by Dr. Michele Gaspar
You may know the power of that small, nagging voice. “You’re a fake and it’s only a matter of time before everyone realizes it.” No matter how many lives saved, correct diagnoses made and successful client interactions, the voice says you’ve fooled others and don’t belong.
The voice has a name, Imposter Syndrome. It was identified by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978. High-achieving individuals (as are most veterinarians), females and members of minority groups, are most likely to experience its soul crushing power.
About 70 percent of people will experience Imposter Syndrome sometime in their lives. Although Imposter Syndrome isn’t a mental illness, it causes significant distress. Imposter Syndrome robs us of feeling confident and undermines our work. When we’re in its grasp, we cannot internalize our successes. We live in fear of being outed as a fraud. Imposter Syndrome can be felt at any time in a career, but it most commonly rears up when embarking on a new endeavor, such as a new job or internship/residency.
Those with Imposter Syndrome have one or more of the following thoughts: I’m a fake; My accomplishments are due to luck, not talent; and My accomplishments aren’t really that great.
Several personality traits are linked to Imposter Syndrome: Perfectionism, overworking, undermining achievements, fear of failure and discounting praise. To stave off feelings of Imposter Syndrome, it’s common to put off projects that can’t be completed flawlessly, or to work hours beyond the end of scheduled shifts. Other ways of coping include not learning new skills (for fear of not performing at an expert level) or deflecting praise with self-deprecation.
No one is born with Imposter Syndrome, but some family traits make it more likely. Children repeatedly praised by their parents for intelligence can develop an all-or-nothing attitude. When they don’t get a perfect score on a test they begin to question their parents’ assessment of their intelligence. Those born into minority groups often are told they need to work “twice as long to be considered half as good,” driving them to work harder and harder in order to stave off possibly falling behind.
There are steps you can take to thwart Imposter Syndrome:
(1.) Talk to a professional therapist who can help dismantle negative thoughts.
(2.) Talk with someone you trust. It’s normal to have self-doubt. Hearing a trusted advisor experienced (and sometimes still who experiences) the same feelings can help you feel less alone. Vets4Vets is a confidential support group through the VIN Foundation, it is free for all veterinarians and can help connect you with a mentor who has been down this path.
(3.) Name and take pride in achievements. Remind yourself your achievements are due to your hard work, intelligence and diligence.
(4.) Realize no one is perfect. Perfection is idealized in our culture but not possible. Mistakes happen to everyone. Recognize them. Own them. Learn from them. Then let them go.
Dr. Michele Gaspar is a veterinarian and a psychotherapist. She received her DVM from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1994 and is a diplomat of the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners (feline specialty). She received an MA in pastoral counseling from Loyola University/Chicago in 2012 and is a psychotherapist at Live Oak Chicago. Dr. Gaspar is a consultant in Feline Internal Medicine for the Veterinary Information Network (VIN) and is a member of Vets4Vets® team, a free resources of the VIN Foundation helping veterinarians navigate personal and professional challenges. She is an analytic candidate at the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis.
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The VIN Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, provides resources to help the veterinary community thrive so they can help our animals and those who care for them. The VIN Foundation was created by members of the Veterinary Information Network (VIN), an online community of veterinarians and veterinary students with over 94,000 members worldwide. The VIN Foundation’s charitable efforts are centered around the belief that a healthy veterinary profession is essential for healthy animal and human communities.