I’ve heard it from many veterinarians whom I have spoken to over the years: “I know I’m pretty good at what I do, but I can’t help thinking I’m fooling everyone.” I know this feeling all too well and it has a name: imposter syndrome. This is the feeling of “I will be found out” and it is what drives perfectionism in many female veterinary professionals.
I first recognized my imposter syndrome when I was accepted to veterinary school at the age of 19. Both of my parents are veterinarians (they met in vet school and have been married more than 40 years). Despite being a high-achieving, successful, and well-rounded student (and athlete) my entire life, I was certain the only reason I got in after just 2-years of pre-veterinary study was because my parents were veterinarians. Somehow the powers that be must have decided they had to let me in. It could not have been my years of experience working in veterinary practice, getting high grades, or volunteering in and outside of school; they either made a mistake (and would surely revoke my acceptance at any moment) or they felt obligated to admit me given my two alumni parents.
This feeling persisted throughout veterinary school and led me not to tell anyone (except my few very close friends) that my parents were veterinarians. I knew that two of my classmates had close family members who were veterinarians, yet I felt compelled to keep my two vet parents a secret.
My feelings were only compounded when I wrote (and almost failed) my first anatomy exam. I thought to myself…this is it…they’re going to realize that they should never have let me in. But then I managed to pass anatomy, make it through the rest of my courses at average or just above, before excelling during my clinical year and getting accepted into my first-choice internship program.
Yet despite completing a residency program in a renowned US veterinary school, working as a professor at one of the top veterinary schools in North America, co-editing a textbook, and authoring more than 30 peer-reviewed manuscripts in veterinary journals, there are many days that I feel completely fraudulent in the work that I am doing. I am often convinced that my success is a result of luck or exceptionally hard work, or that I’m simply not that successful after all.
Most recently, while traveling to a conference to speak about self-care and wellness, I thought to myself “who am I to be the ‘expert’ in this…I have just as many difficulties looking after myself as everyone else…I am a total fraud in speaking on these topics”. My friends and colleagues who know me well tell me that my 14 years of experience as a veterinarian and recent trainings in mindfulness, meditation, yoga, and wellness qualify me as an expert in this regard, yet I still struggle with the feeling that I am faking it.
So, how do I deal with these feelings of being an imposter? I try to remain authentic and open as often as possible. I am transparent in sharing with clients, conference attendees, or others I am speaking to that I am “by no means an expert” or “a knower of all things” related to veterinary wellness, emergency and critical care, or otherwise. I acknowledge that am doing the best I can, sharing information that I am passionate about, and continuing to engage in a profession that I feel deeply connected to. Sharing my experiences and knowledge with others has the benefit of allowing me to gain perspective on my successes while at the same time helping others, which is key in tempering imposter syndrome.
Other ways that imposter syndrome can be mitigated include disclosing the thoughts to trusted friends, family members, or co-workers; finding a mentor to help navigate intimidating situations that bring up fraudulent feelings; expecting some degree of failure when trying new tasks or procedures; and staying reminded of previous accomplishments and successes. Keep email messages, cards, or other notes of kudos from clients, colleagues, and friends to read over again when imposter syndrome creeps up and pick-me-up is needed.
Remember, imposter syndrome is common and affects everyone from the most popular person in high school to the smartest student in every veterinary school class. People don’t talk about it because they feel they are keeping a secret from the world. Perhaps reading this blog will allow others to breathe a sigh of relief in recognizing “I’m not the only one”. As Tina Fey, a self-described imposter once said, “everyone else is an imposter too.”
Marie K. Holowaychuk, DVM, DACVECC is a small animal emergency and critical care specialist and certified yoga and meditation teacher who also has an invested interest in the health and well-being of veterinary professionals. She organizes Veterinary Wellness Workshops & Retreats for veterinarians, technicians, and other veterinary care providers. To sign up for newsletters containing information regarding these events and veterinary wellness topics, please click here. More information can be found at www.criticalcarevet.ca.