You just completed a really tough surgery. Maybe you presented a brilliant project to your team that is going to improve patient care. Or you launched a new service that is even more successful than you could have predicted.
Despite the kudos, the high fives, and the congrats, do you feel like you fooled everybody into thinking you’re better than you are? Like you don’t deserve the praise? Do you feel like a fraud? That you are not good enough? That you are not worthy?
Welcome to the world of impostor syndrome. It’s a well described psychological condition which, regardless of your skills and achievements, makes you feel incompetent. This lack of confidence leads you to believe someone will “find you out.” Researchers suggest 70 percent of people feel impostor syndrome at some point in their career. In other words, it’s very common.
The feeling may be rooted in childhood, arising perhaps from high family expectations, overly protective parents, or being referred always to as “the smart one.”
According to Valerie Young, an expert on impostor syndrome and author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, there are five subgroups in this strange world:
- the perfectionist;
- the superman (or superwoman);
- the natural genius;
- the rugged individualist; and
- the expert.
She believes psychologists initially suspected impostor syndrome was something experienced primarily by women. But we now know men experience it as well.
To shake yourself of this self-doubting behavior, it is important to identify to which subgroup you belong in order to find an appropriate solution. Keep in mind that referring to this trait as a syndrome is unfortunate. It’s not a disease—it’s part of the journey. It’s merely a feeling, an impression, a fear we create in our mind.
Perfectionism and impostor syndrome go hand in hand. Perfectionists strive to achieve unrealistic or excessively ambitious goals that are unattainable. They end up feeling massive self-doubt because they failed to reach perfection.
This subcategory also lends itself to control freaks—those who insist on doing everything because it can’t possibly be done better by anyone else. This type of person also tends to be a micromanager.
This type of behavior can be very unhealthy. Always second-guessing whether you could have done better and never celebrating your achievements takes a toll over time. The best thing you can do is take your mistakes in stride and learn from them. Stop over-planning and over-analyzing everything. Take chances. Get started on things you had planned, but never found the right time to do. Hint: There’s never going to be a perfect time. Accept that errors are bound to happen. It’s part of nature, so let it go!
Super(wo)men push themselves harder and harder because they feel like they have to measure up to their colleagues. Picture the nurse who sticks around long after her shift is over, even though her presence isn’t needed at the clinic. Or the doctor who thinks she can survive on four hours of sleep, 17 cups of coffee in the morning, and no lunch, day after day, week after week…
If you have a tendency to bring work home with you, or if you have little time to do or think about anything else because you are so focused on what more you could be doing, you might be a super(wo)man. This type of impostor syndrome takes workaholism to a whole new level.
If this scenario sounds a little too familiar, there are a few simple changes you can make to start helping yourself. The most important suggestion is to stop looking for external validation. Don’t allow anyone else to inhibit your ability to feel good about yourself. Learn to take constructive criticism and don’t take everything personally. You have to balance your work and personal lives. Build inner confidence regarding your skills and competence to help you gauge how much work is too much.
The natural genius
This type of person may find that needing to work hard at something means they’re no good at it. They believe their success is judged by their ability to perform an action or achieve a goal, rather than the effort they put forth. Similar to the perfectionist, the natural genius sets impossibly high expectations and then gets upset when he or she cannot achieve or complete them efficiently and on the first try. They tend to avoid things they think they’re not good at, simply because they don’t get the outcome they expect.
To avoid imposter syndrome, natural geniuses need to see themselves as a constantly evolving work of art. Realize your goals are impossible, and try setting some that are challenging, but still attainable. Try to find productive ways to work beyond your weaknesses, rather than simply avoiding them.
Have you ever felt like you couldn’t ask for help because it would make you look weak or uneducated? If so, you could be an individualist. Independence is a good skill to have, but that doesn’t mean you have to decline help to avoid coworkers judging you. Asking for help does not mean you are inferior to your colleagues. It means you’re human.
Everyone needs help, whether through guidance or coaching. It is not a reason to feel inadequate or lower your self-worth. Accepting help will not make you look like a phony. It demonstrates humility. It shows you care about doing things the correct way, instead of just flying by the seat of your pants.
Have you ever had a coworker who insists on knowing everything about everything, but rarely puts any of their knowledge to use? A doctor or nurse who constantly feels the need to pursue endless education on a given subject may actually be feeling as though they are fooling those around them about how intelligent they are. The endless pursuit of new information is their way of justifying and alleviating the feeling of not knowing enough.
This type of person may feel as though they duped their boss into hiring them and fooled them into believing they are more knowledgeable and experienced than they feel they are. Comfort is sought by hoarding knowledge, some of which may never actually be useful.
To help adjust these imposter syndrome tendencies, it is important to focus on acquiring skills when you need them, not memorizing an excessive amount of information you “might” need to know. Continued pursuit of education is a desirable trait, as long as it isn’t taken to the extreme. Otherwise, it can become a form of procrastination.
Don’t feel like you can’t ask for help or that you need to bury your face in all the books and online posts you can find on a subject to avoid being called a fraud. Another useful way to use your knowledge is to share the information and skills you have obtained. This can help diminish fraudulent feelings.
A new perspective
Don’t dismiss your success as luck, chance, or other external factors. Take a step back and revel in your abilities, your knowledge, and your achievements. If you’re good at something, acknowledge it. That’s not ego—it’s merely a fact. Also, help someone else become aware of their success and accomplishments when you notice they’re not.
The solution to the impostor syndrome is to realize your career and your life are works in progress. Keep learning. Find yourself a mentor. Learn from your mistakes. Become a little bit better today than you were yesterday. Strive to become better, faster, nicer. Realize you have to be pretty awesome to get to where you are today.
Ironically, impostor syndrome does not happen to losers. It only happens to winners.
DO YOU HAVE IMPOSTOR SYNDROME?
|There are multiple websites with digital versions of the “impostor syndrome test.” The following are some of the questions asked. Take the quiz for yourself.
If you are still curious, see bit.ly/2VKtG86 for a quick and easy impostor test.
WHAT IF YOU NEVER EXPERIENCE IMPOSTOR SYNDROME?
|If you have never felt or still never experience impostor syndrome, you may
have a whole set of other problems. In fact, I’d be a tad worried about you…You may want to ask yourself the following difficult questions:
Phil Zeltzman, DVM, DACVS, CVJ, Fear Free Certified, is a board-certified veterinary surgeon and serial entrepreneur whose traveling surgery practice takes him all over Eastern Pennsylvania and Western New Jersey. You can visit his website at DrPhilZeltzman.com. He also is cofounder of Veterinary Financial Summit, an online community and conference dedicated to personal and practice finance (vetfinancialsummit.com). Kat Christman, a certified veterinary technician in Effort, Pa., contributed to this article.