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Let’s talk about Impostor Syndrome

INSTAGRAM @chriswilsonvet    
Chris Wilson grew up in Aberdeen, Scotland, and studied at the University of Glasgow. After several years in rural mixed practice and volunteering abroad, he is now working in London as a small animal veterinarian and is pursuing a Certificate in Internal Medicine.

The word “justify,” stamped on my essay—the digital equivalent of that red pen favoured by teachers—haunted me back when I first undertook my veterinary medicine degree. Now, seven years since graduating, I find myself pursuing a certificate in Internal Medicine with the same problem: struggling with providing a lack of clear justification for certain tests and treatments.

I have learnt my lesson, but the experience got me reminiscing on my constant self-lambasting—the consistent need to justify myself and provide validation for my success.

How many times have I assessed myself and mentally branded myself with “justify”?

Impostor Syndrome is the term used for this feeling of inadequacy; a deep rooted anxiety that you will be uncovered as a fraud. Often, this occurs despite significant external recognition and clear evidence of your competence. Unfortunately, it is a well established phenomenon in the veterinary profession and there is no doubt it is linked to the high levels of psychological stress that we see in our industry.

When you consider the timeline many of us have followed to reach this stage it becomes quite evident where this stems from. We succeed at high school, often amongst the brightest of our peers. Then, we are plunged into University, where suddenly we feel small; lost amongst our contemporaries. Next, we graduate and enter the daunting work life of vets everywhere. This is maybe where it is felt most acutely.

I frequently remember feeling swamped with questions from owners I could not answer. Should I know these things? Had I studied and worked my whole academic life to be rewarded with this feeling of inadequacy? This chronological reinforcement of insecurity reinforces this mirage that we do not deserve to be where we are. Factors such as race, gender, and sexuality, no doubt extend this further. Yet there is no doubt, we have all worked and excelled to get where we are, irrespective of who we are. So, ensure you take time to recognise your value and focus on the victories and successes you create.

The term “fake it to make it” sometimes gets thrown around, the legacy of some good-intentioned motivational speakers. Personally, this has never sat well with me and I am wary of over-confidence. It is important to know our limitations to ensure we can provide the best care and never be afraid to ask for help or advice. Ultimately this is to the benefit of our patients and it harbours more respect from clients and owners.

Most importantly, if you are feeling overwhelmed, seeking guidance is advisable. This can take the form of a mentor or colleague, or professional support. It takes strength to do so and should not be feared or regarded as weakness.

Years later, I still get caught off guard every now and then. One of the realisations I have had when it comes to working as a veterinarian is that you will still experience doubt; the key is not to let that doubt control your actions. Questioning your rationale and logic is integral to performing good medicine. So be prepared to justify your decisions and actions, just never feel you need to justify your position. You deserve to be where you are.

Now comfortable with my belonging as a vet, it appears I have decided to inflict that feeling upon myself again. By seeking further qualification, I again feel surrounded by those that appear more adept and experienced than me. A perpetual small fish in a big pond.

In reality, it is not ourselves that fail to grow, more that our expectations fail to acknowledge and properly reward ourselves for our growth. We grow; but the pond grows bigger still.

One of the most cathartic realisations about Impostor Syndrome is that it is a universal experience. The writer Neil Gaiman, who himself experiences the syndrome, reflected on meeting Neil Armstrong, who revealed his own feelings of inadequacy:

“Maybe there weren’t any grown-ups, only people who had worked hard and also got lucky and were slightly out of their depth, all of us doing the best job we could, which is all we can really hope for.”

Impostor syndrome is an insidious foe that creeps into your professional psyche. Yet, it is an unfounded phenomenon and it is ironically an impostor itself. It does not deserve to be there, so call it out and never feel the need to justify your success.

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