Impostor syndrome: Overcoming your psychological glass ceiling

October 25, 2017
Hannah Wagle, Associate Content Specialist

When you feel like a fraud, its enough to turn even the most positive of people toward despair. Drs. Sarah Wooten and Karen Bradley are here to help you shatter that barrier.

Photo: Shutterstock.comKaren Bradley, DVM, had been working in a relief practice all day before stepping into her night shift at an emergency animal hospital. Among her many patients was a Spaniel in labor-two puppies had been born, but there were eight more still to go. As a recent graduate, Dr. Bradley considered this a gray zone in terms of what to do. Finally, in order to save her patients, she decided a cesarean section was the best route.

She marched into the lobby where the family waited for news. Dr. Bradley gave them her professional opinion: She wanted to move forward with a C-section in order to save the puppies.

The man turned to his wife as Dr. Bradley began to further explain her reasoning and said, “I just think this bitch is too tired.”

Dr. Bradley was taken aback. Yes, she'd worked all day and night. That didn't mean she should be looked down on so blatantly.

“Yes, I'm tired,” she said, defensive. “But I've had coffee and I'm trying to do the best I can!”

She was so deep in her imposter syndrome she didn't realize the man was referring to the dog, not Dr. Bradley.

Been there before?

Impostor syndrome: The psychological glass ceiling

In a recent CVC-now Fetch dvm360!-session, Dr. Karen Bradley and her co-presenter, Dr. Sarah Wooten, talked with female veterinary professionals about the toll impostor syndrome takes. Impostor syndrome, the feeling of being a fraud in your work or personal life, affects two out of five people, according to Drs. Wooten and Bradley.

“And the more responsibility you have, the more life-or-death situations you deal with, the more things are at stake, the more likely you are to feel this way,” said Dr. Bradley in the session.

According to Dr. Wooten, there are four behaviors that professionals show when dealing with impostor syndrome:

> You use charm to get more praise or recognition.

> You avoid displays of confidence to avoid rejection.

> You work too much or too hard in order to do better.

> You try to be a people pleaser instead of being authentic with those around you.

But all those behaviors can be more or less normal in people-that doesn't mean they're feeling like impostors.

So, how do you know you're suffering from this syndrome?

Dr. Wooten says it won't always be as dramatic as thinking your client is referring to you as a tired bitch.


One sign you feel like a fake is tied to something called “attribution theory.” Professionals experiencing impostor syndrome will attribute their successes to external factors (“I got lucky” or “That other person made this happen”) and failures to internal factors (“This is my fault” or “I'm not good enough; that's why this fell apart”). How does gender come into play? Men will usually give success internal attribution and failure external attribution. While there are always exceptions, Dr. Wooten says it's usually the opposite case for women.

And when applied to the veterinary world, that's a scary thought. Veterinary schools now enroll 70 to 80 percent female students, and AVMA reported that women members outnumbered men for the first time in 2009 (read more on the gender shift here). 

So, that's all the bad news. Here's the good news: There are fixes to the problem of impostor syndrome that you can apply right now. Drs. Bradley and Wooten listed three during their session.

Impostor syndrome fix No. 1

Trash the phrase, “Fake it till you make it,” and replace it with, “Fake it till you become it.” While this may feel very inauthentic, Dr. Bradley says there's a happy medium to be found between the two feelings.

“When you go out of your comfort zone, you should survey the room, observe and learn from them,” she says. “In the exam room, it's not that you should fake what's going on, but say you don't know what's going on but you're going to figure it out.”

Impostor syndrome fix No. 2

Another solution is to celebrate your syndrome. Dr. Wooten told attendees, “If you're suffering from impostor syndrome, congratulations! You're a part of an elite group of high-achieving individuals with scary goals.”

She reminded Fetch dvm360 attendees to keep strong female leaders in mind-even they experience impostor syndrome. As examples, she quotes award-winning actress Kate Winslet and legendary poet and activist Maya Angelou, who have both struggled with impostor syndrome in their careers.

Impostor syndrome fix No. 3

The third solution, according to the duo, is acceptance.

Dr. Bradley likes to picture Loki, the mischievous god from the Avengers film franchise, saying, “Darling, no one deserves to be here more than you.” She knows to remind herself that she does have something to bring to the proverbial table and that she does have an important opinion on the matters in her career.

It's important, Dr. Bradley says, to remind yourself that you're not being judged by those asking for your help. Nobody knows everything-some know more on certain topics than others, including yourself.

Last but not least, Drs. Wooten and Bradley tell you to own it. When it comes to compliments, accept them. Stop making assumptions about what others “think” about you when you're unsure. Make sure you have at least one trusted friend to talk it out with-knowing that you're not alone in your feelings. Recognize your accomplishments, no matter how small-own that you did something positive. You've got this!