Leah Kanda, a fourth year dental student at King's College London, tells us about imposter syndrome and how to tackle it.
Do you suffer from chronic self-doubt? Do you worry people hold you to expectations you can't meet? Or do you feel like a fraud who can't recognise your own successes? I have struggled with feelings like these since secondary school. Recently, I've realised that this may be imposter syndrome and that I'm not alone.
What is imposter syndrome?
Imposter syndrome describes being unable to experience an inner sense of competence or success, despite positive external evidence. It's often experienced by high achievers and is a live issue in dental schools. Imposter syndrome looks like:
- Being unable to accept that your own accomplishments are deserved
- Discounting your success, accrediting it to luck, timing or help
- Only comparing yourself to successful peers
- It's also linked to perfectionism
- But not necessarily linked to low self-esteem.
Is it a problem in dental schools?
Research has shown that students in dental and medical schools show high levels of imposter syndrome.1 This internal struggle can stop students with higher levels of self-doubt from fully enjoying dental school.
These thoughts can be powerful even when they are not logical. For example, I've done well in exams, but because of imposter syndrome my first thought has often been that I've received good grades in error. I would often worry I'd received someone else's grade, believing that I couldn't have done as well as my peers. This is how imposter syndrome robs you of your hard won accomplishments.
"Imposter feelings are not uncommon, when we're faced with new challenges"
Imposter feelings are not uncommon, when we're faced with new challenges. Earlier this year for example, a study found dental students had heightened imposter feelings in the clinical setting of dental school, as they were assessed on new hand skills.2 One student described their experience as "believing I am not as science minded and somehow behind my peers.2
Female dental students have also been shown to exhibit significantly higher experiences of imposter syndrome than male students.2 This has even been shown to limit women in their careers.3 I'd argue that this means there's an added onus on dental schools to take imposter syndrome seriously. Education and coping protocols regarding imposter experiences should be part of the curriculum.
How can we tackle imposter syndrome?
Imposter syndrome is not inevitable. This year, for example, a study created an online module to help dental students with it by helping to provide coping mechanisms.2 This showed a decrease from 13.6% to 4.9% in students dealing with imposter stress.
Some of these successful coping strategies include:
Establish a peer supportive community: Discuss your feelings with peers or personal tutors, suppressing your emotions will only lead to increased anxiety.
Recognise failure as a learning opportunity: You can learn a multitude of lessons through failure. Normalise failure and realise it is something everyone experiences is important.
Focus on the bigger picture: Visualise your success and focus on your career goals in an attempt to decrease self-comparison against your peers. You will not find a sense of approval in others. Every person's growth and success are completely different.
Reconsider your thoughts: If you feel as if you don't deserve success, remind yourself that in dental school it is normal to not know everything and your knowledge will broaden as you progress.
I've used some of these strategies to combat imposter syndrome in my own life. They're a useful circuit breaker for unhelpful thoughts and can help you regain perspective. Studying dentistry can be stressful, but these coping strategies can help you to tackle its challenges and value your accomplishments.
Dental student, King’s College London
- Henning K, Ey S, Shaw D. Perfectionism, the impostor phenomenon and psychological adjustment in medical, dental, nursing and pharmacy students. Medical education. 1998 Sep;32(5):456-64.
- Metz C, Ballard E, Metz M. The stress of success: An online module to help first-year dental students cope with the Impostor Phenomenon. Journal of Dental Education. 2020.
- Clance PR, OToole MA. The imposter phenomenon: An internal barrier to empowerment and achievement. Women & Therapy. 1987 Dec 16;6(3):51-64.