We talk about imposter/impostor syndrome a lot and believe me, there’s nobody happier than me to see the conversation being opened up on this topic. I have spent the last three years talking, speaking on various stages, and coaching a wide variety of people in our profession from new grads to specialists.
BUT, WHAT DO WE DO ABOUT IT?
The problem is not a lack of ‘solutions’, but sometimes knowing the next step to take and when. (I love Richard Wilkin's quote "Man's greatest frustration is knowing exactly what to do, and not doing it.")
I think we have to remember that everyone is an individual, and their circumstance will be different. For some this feeling is a fleeting annoyance, and for others, it is crushing on a daily basis (as it was for me). Sometimes it’ll pop up and shout loud, other times it will go quiet, and everything in between. It left me with no life outside of work as I worked every hour to try and cover my perceived inadequacies, and even when I left work, I was continuously thinking about it (and I cried, a lot).
So, let me see how I can help. I’ve penned this piece not to sell my wares, promote my products, but genuinely to try benefit VSGD members, but I added it to LinkedIn too. This has taken me a couple of hours.
1. Does feeling like an imposter have a continuous, negative effect on many areas of your life?
Imposter syndrome is not classified as a mental health condition, it is a widely documented reaction to stimuli. Often that stimulus is growth, or pushing limiting beliefs that we didn’t choose; we poke the gremlin essentially. BUT it can progress to anxiety and depression (and it is also noted as a factor in Burnout too (Villwock, 2016)). If you are constantly feeling like someone will find out you’re not good enough, that you’re a fraud and that someone is on your tail, add in some perfectionist tendencies in an unpredictable landscape…. it is understandable we’re going to feel pretty triggered and that it can progress. It did for me, hands up! I’ve been there, it had a negative effect on every part of my life. I would cry when I was on call, think I was broken and feel constantly nervous, despite external appearances.
What can we do in those circumstances?
Remember that speaking to a GP can be really valuable, cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) has a huge amount of evidence behind it for anxiety and depression too, as well as other options. Remember that Vetlife is also brilliant to start a conversation with, and are not just for times of crisis. If you're not sure, make the phone call and have a chat.
I had CBT about six years back, it helped get me out of a hole, and actually I found it so fascinating I did further training in it too. (Full disclosure: I made this step as my old boss expressed her concerns for me, and had never considered if before, and I didn't know what else to do. It was a good move for me.)
BUT, that’s not everyone, I know that - but wanted to get it out there first of all. It can absolutely suck. I hear you if you feel that way.
2. For some people, we are feeling a little lost, and know deep down that we are good vets/entrepreneurs and not actually frauds, but lacking confidence (and the outside picture might look like you have lots). We feel like something is missing, maybe we want to do something else or feel more settled, and need a little support as we progress.
Personal and group coaching can be really helpful in these circumstances. I have three fantastic coaches of my own, that I still work with, even as a coach myself. I’ve also been part of a few awesome programmes, the most life-changing one for me was broadband consciousness.
Coaches can help you to figure out what you actually want, your values, help you to tweak your mindset, look at situations differently and form new beliefs. They also help to hold you accountable, and they keep a space open for you, asking powerful questions. There will be benefits to the process that you never even considered before starting. Coaching is not just for those wanting to do ‘big’ things.
Working with a coach can be superbly helpful. Yes, it is an investment, but it can be so worthwhile. There are a wide variety of coaches out there, both in the vet space and beyond. Only one of my three coaches has been a vet, one was an A&E doctor prior to coaching, and the final one nothing to do with the medical profession (who is my mindset coach). There are a wide variety of investments out there, I’m not just talking about taking out £20k coaching programmes.
There is a whole myriad of fabulous coaches in the world, it is not one solution that fits all. Book a discovery call with a few of them, see who resonates with you and how you click. Good coaches are also not afraid to redirect you towards therapy or counselling if they feel this is more appropriate, and for you to re-meet again at a later date.
It is invaluable to have someone who has your best interests at heart, and is unbiased, and wants to help you to realise your value and true self.
Never underestimate group coaching either. Having a whole group of people on the same path as you can be superbly helpful, as other people’s breakthroughs become your breakthroughs too. You learn as much from each other as you do from the coaches, with some solidarity and community to boot. (I co-created a group coaching programme with Claire Grigson: Vet Empowered www.vetempowered.com - as with everything, there are options, and it is what resonates with YOU).
I appreciate it is an investment, but I can tell you from years of trying “shelf-help” and book after book, the most transformative process for me was having some accountability and someone holding the space for me. I have been paid back many times over what I spent, not just financially. (Ok, I do run an online course and I’ve had great feedback from those, but we also know people drop off courses and don’t complete them… it’s a bit more difficult to run away from your coach/group.)
Ok Katie, so you’re a coach, of course you’ll tell me that I need coaching! Hands up, my 1:1 coaching is rammed at the moment and my waiting list is long - I’m not telling you that you need to come to me for coaching, I’m saying consider any of the amazing coaches here in the vet world and beyond. Of course, if you do want to work with me, get in touch and I can get you on the list. I’m more concerned that people get the support, as I struggled for years trying to make this better myself.
“We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” —Albert Einstein.
I cannot tell you the value of having the right coach for you.
3. What if feeling like an imposter is just a niggle, that pipes up every now and again or at a low level?
Welcome to the club. As my good friend Ebony Escalona said once "It's the club that we're all a part of, but nobody talks about", and here we are talking now, hurray.
For some people, this is exactly what is will be. Having imposter thoughts from time to time is not a fault, it can be a normal human experience. Upwards of 70% of the population have experienced imposter syndrome.
So many of us have “I’m just not good enough” “someone/everyone else is doing better/more” "how did I get here?" pop in from time to time; whether they are an RCVS specialist or a baker. Remember they often come as we’re growing and our subconscious wants to keep us safe and act on old beliefs, and we don’t have to believe every thought. We have 60,000 thoughts per day, 80% are negative and 95% repetitive. Whether we want to think of those thoughts that don’t serve us well as automatic negative thoughts (ANTs from CBT), the inner critic (widely termed in psychology) or any other version of what is is called (the script, the judge, negative nellie, imposter gremlin, Chimp... whatever). We don’t have to push them away, but we can disbelieve them and add kinder and more beneficial ones in; you can’t choose the first thought (most of the time they were handed to us through the generations), but we can often choose the second. How would we speak to a friend in that situation? What is a different way to see it? What if this was a brilliant decision? Nothing has any meaning except the meaning that we give it, and sometimes we just weren’t choosing the first meaning. (And yes, it takes practice.)
The reality is you’re a unique, valuable, one-off individual that is more than capable. We can do anything, but we can’t do everything, and just because it's the right thing for someone else, it might not be right for you. Sometimes we need to cut ourselves a little slack, and realign our definitions of success and failure. You’re not a fraud if you don’t know something, or if you didn’t do it solo, or if you failed, or if you had to go and check the answer immediately. I will keep reminding you all how amazing you are for the rest of my days. The studies on the odds of us being here as individuals were noted as 1 in 400 trillion - yes it’s random, but so is winning the lottery, and we’d be pretty excited about that. In fact, I'd say that means you're already very successful! Yet we go through life learning the reasons we are not enough, and hearing all the things we should be doing and how we need to match up…. but that’s a story for another day. My goodness, I wish I could go back 20 years and tell myself that.
Take a moment and look back at all the incredible things you’ve done that you didn’t think you could before.
Give yourself a little credit.
Imposter thoughts pop up for me often as something big is coming up, or something that stretches me. In fact, there's quite a few about writing this article here...
For those in the club, we can make little tweaks like:
Saving our wins from the day, noting down 3-5 things that went well during the day.
Practicing gratitude and self-compassion.
Reminding ourselves that nobody knows everything.
Choosing a new narrative (we are not the negative voice in our heads)
Journaling and getting thoughts down on paper.
Embracing all parts of us, as well as our careers.
Looking at failures and mistakes differently (and I'm not saying we don't grieve them but try to learn and be gentle with ourselves.)
This is absolutely like a muscle, that gets stronger as we work it, and at risk of going back to coaching chat - sometimes we need a little help to get started, or to see things differently. Another Einstein quote “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” (Apologies, those who know me know I regurgitate quotes)
Sometimes when we are the first one from our background (be that gender, race, societal, wealth) to enter an area or discipline, stereotypes and the landscape may even make us feel like frauds or not belonging, but gently reminding ourselves that these aspects do not stop us doing as good as a job as anyone else can be helpful. There was a great article on this recently, will try and find it. (I came from a financially very poor background, but this is definitely not me professing to say I know what gender/racial bias is like to experience - this is based on others experiences they've shared, namely in the article I mentioned.)
I think it is important to realise that at any stage, we can move from between these three, depending on how much we are being stretched at the time. New job? Back from maternity leave? Promotion? New qualification? At a crossroads? Run of tricky cases? All potentially imposter-infested waters. (and heads up, this is not a black/white 1-3 scale, there's hundreds of different areas of grey in between, it's a starting point.)
If you have imposter thoughts and you experience what we term imposter syndrome, it’s not a fault - you are human - but there are things that can help. I spent years trying to dig my way out of feeling this way, and actually what really helped was reaching out for some help.
It’s not a case of making it go away, never feeling this way again or feeling like we now have a condition, it is seeing it differently and knowing it can wax and wane - and finding out what helps YOU when it does pop up. Realising it isn't you. You are so much bigger than that narrative will ever have us believe.
The biggest thing that helped me?
Realising that I’m not that negative voice in my head. I didn't choose that, and underneath that is someone valuable whose worth did not ride on the letters after my name - but I needed a little help with this (with coaching and therapy). I could choose a kinder, more empowering story and life looked a lot different. Remembering I was a human being, not a human doing was pretty revolutionary too.
I really hope this helped someone today! I am so passionate about this topic, and not just to sell you.
I created a whole hub of FREE resources over on my website, with a couple of webinars and short snippets, including a 20minute “Imposter Reset”: www.katiefordvet.com. These are a starting point, but you might find the above more helpful.
You'll also find my series of "To an amazing vet" and "To an amazing vet nurse" books on my website too (and a receptionist/vet student version too), £1 from each goes to Vetlife. They're sold out, but available on Amazon - the links are on my site under "buy books"