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  • Writer's pictureJosh Vaisman

3 Tools to Battle Imposter "Syndrome"

"I'm not as good at this as people think."

"One day they are going to figure out I'm a fraud."

"I don't belong here."

The concept of Imposter "Syndrome" (IS) has become a growing presence in veterinary conversations these past few years, and for good reason. Recent research suggest an, "alarmingly high prevalence of Imposter Syndrome," in the vet community.

Kevin Cokley, psychologist and professor at the University of Texas at Austin, is a prominent expert on the phenomenon. You may have noticed I put the word syndrome in quotes - both in the title and the paragraph above. That's intentional.

Based on his research and experience, Dr. Cokley finds that word to be too "clinical" - as if to insinuate we are damaged or ill when experiencing IS. He prefers Imposter Phenomenon or, simply, Imposterism.

He describes Imposterism as a sense or belief that we are phonies or frauds despite our achievements and accomplishments suggesting the exact opposite. It often afflicts high-achievers (like veterinary professionals) and is likely more common than one might think. In fact, at some point in our lives, many of us experience this.

In some cases it can be debilitating and negatively impact performance, productivity, and wellbeing.

On the flip side, positive psychology research suggests the genuine experience of accomplishment, achievement, growth, and learning can contribute to an elevated sense of psychological wellbeing both in the short and long term (see PERMA).

Given what looks like a common presence of Imposterism in vet med and inspired by an interview I recently listened to with Dr. Cokley (on the psychology of self-doubt) I thought I'd share some tools and practices that may help you challenge the internal story of Imposterism in your life.

Here are three things to help you find a healthy relationship with the self-doubt you may experience in your life as a veterinary professional:

  1. Success Diary: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a robust psychological intervention to help us challenge the unhelpful, sometimes unhealthy stories we tell ourselves. In positive psychology CBT often underpins interventions meant to help us cultivate wellbeing. Dr. Cokley uses those lessons to help with his own struggle with self-doubt (yes, even one of the world's top experts on Imposterism struggles with Imposterism!). One way he does this is with a journal. At the end of every work day, he writes down at least one success or win from his day. This is his "Work Diary" he has kept for a long time to help him record the achievements and accomplishments he reaches on a regular basis. In this way, he is routinely challenging the stories of self-doubt in his mind and "forcing" himself to consider the things that make him worthy of his job, role, and position. You can do the same! Keep a small notepad in your desk or locker and, at the end of every shift, challenge yourself to write at least one thing you accomplished that day. Two caveats to keep in mind - (a) Make it genuine. While your accomplishment does not need to be earth shattering make sure it really is something you believe is an accomplishment. (b) Make it unique. Really scan that particular day for something that you uniquely accomplished in that shift. Try not to use the same accomplishment every day.

  2. Success Buddy: This is similar to #1 only you'll also include a friend or colleague. With the Success Buddy, the idea is to recruit at least one person to help you. You'll meet with this person after your shift and ask them to share something they saw you accomplish. BONUS - do the same for them! Then write down the accomplishment they noticed, even if you don't agree..

  3. Give Self-Doubt a Chance: The trouble I see with labeling things like Imposter Syndrome (and I think Dr. Cokley would agree) is that it insinuates that to have self-doubt is ALWAYS unhealthy. That simply isn't true. We evolved to experience self-doubt for some worthwhile and healthy reasons. Self-doubt often drives us to learn more, grow, innovate, and evolve. Some of the greatest difference makers in human history have sited self-doubt as fuel to their fire. In some cases, without self-doubt we risk becoming complacent. The point here is that Imposterism is real and learning to challenge the stories that drive debilitating self-doubt is a worthy endeavor. The two tools above can be helpful - not only in mitigating Imposterism, but helping us savor in the things we do contribute to the world around us. In noticing and affirming our worth we begin to believe in our worthiness. And, don't set your sites on eliminating self-doubt. Rather, seek to learn to accept and leverage the doubts you have for good.

BONUS - Leaders, notice and share the accomplishments your team is making each and every day!

Most importantly, know this - you matter and you are deserving of where you are in life. I don't have to know you to know that. Happy holidays!

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