Combating Imposter Syndrome: How Veterinarians Can Overcome Fraudulent Feelings

As someone who received good grades consistently throughout my life, I was humbled by my academic experience in veterinary school. Although my friends and I used to joke about our mediocre grades, secretly, my self-confidence took a nosedive. I'd like to say that the negative internal commentary stopped after veterinary school, but like many of my fellow veterinarians, it didn't. I can remember many exam-room situations where I had no idea how to proceed on a case; I just hoped that I would find my way eventually.

These days, I do a good deal of public speaking—and the negative voices in my head remain insistent. While the voices are generally quieter than they used to be, I still struggle with questioning myself, wondering if I am smart enough, and celebrating my own accomplishments. People can tell me repeatedly that I'm doing an amazing job, yet I still don't believe them.

It turns out there's a name for this: imposter syndrome (IS).

What Is Imposter Syndrome?

The phrase "imposter syndrome" was coined in the late 1970s by two psychologists after they completed a study on 150 highly accomplished women who frequently confessed to feeling unintelligent and unworthy, despite their success. IS is composed of two things: a crisis of confidence brought on by a crisis of belief in your own skills and knowledge.

Today, IS is used to describe high-achieving people who have an inability to internalize their successes for fear of being exposed as a "fraud." The key element is the fear that someone will eventually find out that you are an intellectual imposter. IS looks different in everyone: It can manifest as a quiet, irritating voice that shows up in challenging situations or a paralyzing disability that keeps someone from following their dreams.

IS causes an individual to over-prepare and at the same time, procrastinate. It lurks in your mind, taking up valuable mental space that could be used to solve difficult cases, pursue your career dreams, or focus on your family.

When IS is running in the background, it drains you, friends, coworkers, and loved ones.

You may think that your imposter tendencies lead you to where you are today, but this view of IS is flawed. An imposter's success is driven by a desire to avoid shame. Furthermore, a study from Frontiers in Psychology found that IS was correlated with poor job performance, decreased career planning, decreased leadership interest, lowered job satisfaction, and an increased likelihood to stay in a dead-end job. Ultimately, IS takes from you and gives nothing back but negative feelings and an inaccurate self-perception.

How to Deal with Imposter Syndrome

Fortunately, IS can be beaten, once you know the truth about what's at play. Here are three steps to deal with this syndrome:

1. Acknowledge and Accept Your Feelings

Feeling like an imposter is considered a normal developmental experience, and for most, the feeling tends to lessen over time. Consider it as one of the benefits of getting older. So, it's wise to simply embrace it when it's happening and know that your perspective will likely change. We all deal with these feelings to some extent, but they don't define who we are as people.

2. Recognize What Triggers the Imposter Feelings

Think about it. Have you recently been triggered into thinking you were a fraud? It could be:

  • When you're thinking about taking on a new, big challenge for your practice
  • When you're struggling with something and keep hitting dead ends
  • When you send your records off to a specialist
  • When you've failed, or you meet somebody who you think is a better veterinarian

By identifying these triggers, you can better prepare yourself to handle negative thoughts or fraudulent feelings the next time the situation arises.

3. Keep Doing You

You will find that the less attention you pay to those negative thoughts and feelings, the smaller and quieter they will grow. In the meantime, even if you don't feel competent, fake it 'til you make it. Gaining experience can only help. When I got my first public speaking job, I had never spoken in front of a crowd, ever. I was terrified, but I pushed past the feelings, knowing that my freedom was on the other side of my fear.

Lastly, there is no shame in reaching out to a professional or finding a mentor. This job is hard, and we don't talk about mental health enough. If you think IS is affecting you, reach out and get help.

Sarah Wooten
DVM, CVJ

A 2002 graduate of UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Sarah Wooten is a well known influencer in the veterinary and animal health care spaces. She has over 10 years experience in public speaking and media work, and writes for a large number of online and print animal health publications. Dr. Wooten has spoken in the veterinary education space since 2015, and speaks on leadership, client communication, and personal development. Dr. Wooten is also a certified veterinary journalist, a member of the AVMA, and has 16 years experience in small animal veterinary practice. She is also a co-creator of the wildly popular card game ‘Vets Against Insanity’. When it is time to play, she can be found skiing in Colorado or diving with sharks in the Caribbean. Go big...or go home. To learn more, visit drsarahwooten.com.


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