Imposter Syndrome In Veterinary Care: Risk Factors, Types And Symptoms
Feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, and anxiety about not belonging, or being good enough, (also known as Imposter Syndrome) are prevalent in veterinary professionals.
And though the syndrome is widely recognized, the fundamental causes, types, and characteristics of the syndrome are not.
In this article, we look at what exactly Imposter Syndrome is, and why veterinary professionals are so vulnerable to it
What is Imposter Syndrome?
‘Imposter Syndrome is that feeling that you’re a fraud, or that somehow you’ve gotten this far based on either your looks or chance’ says Lori Kogan, a licensed psychologist, and professor from Colorado State University.
‘It’s that fear of the discrepancy between how people may see them and how they see themselves’.
The condition’s origins can be traced back to 1978, where psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes originally coined the term while studying its effects on female college students. Since then, numerous studies have been conducted on the subject, alluding to a wider prevalence in the veterinary population. According to research, around 68% of vets have experienced Imposter Syndrome at some stage in their career ¹.
‘Many people within the veterinary profession have experienced feelings of impostorism, from new graduates to specialists,’ says Dr. Katie Ford, a veterinarian, and Imposter Syndrome coach.
‘This feeling isn’t because of genuine fraudulence, but often because of a period of growth, unrealistic expectations, or unattainable definitions of success.’
The feeling of being an imposter can prevent people from sharing and implementing their ideas, stunting innovation and growth. This can be highly detrimental to a professional’s personal growth, and prevent them from taking the risks needed for a successful career.
Predictors of Imposter Syndrome
Certain types of people are more likely to suffer from Imposter Syndrome than others.
Perfectionists, for example, though outwardly appearing confident, often struggle with internalizing positive feedback. The result of which can be the sense of being a fraud or being deceitful.
People facing ‘new challenges’, like a promotion or new job are also very vulnerable to the syndrome, as periods of transition can amplify feelings of Imposterism. Imposter syndrome is also highly prevalent in trainees and leaders, showing how it can affect anyone- regardless of their experience².
Certain family environments, ethnicities, and mental illnesses can also be predictors for Imposter Syndrome³. In vets, women are far more likely to experience it, especially if they are from the UK or New Zealand ⁴.
Types of Imposter Syndrome
Imposter syndrome can show up in a number of ways.
Workaholic Imposters– these imposters have incredibly high standards and will graft hard to achieve them. However, workaholic Imposters tend to set impossibly high standards for themselves, which results in inevitable failure to meet these expectations. They also tend to only experience gratification if they achieve above and beyond, which puts them at high risk of burnout. Imposters in this subgroup also report feelings of exhaustion and anti-climax when completing projects.
Lucky Duck Imposters– these imposters are solid believers in the ‘right place/right time’. They think that they have got to where they are because of luck and fear that, one day, this luck will run out. Because of this, Lucky Duck Imposters live in fear for the inevitable ‘reveal’ of who they truly are.
Con Artist Imposters– these people believe that they have charmed their way to the top, and find it hard to reconcile that they may actually just be quite good at what they do. They often believe they are manipulating others into thinking they are skilled, through either their looks or personality. This type is especially prevalent in women.
Chameleon Imposters– these imposters like to blend in with the background. They fear being stage center, as to expose their inadequacies. Should they feel that they are going to be exposed, they double down and try to formulate an ‘escape plan’. They believe if they keep the facade on long enough, they can leave before they are discovered.
Procrastinating Imposters– these imposters are the opposite of the workaholic imposters. Because they are hyper-aware of failure, they put off their work to avoid it. They are conscious that success draws attention, so they intentionally set themselves up for failure so they’re not under the spotlight. These individuals may also fear success, as they do not feel deserving.
Imposters (in general) can also experience a cycle of success and self-doubt- as illustrated below:
Signs You’re Experiencing Imposter Syndrome
There are several signs that you could be struggling with Imposter Syndrome.
In 1985, Joan Harvey (a researcher) identified three distinctive thoughts/feelings individuals with Imposter Syndrome experience:
The sense of having fooled other people into overestimating an individual’s ability
The attribution of a person’s success to some factor other than intelligence or ability.
The fear of being exposed as a fraud.
‘[Imposter] victims often disown praise and discount the expertise of the people who offer it. They begin to view those who have complimented them as blind to the truth, too dumb to know any better, seduced by their tricks’ Harvey says in her research.
To combat this, sufferers believe they have to put in inhuman levels of effort to maintain the facade or be ousted by others.
Although some people mistake low self-esteem for Imposter Syndrome, they are very different. While those with low self-esteem will generally have negative feelings associated with many aspects of their life, those with Imposter Syndrome will mainly experience these feelings exclusively in a work/school setting.
Why Vets Feel Like Imposters, And What They Can Do About It
Imposter Syndrome in the veterinary community is common for a number of reasons.
The first one being that the standards are incredibly high, which can make the inevitable ‘setbacks’ of practice life hard to deal with. This is especially true for perfectionists, who base much of their self-worth on achievement.
Young vets are also given a great deal of responsibility straight out of school, which can create anxiety. Without proper mentoring or guidance, many feel out of their depth (which is understandable given that they aren’t very experienced). This can have negative ramifications on their work performance and drive them out of the profession⁵.
Advice For Those Struggling
If any of these scenarios resonate with you, know that you’re not alone. These feelings are extremely common (especially in graduates) and are not reflective of your ability or worth.
The reality is, especially for young graduates, Imposter syndrome is a very normal feeling. If you’re new to a job, you are inevitably not going to be great at it at first, so you’re going to feel like an imposter. And that’s ok.
‘Let’s flip the feeling of Imposter Syndrome into a reminder that, as we push out of our comfort zones, we need to be kinder to ourselves and use our support systems to release the pressure of feeling like we have to know everything or do it perfectly the first time,’ says Dr. Ford.
That means connecting with others (both in and outside of work), being gentler to ourselves, and reconfiguring the way we look at failure and perfection. Working on your professional skills can also help build confidence and ability in practice, making you an even more invaluable asset to the team.
Just trust in the process, and know that as long as you are trying your best, you’re performing above and beyond what is expected of you- and that, with time and attention, things will improve.
You’ve got this!
To find out how to beat Imposter Syndrome, check out this podcast with Dr. Dave Nicol and Colorado State Professor, Dr. Lori Kogan:
1- ‘Veterinarians and impostor syndrome: an exploratory study.’ 3 Oct. 2020, https://www.bva.co.uk/our-journals/vet-record/vol-187-issue-7/veterinarians-and-impostor-syndrome-an-exploratory-study/. Accessed 23 Apr. 2021.
2- ‘Impostor Syndrome – CHEST Journal – American College of Chest ….’ https://journal.chestnet.org/article/S0012-3692(19)30607-5/pdf. Accessed 25 Apr. 2021.
3- ‘Impostor syndrome: Symptoms, types, and how to deal with it.’ 29 Sept. 2020, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/321730. Accessed 25 Apr. 2021.
4- ‘Veterinarians and impostor syndrome: an exploratory study – PubMed.’ https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32571984/. Accessed 13 Sept. 2021.
5- ‘How to Stop Feeling Like a Phony in Your Library – American ….’ https://www.aallnet.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Vol-109-No-3-How-to-Stop-Feeling-Like-a-Phony-in-Your-Library.pdf. Accessed 25 Apr. 2021.