Imposter syndrome: what is it and how to deal with it

imposter syndromeBlanche Kadjo explains how imposter syndrome affected her and methods she used to cope with it.

Do you sometimes feel like your achievements or level of success is all down to luck? That you don’t belong in dental school or deserve to be a dentist? Or that you shouldn’t surround yourself with ‘genuinely smart’ people because you have a constant feeling of somebody outing you one day as a fraud?

You may or may not have know of a common phenomena that most high achievers have called imposter syndrome. This is something I have struggled with ever since I completed my GCSEs and it was only recently I understood these feelings to be imposter syndrome.

Mental health dialogue in the dental sphere has skyrocketed. We now openly discuss these topics in various webinars, conferences and social media platforms. Nearly half of all adults in the UK have had a diagnosable mental health condition at some point in their life. Is is therefore important that we recognise all psychological patterns and they become a concern for help.

After having my own personal revelation with imposter syndrome, I am now able to discuss it openly and share the different ways I have used to combat these feelings of failure and self-doubt.

I hope this article will shed some light on this surprisingly common psychological pattern and bring awareness in the dental community to secure feelings of belonging.

My dental school experience

We all faced the pressure and difficulty of getting into dental school. Whether you had to retake a year or some exams, or maybe not get into your first-choice university, most outsiders would consider getting into dental school a huge achievement. You’re on the path of success.

For me however, although the people around me were happy and proud, I felt quite shocked. I almost did not apply for dentistry at all because I did not believe I could achieve it. Thankfully my old A-level chemistry teacher pushed me and gave me the confidence I needed to apply.

During my time at university, it’s very clear to see the level of competitiveness there was in comparison to school. Slowly as the years went by my general anxiety started to increase and this was directly correlated to the level of competitiveness in my cohort. I started to compare myself to very high achievers. I went from being the top of my class at school to very slowly declining. It was a huge blow to my confidence.

I started to get these feelings of anxiety whenever results day came. I was convinced a member of staff would eventually have a chat with me to let me know that my being there was a mistake. Nevertheless, I tried my best to block out these feelings of self-doubt, never really addressing the problem yet having a gut feeling that one day all my achievements will explode into nothing.

First realisation that I had imposter syndrome

Now generally, for the first four years of dental school, I did relatively well. Not hugely brilliant, nor was I on the same level as I was in sixth form. But it was good enough to sail through dental school without much thought.

In the beginning of final year, I put in a lot of effort to try to get a better grade in one of my MCQ exams. This was the most I ever revised for something at dental school. I also decided to be more positive and optimistic of my abilities. I always had friends and members of staff tell me how I good I was at certain clinical procedures. It did boost my confidence, so I relayed that confidence when revising for the exam.

You could imagine my initial shock when I found out I failed that exam.

This shock was very shortly followed by a ‘I knew it’ moment. It was almost like I had solidified my feelings. I tried my best and yet failed – therefore my reasoning was I did not belong here. This was how I felt my entire final year.

Unfortunately, because of this, I started not to care about my exams and deadlines. I was convinced I would be told to leave soon anyway. It didn’t help that everyone around me had passed, sometimes with flying colours. Nevertheless, I masked my true feelings and pretended to be happy for the sake of internal peace.

On the other side of the spectrum, when I did do well in exams later on in the year, I had a huge sense of guilt that I had somehow stolen someone’s grade. Someone who was much more deserving of it than I. After every good results day, I would have delusional thoughts that it was likely a technical error and someone would out me very soon.

How to cope with imposter syndrome

After I graduated, I took time to reflect on my experiences at dental school, how I felt about my achievements and my overall mental state of mind. One day I came across a subreddit called imposter syndrome. I fell into a rabbit hole, reading post after post and feeling a huge sense of comfort and understanding of why I felt this way. It was truly enlightening to see how others had the same feelings as I and how they cope with it too.

Coping with imposter syndrome is hard, as it’s a blend of personal emotions that can be difficult to push aside. These is how I combat these feelings:

1. Reinforcing positivity in every aspect of my life

Keeping a gratitude planner or positive diary to journal all my thoughts as well as regularly reading words of affirmation was a great way to shift my mindset. There are several apps for motivation as well that you can use.

2. It’s pointless to compare yourself to someone else

Everyone’s growth is completely different. No two people are the same. Some people’s success grows linearly, whilst others exponentially. During the same point in time it will never appear the same. So do not look at others for a sense of approval. Your personal growth will come eventually when the time is right.

3. Celebrate your achievements

No matter how small, celebrate what you achieve and be proud because you did that! I started an Instagram account for the first time after graduating, purely to celebrate the fact I graduated.

I never made Instagram before because I believed I didn’t deserve to showcase anything or that anyone would care. But personally, it has helped me to reflect back on the great things that I’ve done and build confidence in what I can do.

4. Break the silence

It’s important not to bottle up your feelings or you will experience burn out and increased anxiety. You can get help from a confidential helpline or discuss your feelings with your academic or pastoral tutors. Whatever you do, tell someone because you’re not alone and you can get help!

Final think piece

If everything I have said sounds like you too, please remember that you are meant to be in dental school and you are meant to be a dentist. You are not worth any less than any other dentist or dental student, nor are you incapable.

You do belong here and you always will.

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