At the start of each Aspire season we put a lot of effort into getting to know the delegates. Many are shy, some are self-assured, but there are threads of commonality across all.
Walking into a room full of relative strangers and talking about dentistry can be slightly uncomfortable for lots of people. It’s actually cathartic when they realise that all of their stresses and anxieties are shared by everyone else in the room (some just hide it better!).
This year we noticed a particular phenomenon which seemed more prevalent than ever before. I’m sure it’s always been there, dragging people down and stressing them out on a Sunday evening; it’s just this year enough people brought it up as a noted problem. Imposter syndrome.
Most people who reported this as happening to them didn’t know it had a name. They described their feelings, the circumstances, and their working life, and it was like listening to a text-book description.
Whether this strikes a chord with you or not, it’s worth reading on to check out whether you’re prone to this and, if you are, how to overcome it.
Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon, impostorism, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience) is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’. Despite external evidence of their competence, those experiencing this phenomenon remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve all they have achieved. Individuals with impostorism attribute their success to luck or deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent than they perceive themselves to be. While early research focused on the prevalence among high-achieving women, impostor syndrome has been recognised to affect both men and women equally.
Impostor phenomenon is not a mental disorder, yet there is research describing various management styles for this internal experience.
Impostor syndrome is something we have encountered many, many times over the years with dentists, particularly when they are undergoing professional transformations; and, while they are enjoying and desire the changes, they somehow feel they are ‘faking it’, and that this new, wealthier, ‘private practice’ version of themselves is not the ‘real’ version.
Did you qualify with BDS then suddenly look forward to working on real people unsupervised and think “OMG, this is real”?
Do you plan to ‘practise’ for a few years in the NHS before you ‘deserve’ the right to apply for a private associate position?
It’s not all bad, however. Imposter syndrome (‘IS’) can be used to give you an edge that keeps itself sharp. We’ll come back to that at the end.
Perhaps the most frequently seen yet entirely innocent manifestation of IS is when a talented individual attends a hands-on day, watches the live microscopic preparation demo, processes the information, uses the right bur, moves the well-angulated handpiece with control and precision, and then as we evaluate their prep and tell them it’s actually really rather good, a look of sceptical incredulity crosses their face. It’s almost as if they think that either they didn’t do it or it happened by luck. Good handpiece control making micron-accurate tooth preparations isn’t luck, people.
I’ve experienced ego-fuelled, scared little men try and impose imposter syndrome on those around them by continuously referencing back to a person’s former self—a weak spot, a former prep attempt, or a former case where things weren’t ideal first time. This is imposter syndrome in reverse. Does anyone do this to you?
I regularly come across delegates who simply will not act because of the severity of their IS. They have excellent emotional intelligence and great hard skills. They are ready to move on and upgrade but simply cannot believe in themselves enough to act. It’s paralysed them completely. Actually, this is quite common.
Impostor syndrome manifests itself in different ways, but fundamentally the phenomenon is rooted in a universal human truth: we want the future to PROVE the past.
As such, we desire positive change in our lives, but doubt the change within ourselves that comes with it.
Imagine, for example, that you believe yourself to be a strong person, that you can handle anything, and that you can endure, and that you have lived that belief out. Finding out you are wrong is horrible.
So, you use your past as proof as to what you can overcome. Being this strong person would be an integral part of your identity. Inversely, though, you could have the opposite narrative, and in such a case, your weakness and insecurity is your identity, and you cannot let go of those qualities, as you are essentially being asked to let go part of who you are.
Strong or weak. It’s irrelevant which; both threaten your self-identity and can be scary.
And strange though it may be, our minds inherently fear any break from the past, and interpret it as a loss. We can rationally say we are letting go of self-limiting beliefs and stories, but we have an unsettled feeling that we are still parting with something of ourselves.
Impostor syndrome is classically characterised as a lack of confidence over one’s accomplishments, but actually it can be thought of as an identity crisis issue, one that ‘virally’ takes over one’s whole mental state.
Your personality and identity are not fixed. Overcoming IS, shyness, a lack of gravitas doesn’t mean you are not you, and you truly can upgrade and change such things for the better. Yes, you will change, but you will still be you. Just know you will prefer the new update!
‘A leopard cannot change its spots’. Bollocks. I have changed. We are in the business of changing people and have witnessed many people evolve into better and very different versions of themselves.
People change. Personalities are not static, our experiences shape us, reinforce us, and in the case of transformation, break and remake us.
Poor interpersonal communicators can become experts in connecting, as long as they want to.
The shy can become bold. The inauthentic can become true.
We cannot enforce such change, hence the conclusion about leopards. If you try to enforce change, the subject is compelled to fight back. If they invite the change, accept the change, then the upgrade is inevitably going to happen. It’s like a vampire, it HAS TO BE INVITED IN!
Yet human beings, and to my mind particularly dentists, are paradoxical creatures. We have many platitudes and stories that encourage us to change, to adapt, to constantly learn and improve. We have the stories and these principles, but then at the same time we have a deep instinct for things to remain the same. I will frequently recommend superb books and such subjects which the reader enjoys; but later, when questioned on what action the book made them take…the answer is silence.
We want routine, we want seamlessness, we want familiarity.
If your ‘hack and slash’ roundhouse crown preps work, do you really want to spend time unlearning that and developing new, delicate skills to create mutually better outcomes?
We want to know that what we see is what we get and that what we know is all there is to know.
We want to be challenged, but not to be challenged beyond our realm of familiarity.
We say that we want to change, but only within our realm of comfort of what we think change is.
On a surface level, one can attribute impostor syndrome to these things, but the surface level is a symptom, not a cause. Fear of loss of self-identity is the biggest cause.
We fear LOSING, and to lose what we have been prior is something that strikes at the soul, we clutch the ladder rung so tightly in fear that there won’t be another above it, and that the ones below it will disappear completely. So for anything in us to change, we MUST lose something…maybe, maybe not.
Our lives are made and defined by our actions, not our thoughts. You may argue that thought directs action (it does), but one cannot argue that your reality is directed by passive thinking. The world manifests itself to you by your actions. It reacts to your action.
So if you steer your thoughts towards actions, you know you will make the world react how you want.
“I became a millionaire the day I decided I would be one,” is a quote which captures it all.
We are what we say we are, and act out.
Impostor syndrome traps you on a strange loop with a past-tense script of your life: “I am not this person, I am not, I am not…”
You say that over and over again, but then your actions contradict it, and then you go one step further and weight your feelings over your actions. You are a qualified dentist, but you doubt your right to be so.
Actions beat Everything that is not action.
So if you are stuck with the mindset that You can only ever be what you have been…
…Well, that isn’t true. So, what changes for people? It’s a simple transition for those that genuinely overcome it. They do something for long enough, to the extent that they have PAST to draw upon that disproves their doubts.
That’s why our hands-on days involve LOTS of as-close-to-real-life-simulation as possible. We develop that self-belief and don’t let you go home until you really feel it. Delegates often need the assurance of time to affirm a change in their beliefs about themselves.
I have a great friend who came to me for some dental training. In her first two years of practising, she was constantly crippled with anxiety and fear of being accused of…something. That she wasn’t good enough somehow.
At the two-year mark, she had finally built up enough past-tense proof that she was being ridiculous, but it still took two years.
Could she have overcome that sooner? Perhaps. But she needed the assurance of time.
There is something of a secret here as well: those who adapt fastest are those who are always in a state of becoming, who do not suffer from the hold of the past.
If you want to change, you act differently.
Here is another quote from someone who had a massive paralysing IS problem, who was from last year’s cohort:
“I started being a better dentist when I decided to be one. There was nothing to let go of. I could either be this GDP, a bit lazy, trying to cut clinical corners and looking for easy ways to a quick result, or I could be better. So I acted better, and that comes with thinking differently, but really it’s all about action. Otherwise it’s just words, thoughts. And words lost to my action.”
He is right. He takes home £28K per month now. All through word of mouth. His action provokes reaction. Both are positive. Both are happy. He had to believe.
But How Do I Overcome a Crippling Impostor Syndrome?
There is nothing to overcome. You FEEL a certain way.
Bluntly, shove those feelings up your arse. They’re not real and that’s where they belong.
Unless you are attempting to practise dentistry without a GDC registration, you’re not an impostor. You will BE what you LIVE OUT.
No more, no less.
As a high performer in a tough job, you most likely have at one point or another felt like an impostor. Seventy per cent of people do at some time.
Impostor syndrome, in small doses, can actually be an asset and benefit to your life. But only when you have managed the feelings it induces and they’re kept in check.
Two big reasons why impostor syndrome can actually be a benefit are:
1. It keeps you operating with an edge.
You’ll never get complacent after success. You have success, recognise it, enjoy it, but never let go of the tiny doubt that it could have gone wrong without your efforts and attention. That way you always bring your A game. In fact, you become an A game.
As Robert Greene states in the 50th Law, “The greatest danger you face is your mind growing soft and your eyes getting dull.”
When you start to worry or feel fraudulent, take that as a signal that you have more growing and evolving to do. This is not a time for rest and to lay off the accelerator. Instead, this feeling of being an impostor keeps you competitive and hungry for more success and growth.
This feeling is much needed because it doesn’t allow you to rest on your current and past accomplishments—because you know that isn’t enough to stay relevant and tops in your specific endeavours.
Lastly, operating with an edge due to this phenomenon is key because it brings a sense of urgency and added pressure to your life which is your best friend.
Whatever it is you feel an impostor about, lean into it, relish it, and use it for energy to continuously improve.
2. It keeps your ego in check.
When it comes to ego, American physicist Richard Feynman says it best, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.”
Feeling like an impostor can serve as a benefit because it won’t allow your ego to become overinflated. When your ego is in command, growth stagnates because comfort becomes the driving force, which leads you to play it safe and avoid any potential unknowns. You also become an arse.
Embrace those uncomfortable impostor feelings because this will make you a better dentist as you become a life-long student. A student is open to learning as opposed to being shut off from the potential new knowledge that helps you move and evolve at a faster pace in life.
Next time feelings of being an impostor bubble up inside of you, don’t wish they weren’t there. Instead, smile and be thankful they’re there because this is a signal that you’re getting uncomfortable, which is a necessity for growth and expansion in any facet of life. If it’s allowed to grow too much, we can help anyone, including you.
1. Langford, Joe; Clance, Pauline Rose (Fall 1993). “The impostor phenomenon: recent research findings regarding dynamics, personality and family patterns and their implications for treatment” (PDF). Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training. 30 (3): 495–501. doi:10.1037/0033-322.214.171.1245. “Studies of college students (Harvey, 1981; Bussotti, 1990; Langford, 1990), college professors (Topping, 1983), and successful professionals (Dingman, 1987) have all failed, however, to reveal any sex differences in impostor feelings, suggesting that males in these populations are just as likely as females to have low expectations of success and to make attributions to non-ability related factors.”
2. Sakulku, J.; Alexander, J. (2011). “The Impostor Phenomenon”. International Journal of Behavioral Science. 6: 73–92. doi:10.14456/ijbs.2011.6.
3. Lebowitz, Shana (12 January 2016). “Men are suffering from a psychological phenomenon that can undermine their success, but they’re too ashamed to talk about it”. businessinsider.com. Business Insider. Retrieved 8 February 2016.
4. Clance, Pauline R.; Imes, Suzanne A. (Fall 1978). “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention” (PDF). Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice. 15 (3): 241–247. CiteSeerX 10.1.1.452.4294. doi:10.1037/h0086006.