Do you suffer from imposter syndrome?

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imposter syndrome
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A whopping 84.1 per cent of new dentists and dental students experience imposter syndrome in the workplace. So what is it and how can you best overcome such a tough inner critic? By Rashida Tayabali

Imposter syndrome or imposter phenomenon affects 70 per cent of people including celebrities, artists, and successful businesspeople. 

Surprisingly, this percentage is much higher when it comes to dentists. Research published in the National Library of Medicine found 84.1 per cent of undergraduate dental students surveyed had moderate to severe imposter phenomenon experiences and 7.05 per cent showed intense IP experiences.

What is imposter syndrome?

Imposter Syndrome was first identified and coined in the 1970s by two female psychologists in America. It’s not a mental health condition or illness. Interestingly, no two people have the same experience of imposter syndrome, and it affects both men and women equally.

According to an expert on the condition, Alison Shamir, a person who suffers from imposter syndrome believes they’re not as intelligent, capable, qualified, or talented as others perceive them to be, despite evidence of their abilities and accomplishments.

“People with Imposter Syndrome struggle to internalise and accept their successes because they don’t feel worthy or deserving. Deep down, they feel like a fraud and that they’ll be exposed soon enough,” says Shamir.

Imposter syndrome shouldn’t be left unchecked because it can lead to negative effects on an individual’s or team’s mental, physical, emotional, and financial health, as well as an organisation’s bottom line. 

“It’s not something you can outrun, ignore, or sweep under the rug. It can stick around for years and becomes worse the more successful the person becomes. Imposter syndrome can also limit someone’s potential and ability to be successful. People also suffer from feelings of inadequacy which affects how the person views their successes, and often stops them from enjoying the results of their hard work,” says Shamir.

Causes of imposter syndrome

New dentists and dental students can be more susceptible to imposter syndrome than older, more experienced dentists, especially in a new setting or when performing a new procedure, causing them to doubt their abilities.

Shamir says this could be due to the competitive nature of the clinic, the individual’s own perfectionist tendencies, or a distorted idea of what they feel or think is expected of them. 

“Dental students and dentists often find themselves in academically rigorous and competitive atmospheres, constantly striving for higher marks and more prestigious positions. This relentless chasing or next ‘levels’ can lead to a sense of never feeling ‘good enough’, despite their achievements and skills,” she says. 

Some professional and academic environments can contribute to imposter syndrome if there’s bias, negative feedback or unrealistic standards. For example, a professional setting that favours certain individuals, or pushes for unachievable success standards can make others feel like they don’t belong or aren’t good enough. Constant comparison and pressure to keep up with exceptionally talented peers can fuel feelings of being an imposter, even if the person is skilled and capable. 

“This pressure is further intensified in private practice, where there’s a constant battle to establish and maintain a successful business and perform the work. It can lead to burnout and other mental health and physical illness issues. The nature of dental work demands meticulous precision and dealing with complex cases, reinforcing the idea that there’s no room for error, only perfection,” says Shamir. 

“It’s easy for new dentists to look around and think that everyone else except themselves has it figured out, fuelling their imposter syndrome. The combination of high expectations, constant comparison, and the quest for perfection creates ongoing fuel for imposter syndrome where some dentists continuously fear being exposed as a fraud, despite their expertise and accomplishments.”

Tackling the disorder

“While imposter syndrome may not disappear overnight, it’s possible to manage it and prevent it getting in your way,” says Shamir who coaches individuals who are experiencing signs and symptoms. She encourages them to act as soon as feelings of being an imposter arise. Some foundational steps include changing your behaviours and forming new habits through practice and repetition. 

“Every time your imposter voice pipes up, identify what triggered it, stop the negative thought or voice immediately and redirect your behaviour,” she advises. “Repeat this as many times as you can. The more you practise these steps, the faster you’ll become at implementing them and stopping imposter syndrome in its tracks.”

Her second tip is to not pursue perfection because it’s an unhealthy view of competence and success. She suggests striving for excellence and not perfection, even if there’s a demand for it in the profession.

Her third tip is to practise self-compassion and avoid negative self-talk. “You’re your own worst critic when you have imposter syndrome. To cut through, you need to take back control of your self-talk and replace it with positive language. How we speak to ourselves matters.”  

She also recommends identifying your triggers (the stimuli that leads to negative feelings), and the negative thoughts of your inner imposter voice that tend to follow such feelings. 

“Intercept and reframe the thought into a new true statement, one based on evidence, not fear. When we reframe it, we immediately speak to ourselves in a more calm and confident manner. And how we speak to ourselves impacts the next action we take. We have two choices: we learn to catch the negative thought, reframe it, and take a confident action or we continue to self-sabotage which keeps us stuck in the cycle of imposter syndrome.” 

Shamir’s last tip is to get support; find peers you can speak with honestly. “Many of us suffer imposter syndrome in silence but we can begin to strip away its power when we speak about or share our experiences in psychologically safe environments.”  

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