nelson, Ross & Cokley, Kevin & Hagg, Heather. (2019). Prevalence, Predictors, and Treatment of Impostor Syndrome: a Systematic Review. Journal of general internal medicine. 35. 10.1007/s11606-019-05364-1. 

Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention.

Villwock, J. A., Sobin, L. B., Koester, L. A., & Harris, T. M. (2016). Impostor syndrome and burnout among American medical students: a pilot study. International journal of medical education, 7, 364–369. https://doi.org/10.5116/ijme.5801.eac4