Silencing your inner critic

March 16, 2021
Rebecca A. Packer, MS, DVM, DACVIM (Neurology/Neurosurgery)

Dr. Packer is an associate professor of neurology/neurosurgery at Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences in Fort Collins, and is board certified in neurology by the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine. She is active in clinical and didactic training of veterinary students and residents and has developed a comparative neuro-oncology research program at Colorado State University.

Here’s everything you need to know about imposter syndrome in veterinary medicine, plus strategies to help you banish it for good.

There’s no doubt that the veterinary profession has its share of mental challenges. Most of us feel the strain at least occasionally, if not regularly. There are many aspects to these challenges, but a common one is the prevalence of imposter syndrome. During her recent Fetch talk, Colleen Best, DVM, PhD, CCFP, discussed what imposter syndrome is, its etiology, and how to combat those feelings. If you have ever experienced imposter syndrome or felt stress associated with this profession, here’s what you need to know.

A closer look at imposter syndrome

Dr. Best defined imposter syndrome, based on original research by Clance and Imes in 1978, as a feeling of phoniness, and of chance being the source of your success instead of your skills and effort. This syndrome was first described in high-achieving women. While imposter syndrome tends to occur more frequently in women and other underrepresented demographic groups, Best warned attendees that no demographic group is immune, regardless of age, sex, or race. One of the most challenging aspects of imposter syndrome is the proficiency with which the person can negate and undermine evidence that demonstrates their capability.

How often have we downplayed our accomplishments by saying it was just chance, good timing, or due to an external force unrelated to our expertise? Dr. Best explained that this cycle, in part, drives imposter syndrome and that negative self-talk can become a self-fulfilling prophecy that undermines our work and underestimates our value. Eventually, we may disengage in our careers, avoid challenges, and limit our career growth.

Imposter syndrome tends to be transient, resulting from certain triggering events or situations. Overall, the interaction of these triggers is complex and multifactorial. Ultimately, they all tend to potentiate us feeling as if we have failed to meet our own expectations. But where do these expectations come from?

Unreasonable expectations

Social media certainly plays a role in setting unreasonable expectations, as it only provides a glimpse (or iceberg view) of others’ lives. When our lives seemingly fall short, it’s easy to forget that social media neglects the unseen and more realistic, portion of the proverbial iceberg. Previous experiences, relationships, society, and our own hopes and aspirations all play a role in setting these expectations for ourselves. Facing new challenges, working with new team members, personal traits of perfectionism, and demographic influences (eg, including expectations based on your demographic) also play a role in this cycle. Once these situations or events trigger feelings of inadequacy, the cycle is hard to stop until we start to focus, or “notice” as Dr. Best refers to it, what is occurring. We may not have been aware that we had these expectations until we failed to meet them, and then we struggle to manage the effects. The result is often to perceive the unmet expectation as a personal failure. Feelings of anger, frustration, disappointment, eroded self-trust, and further damage to your self-esteem and self-confidence can result. And the farther into this negative cycle we are, the harder it is to cope with these effects. The body feels these stresses as a threat and initiates evolutionarily-adapted (or for this situation, maladaptive) behaviors. We become less able to balance our emotions, our ability to manage fear is diminished, and we lose critical insight. The first step to breaking this cycle, Dr. Best explains, is to acknowledge what is occurring, and then as soon as these stresses are recognized, focus on strategies to manage that maladaptive threat response.

How to stop toxic negative self-talk

Various forms of self-care, compassion, and shifting to a growth mindset will help break this imposter syndrome cycle. Among these are several “intentional breathing” techniques that can calm your body physiologically until other self-care activities can be performed. It may also help to seek honest feedback from a trusted colleague. Whereas friends or family may be innately biased, asking for honest feedback from a colleague may ultimately provide evidence of your competence to combat feelings of inadequacy.

Dr. Best emphasized that adopting a growth mindset, as opposed to a fixed mindset, is key to combating imposter syndrome. A fixed mindset is contingent on outcome, so one mistake may negate other achievements. Instead, a growth mindset is not contingent on outcomes, and one mistake is simply analyzed for what it is and improved upon. Instead of feeling as if you will never be good at something, focus on the idea that everyone learns and that you can grow in areas where you feel less competent. Instead of thinking, “I’m not good at this,” (fixed mindset) ask yourself, “What am I missing?” (growth mindset). It is important to remember that learning is always outside of one’s comfort zone and is likely to trigger the “threat” response.

At the beginning of the learning process or when facing new challenges, Dr. Best explained, we experience unconscious incompetence. This is not a stressful phase because we are naively unaware of our lack of ability. Once we pass into the phase of conscious incompetence, where we know we are incompetent but have not yet become proficient in our learned skill, this is particularly difficult and triggers the “threat” response. The self-perception can be, “I’m bad at this,” even though it is a natural and transient part of the learning process. Eventually, we transition through that phase and become competent at the skill. Dr Best explained that whenever we sense the feeling of conscious incompetence, such as when we make mistakes (even after reaching competence), that feeling of inadequacy can trigger our threat response and imposter syndrome.

The takeaway

Although it is common to feel a sense of loneliness after making a mistake, it’s important to remind yourself that everyone makes mistakes. Negative self-talk is helpful initially to point out learning opportunities or to protect us, but it’s important to learn how to quiet that inner voice and focus on growth. Recognizing our thoughts and feelings of inadequacy as soon as they occur allows us to counteract these thoughts and recapture a more balanced perspective before the cycle of negativity and imposter syndrome takes hold.

Dr. Packer is an associate professor of neurology/neurosurgery at Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences in Fort Collins, and is board certified in neurology by the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine. She is active in clinical and didactic training of veterinary students and residents and has developed a comparative neuro-oncology research program at Colorado State University.