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So, 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

 

Throughout this, you will find the evidenced work, and also my own insights from years of speaking on this topic, and coaching people to remember who they really are. I don't do as much coaching now as my capacity reduced for 1:1 clients, but you can look forward to a book coming in Fall 2023. I speak regularly on this topic, and run workshops for teams. This section isn't a sales pitch, and it's really not about me. I want it to be useful, and encouraging and inspiring.

 

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. This a common phenomenon amongst veterinary professionals, medical fields, celebrities and beyond; this is not just one industry that experiences this. 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. It's one chapter of self-doubt.

It's important to say from the start that this phenomenon is not a mental health condition listed in the DSM V, but it is more complex and individualised than some of the explanations that you might see online, often lacking nuance. This explanation is not designed as a 'diagnosis', this is for education and widening awareness.

My aim is always to normalise and de-stigmatise this experience, it is what connects so many of us, yet not to minimise or dimiss how you actually feel. Being from a medical profession, I want to reiterate that the word 'syndrome' does not mean 'diagnosis' or fault, it actually means a set of characteristics that tend to appear together, without a definitive cause.

Each and every one of us has a different story, a varying set of experiences, beliefs, values, and, on some level, traumas. Whilst there are common themes in society that contribute to lots of our experiences similarly, such as stereotypes and stories around success and failure, we do have individual differences and hence there's not a one size fits all approach to what helps us when it comes up.

It's also important that we look at the wider aspect of this as a society, and our responsibility to be inclusive, build psychologically safe workplaces and remember that our value as humans extends beyond our achievements.

For many imposter thoughts do come at times of growth, comfort zone stretches, and moving forward (whatever that direction actually is) - but equally, for some people, it is a voice of past experiences and the blanket advice of 'enjoy it' really isn't that helpful.

You'll see lots of people throwing around that $997 'cure', preying on those who are struggling. Or LinkedIn 'thought leaders' deciding on the new way we should all look at it. This is just some reassurance that there are things that can help - but that doesn't look the same for everyone. If in doubt, reach out to a professional - whether that's a therapist or medical professional, or a coach that comes with genuine recommendations and testimonials.

 

Here's your permission slip to find the things that work for you - there are some suggestions below to start with. Throughout all of this, I want you to remember that you are a 1in 400 trillion, valuable one-off human - even when you forget.

In my blog you'll find many of my personal reflections on imposterism, and life in general.

What are the 'signs' of imposter syndrome?

I hate the word 'signs', this isn't a disease, as I have said. How might we come to the conclusion that this label fits our experience?
 

  • Despite having some degree of logical evidence as to why we deserve to be where we are, we feel as though someone will 'find us out'.
     

  • Success is often put down to 'luck' or quickly discredited as 'nothing special'.
     

  • Failure feels inherently scary, and as if this would be proof that we didn't deserve the promotion, qualification, or accolade.
     
  • The prospect of not knowing an answer or saying 'the wrong thing' feels as though that will 'out' us as not being deserving.
     
  • Self-doubt around the validity of our achievements to date. We focus on what we haven't done, rather than what we have. We as though we didn't earn our qualification, or someone will take them from us.
     
  • We feel like we are "winging it" in an uncomfortable way.
     

  • We often find ourselves comparing with where everyone else is and how they look to be 'coping', and using this as a barometer for our own experiences.
     

  • Feeling not good enough, despite the evidence.

  • We might feel the need to keep proving ourselves further.

On a personal level, I believe that it boils down to listening to a story that says "you're not good enough, and someone will find out" - everything else branches off this. For many people, this might feel like a voice that pops up, but others might experience thoughts in different ways - as feelings, colours, somatic experiences. Some people might call this the 'inner critic', in the work I do with broadband consciousness, it is called 'the script'. The important thing is to know you didn't choose it, it was handed to us without our knowledge, and often the standards 'it' tries to hold us to are beyond human capability, always asking us to jump one inch higher. It actually has very little to do with present reality - but understanding that takes self compassion, self awareness and sometimes external guidance.

What are the potential knock on effects of imposter syndrome?

So, when we listen to, and believe, these 'not good enough' stories on a regular basis, what can it lead to? You might not resonate with all of these things.
 

  • Anxiety and worry; we know from the Bravata et al 2019 review paper that often imposter syndrome does not come alone, being found to often be co-morbid with depression and anxiety. The waters often get muddied between these two, and hence if this experience impacts you on a daily basis, reach out for help.

  • We don't praise ourselves or acknowledge how far we came, as the stories and feelings we are experiencing spotlight our perceived shortcomings.

  • We might self-discount and pass up on opportunities, or take every opportunity in the hope to close down the stories of not being good enough.

  • Bravata et al suggest links to reduced job satisfaction (2019).

  • We might procrastinate or avoid new tasks due to the fear of failure.

  • We might find ourselves overworking in a bid to know everything, to match up to our perceptions of everyone else in our workplace.

  • We might pursue new qualifications or accolades without consideration for whether they actually interest us.

  • We might avoid doing new things or feel to pressurise ourselves to do everything quickly and easily the firs time.

  • We worry that we said the wrong thing, or might say the wrong thing.

  • We might burn out trying to keep up with these internal expectations, there is some evidence again from Bravata's review that this might be the case.

  • We might have feelings of frustration and isolation, not wanting to speak out for fear of not being supported.

  • We might experience shame, and be concerned that others will not accept or value us if we don't know all the answers, or things don't go to plan.

  • Regular concern about "being found out."

If we notice these things, let's take the judgement off. This is very common, and whilst uncomfortable, there are people and things that can help. Many of the pressures that we listen to have been handed down through the generations, and we'd never ask them of someone else that we love or value. As isolating as it feels, often these experiences are what unites us in commonality.


Some might argue it's not always a 'bad' thing. Research suggests that people with imposter syndrome, who feel underqualified for their jobs, tend to make better employees because they compensate by striving to be likeable, empathetic, and collaborative. A study was conducted by Basima Tewfik, a psychologist at the MIT Sloan School of Management in Cambridge, Massachusetts and published in Academy of Management JournalI would argue that maybe that's great news for employers, but does it really address the underlying experience for the individual? We have to be careful not to slip into toxic positivity.

My personal thoughts are that we need to take the emphasis off this being always 'bad' or 'good' and start by noticing it without judgment as a common human experience. I often find many frustrations come from the extra level of pressure of how individuals think they should be experiencing it, or stories of what it means about them as a person.

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 (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. Many agree that there is still not sufficient evidence to know an exact figure, also bearing in mind the differences in individuals' perceived experiences, their willingness to be open, and the variety of definitions.

Bravata at el also report that based on existing studies and reports, imposter syndrome tends to be more common in females than males and in marginalised groups (minority racial and ethnic groups, socioeconomic status). As conversations emerge around neurodivergence, this may also add an extra layer to the conversation; a group of people that have societal felt pressures to adhere to ways of doing things that don't necessarily suit the way their brain works.

This last paragraph is further testament to why approaches to imposter syndrome should not just be about ourselves, but looking at the wider world too. How can we help everyone to feel included?

All this being said, there will be a percentage of people that don't experience this phenomenon. I've had conversations with individuals who have concerns that they almost feel in the minority for not experiencing imposter syndrome (ironic). Depending on our background, present environment, levels of self-compassion, and growth mindset, we might not conclude that our experience aligns with imposter syndrome. That's ok too.

Is imposter syndrome a mental health condition or mental illness?

Imposter syndrome is not a diagnosis, but a psychological reaction to a set of stimuli. Often the stimuli can be doing new things, our environment, achievements, stressful situations - amongst other things.

 

Sometimes our experiences are contributed to by imposter thoughts, but it's not the whole picture. 

Studies have shown that feeling this way is often co-morbid with depression and anxiety, reduced job satisfaction, and burnout among 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 on your life, speaking out can be valuable. You're not alone. Clinical anxiety and depression are best discussed with a mental health professional. There can be other factors that play into this too, such as neurodivergence (e.g. ADHD, ADD, ASD), hormones (both male and female, conditions such as PMDD, changes in perimenopause, low testosterone etc), chronic pain and more.

As feeling like an imposter has the tendency to isolate us, even taking the steps of talking about it in a safe space can have genuine value. Advocate yourself, you are worth it.

So, how do I get rid of imposter syndrome?

Rather than 'getting rid' of it, how about we see it differently? Maybe it perhaps could have a different name?

If we focus on eliminating the feeling 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. What we resist, persists, after all.

Imposter thoughts are the product of a set of beliefs, pressures, and expectations about ourselves, our work, success, failure, and the world itself. We didn't choose them, many of them were handed down through the generations. Mostly, they all come down to 'you are not enough', it's an identity that we never chose - and sometimes our environment can feel to give us more evidence.

 

Some of these beliefs are the product of specific experiences or interactions with others - for example, a harshly critical caregiver may have made us believe we weren't good enough, and this became a lens through which we saw the world for the next 20-30 years. Others may have experienced traumatic incidents with no ability to safely process them afterward. Putting our hand up and giving an incorrect answer in class as a child, followed by laughing and sniggering, may have hurt at the time and inadvertently caused us to conclude that we should know everything to be accepted. There might not even be specifics that we remember, and we certainly don't need to force ourselves to do this alone.

Equally, beliefs can also form through repetition - what we watch others do, the media, friends, loved ones, and the education system. We are constantly bombarded with messages that we will 'be enough when...' we own more, achieve more, and look a certain way. When we don't have these things, we believe we are not good enough. We may learn that failure is scary as we've seen others become upset. We may be praised for doing things on the first attempt and conclude that we should do things solo, quickly, and easily to be deemed worthwhile. We've also been handed a whole set of stereotypes, paths, and criteria we think we must fit to be 'successful'. Maybe our repeated experiences of the 'standard' way to do things not working for us, and feeling like an outsider for doing things differently.

Many of the things we think to be true about the world without question, were formed when we were young, with a malleable and suggestible mind, with minimal rationality. Of course, our stories continue to be written, but often every conclusion we draw stems back to previous belief systems, as it put a lens upon the world. A lens we never chose.

The important thing to remember is that whilst there are many overlapping experiences, everyone does have a different life story. At our core, we are all humans that experience emotions, and deep down we do want to be accepted, we are wired for connection. Our reactions and conclusions made sense at some level, in the past, but often they aren't as useful in the present.

Our belief systems and previous experiences sit in our subconscious mind, which is much larger than our conscious awareness. When we go into a new situation, our subconscious may detect perceived threats - based on the past, but rarely the actual level of risk in the present. For example, the possibility of failure, or not being accepted. Our sympathetic nervous system fight or flight response kicks in to mobilise us to run from, or fight, the perceived 'scary' thing, we experience fear and thoughts appear based on us not being good enough - we listen to and believe that set of stories about why we aren't good enough to be there, the pressure to be 'perfect' and subsequently we feel as though we must be a fraud. At that moment, our mind isn't that rational - a story for another time - but our thoughts are not facts, and are often skewed by the emotion we are experiencing. I believe in this morning we are listening to that negative voice we never chose, which I called the script, others may call the inner critic.

This might be further compounded by being in an unsupportive environment where there is a lack of support, equity or safety. Testament again to the collective responsibility of us all to support each other to embrace growing together, whilst always being valuable.

This experience is not because we are actually imposters. Often there are many pressures being put upon us at that moment, internal and external, to feel as though we should be someone else or achieve even more, or that we've done it in the 'wrong' way. It can often come at times of pushing comfort zones or doing new things, which some people find brings some solace to understand, a kind of 'aha, I know why this is louder right now'. Personally, I believe this script that keeps being handed down is the imposter, and not us.

When we understand it and view it in an alternative light, we can move towards what is important to us with a newfound compassion and curiosity for ourselves. Change is possible, and navigating the experience differently is possible. We can form additional, new beliefs and connections - we know this through the power of neuroplasticity.

If I could say one thing to everyone reading this, it would be that you are already valuable - you always have been and always will be. You are the one underneath the thoughts and the experiences, as intense as they may feel. I'm sorry the world has taught so many of us that our value depends on fitting a mould we never chose. There is always time to get to know that person, so when the imposter thoughts come, it is easier to anchor back into you. This doesn't mean we give up trying new things, it can make the process easier. How can we approach the experience by being a little more curious, and lot kinder to ourselves?

Different things help different people, at different times. Some may find self-help strategies and practices beneficial, for example journaling to create space between the stories we listen to and the listener - us, mindfulness to notice and release the pressures without judgement, self-care practices to regulate our nervous systems, for example breathwork (box breathing is a good place for many to start, or 7-11 breathing). Self-compassion is very evidence-based and there are tonnes of resources on Dr. Kristin Neff's website, self-compassion.org. Some might listen to podcasts and others sharing their stories, whilst remembering that what they explain is their perception, and it's ok if ours is different. There are many stories you'll see online about 'you should enjoy imposter syndrome' - please don't force yourself to have to, if it doesn't feel right, there are many different things that can help. Oftentimes these statements are made through one lens and lack the nuance of individual experiences and backgrounds.

Some embrace the idea of getting familiar with their 'inner imposter' - when does it come up, what could it more innocently be trying to keep us safe from or trying to achieve? Some name it and thank it for its input, and provide reassurance to the person underneath. A quick check-in as we do new things to assess our skills and capabilities isn't a bad thing, as long as we do it through a factual and compassionate lens. Alongside this, they get to know the real them - behind job titles, achievements and accolades - and what's important to you. Some might notice when they do new things they take life a little slower and do more of the things that fill their cup back up, or they have a friend or mentor that they know will listen to them. If you do this, it's important to do it without judgement, and embrace curiosity, rather than criticism. This takes practice.

Many people ask what they can actually do?

Because this experience is different for everyone, I'd say if you've tried self-directed exercises and practices without much difference, or if it is having a wide-reaching effect on your life, to reach out for help to another person. Someone who can help you to hold the space to explore and understand the experience, and to get to know yourself. If your mental health is adversely affected, you might wish to speak to a medical professional or therapist, especially if there is potential trauma involved. Many people find this helpful. You can find licensed UK therapists on the BACP website, check their prices and find out the ways they work - there are many types of therapy that exist, not just CBT. Alternatively, speaking to a GP, or checking out your workplace resources, such as Employee Assistance Programmes. One of the most important things connected to positive outcomes is how connected you feel with your therapist - against testament that different things helps different people.

 

If you're keen to make changes to a particular area of your life, then coaching can be beneficial - if you're not sure where to start with finding one, start with asking for personal recommendations, reading testimonials and setting up a discovery call.

 

A mentor can be helpful if you're walking a new path in business or career, and they've done similar. This might be someone in a formal role at work, or someone you reach out to.

And, don't forget to take a wider look at your environment too - it's easy for us to assume something is just 'our' imposter syndrome, and yet, there might be other factors at play. This can again be helpful to soundboard with others, confidentially.

One option that I love to offer is the exact system that helped me, that I went on to train in, broadband consciousness. I combined this with my years of training in other modalities, to help others to reconnect with themselves and I work mainly with those in veterinary and professional services backgrounds. This isn't for everyone, and hence I give a balanced view in these pieces. I regularly give workshops to team, so please do get in touch. I work with a very small handful of people 1:1.

If you're in the veterinary profession, be sure to check out the Vet Empowered Signature Programme.

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.

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.

Remember, real imposters don't get 'imposter syndrome' they don't sit and debate whether they deserve their space or not - they know full well that they're pretending. Remember the Leonardo DiCaprio film "Catch Me If You Can" - where he pretended to be an airline pilot with PanAm? He didn't have sleepless nights about whether we earned his spot, he knew outright that he had stolen a uniform and faked cheques with stickers from gift store airplane models.

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, to many, 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.

Nobody minds 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 talk about these in my live sesions with more context.

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

Personally, I wouldn't bother.

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.

If you're struggling with your experiences, I'd suggest to reach out for support rather than get tied up in scales.

OMG, I have imposter syndrome. This is me! What now?

Step 1: Acknowledge that you're not alone - welcome to the club that most people are part of, but they don't talk about. As I keep saying, let's normalise it, but not minimise it, or pretend it's not happening, if it is impacting our lives.

 

Upwards of 70% of the population have felt this way at some point in their life, and likely the numbers are even higher. It's not just a vet 'thing', it's all professions and walks of life. Your peers, colleagues, friends, mentors, bosses, and tutors will have likely felt this way at some point too; acknowledging this helps many. There are other things that can help too.​

Step 2: Acknowledge your experiences to date. Not how you think you should have experienced it. How has it felt? What do you need? Who could help you? What have you tried? What could you try? Who can you find to listen to you without judgement?

It's important to remember, imposter syndrome is not a diagnosis (can also be spelled impostor by the way, either is fine). It's not a label or fault, it's an experience. "A psychological pattern in response to stimuli". Often it is when we are growing or achieving, and we just don't feel deserving, we tune into and believe that inner critic that tells us why we aren't good enough. This might be at work for case outcomes, when we gain new qualifications, promotions or whilst training too. It can happen at any point in our careers. When we zone into it and believe it, we can feel like phoneys.

 

The reality is that behind that inner critic is a valuable, unique person that is deserving of their achievements, we just need a little reminder to zone back into that person. We also need a reminder to take off some of society's unrealistic pressures too.

The opposite of imposter is AUTHENTIC - real, not a copy. Finding the ways, the places and the permissions to reconnect back with you is valuable.

And remember, there are always people to listen. 

Step 3: One step at a time and take the judgement off

This page won't change your life in one fell swoop. Change comes from action, learning about ourselves, self compassion, support and understanding. I'm done with one size fits all.

This is your permission to start exploring what helps you. Keep your eye on the Authentic & Inspired blog as I update it with not only my own insights and experiences, but also lots of resources.

What now?

That answer will be different for everyone.

 

Make sure you've subscribed to the mailing list to be kept updated, and keep your eye out for my book , head to Vet Empowered if you're in vetmed and interested in coaching, and drop me a follow on social media as @katiefordvet.

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

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