By Dr. Michelle Davis, DBH
Director of the DBH Program, Cummings Graduate Institute for Behavioral Health Studies

September 9, 2019

Am I really any good at this? Is my success down to luck rather than abilities? Will I be exposed as a fraud? Am I just pretending to fit in? Questions like this plague many of us.
A bit of self-doubt is not uncommon, and insecurity can be viewed as a part of normal professional development. Some argue that to improve, we all need to self-reflect on our practice. However, on the extreme end of the self-doubt spectrum sits the Impostor Syndrome or the Impostor Phenomenon, which can result in psychological distress and personal dissatisfaction.

The phenomenon is well-researched in education and health care. Associate Professor Aimee Aubeeluck from the University of Nottingham in the UK defines Impostor Syndrome as an “internal experience of intellectual phoniness.” It is usually witnessed in individuals who seem successful to others, but on the inside, they feel incompetent. A pilot study conducted by Aubeeluck and her colleagues found that 70% of graduate nursing students experience feelings of impostorism. They feel fraudulent within their profession upon registration and can exhibit signs of anxiety, depression, and fear (Aubeeluck, Stacey, & Stupple, 2016).

Impostor Syndrome is usually associated with high-achieving individuals and is particularly common among health care providers early in their career. However, senior practitioners are not immune to it either. For example, one Canadian study found that even physicians at advanced career stages question the validity of their achievements and can identify as impostors (LaDonna, Ginsburg, & Watling, 2018). A recent study from the University of Florida College of Medicine, Gainesville, and the University of Maryland School of Medicine, Baltimore, also suggested that the Impostor Phenomenon could be one of the reasons why women still lag behind men in publications and job promotions (Armstrong & Shulman, 2019). That is not to say Impostor Syndrome is limited to women; research shows both men and women can experience it.

Despite being common, Impostor Syndrome is underacknowledged in the health care community. Individuals who experience it rarely talk about it. Left unaddressed, impostorism can lead to inaccurate self-assessment, affecting professional identity and fulfillment of potential.

If you feel you might be too harsh on yourself and your work, you can take a short Impostor Test developed by Dr. Pauline Rose Clance. Moreover, there are steps you can take to shake off the paralyzing doubts. Dr. Valerie Young, an internationally recognized expert on Impostor Syndrome, talks about stopping to think like an impostor. Her advice is to break the silence, acknowledge the feelings, and learn how to be kinder to yourself. You can listen to her TED talk, where she shares ways you can use to reframe your thoughts. There are plenty of other useful resources on Impostor Syndrome that you can use as your further reading.

And, if you ever feel like you’re the only one feeling like a fraud, this short TED-Ed animation will assure you that Impostor Syndrome is indeed ubiquitous.