Working Through Imposter Syndrome

Do you feel like an imposter at work? All too often, educated dietitians hold themselves back from opportunities due to feeling like they aren't qualified or capable enough to fulfill them. In this blog post, I review some of the ways you can work through imposter syndrome to achieve greater fulfillment and enjoyment in your career.

Imposter syndrome. Defined as “the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills”, or, also defined as “feelings of severe inadequacy and self-doubt that can leave people fearing that they will be exposed as a “fraud”, usually in their work lives” 

Sound familiar? 

To this date, I have yet to speak to an RD on my podcast who hasn't in some capacity listed this as one of the biggest challenges they have when it comes to their career. 

So why is that? In a field of highly successful, highly trained individuals, why do so many of us feel like “imposters” in our own profession? 

Today I want to talk a little bit about my journey working through imposter syndrome, in addition to some strategies I’ve adopted along the way. 

So I want to start off by talking about my journey with imposter syndrome. My most vivid recollections of imposter syndrome was when I started my very first job out of University. At that point, I had graduated from my 4 year honours specialization in nutrition & dietetics degree, I had a Masters in Public Health from U of T AND I had completed all of my practical training to become a dietitian. I was doing one of my final placements for a retail dietetics company and there was a job that opened up right as I was finalizing my placement. I worked hard, I applied for that role and was finally able to start working as a dietitian. 

I was so excited for that opportunity and to get my career started, but as soon as I started actually working in the role and being “on my own”, I found myself struggling with intense feelings of imposter syndrome. Some of the specific struggles I remembered were: 

  • What happens if I get asked questions I don’t know the answers to? I don’t feel like I’m the expert! 

  • Beating myself up for not being able to answer someones question 

  • Feeling like a “fraud” when I would work with other, more experienced dietitians 

  • Doubting my ability to make the right decisions 

  • I was “lucky” to get this opportunity, I’m not really the best candidate 

Now the funny thing was, throughout this entire process, all of these feelings were based predominantly in emotion. Although of course, there were times when I wouldn’t know the answer to someone’s question, overall I was actually doing a pretty good job! I didn’t have any concrete “evidence” to tell me that I wasn’t “doing enough”, I didn’t “know enough” or that I was making the “wrong decisions”. In fact, I had lots of clients and other dietitians who would consistently tell me I was doing a “great job” but for some reason, I just couldn’t believe them! 

Now, let me tell you, imposter syndrome doesn’t just “go away”. However, over time I have started to implement a process in my own life that helps me to work through these emotions instead of letting them hold me back. Because unfortunately, in addition to contributing to feelings of anxiety and stress, that’s one of the biggest symptoms of imposter syndrome - holding you back from pursuing your dreams and accomplishing your goals! 

So why is imposter syndrome so common in dietitians and dietetic students? 

Well, interestingly enough, psychologists believe that imposter syndrome is more common in high achieving women. Interestingly, when you’re a high achiever, you’ve likely been compared to others your entire life (through winning awards, getting better grades, etc.) This causes high achievers to: 1. Value comparison and 2. Be highly aware of comparison. So consequently, when you’re in a situation of high comparison (aka - dietetics education and the internship process), you learn to value yourself against others. Unfortunately, this then can lead to intense anxiety with a perception that you’re sub-par compared to those that you’re working with (aka - when you get into the workforce and you’re suddenly a small fish in a big pond). 

So now I want to shift and talk about some of the strategies I have implemented to “work through” imposter syndrome. Notice that I say “work through” instead of “combat” or “defeat” or “stop”. I know that imposter syndrome does not go away, but the key is to recognize it when it starts to happen, and consciously work towards rationalizing it, slowly but surely removing its power over you. 

Separating facts from emotion 

One of the biggest strategies that I have learned to work through imposter syndrome is to separate fact from emotion. When we feel like an imposter, these two things tend to get muddled. Our “feelings” of stress, anxiety and that we are a “fraud” tend to overpower the real, factual representation of our situation. So the key here is to recognize when these feelings come about, take a step back and ask yourself - what is factual here vs. what am I feeling emotionally. 

Here’s an example - if I’m in my first job as a Registered Dietitian and I feel like a “fraud”. I constantly feel like my peers know more than I do and I’m constantly worried that I’m going to mess up. In the back of my mind, I’m questioning how I possibly managed to “sneak” my way into this job and that somebody is going to “find out” that I’m not meant to be here. 

Here are the facts in this situation: 

  • I have successfully completed the requirements in order to become an RD 

  • Because of this, I have met all the same competencies as my peers and therefore, have the same level of baseline knowledge as they do (but recognizing that experience does play a role in practical knowledge)

  • I got hired for this job because my personality was a fit and I have been evaluated as being competent in the field of dietetics 

  • Messing up is part of the process of learning 

  • I earned this job through heart work and merit 

Here are the emotions in this situation: 

  • Falsely thinking that my peers know more than me without having any evidence to support this statement 

  • Falsely feeling like a “fraud” regardless of the fact that I have worked hard to get to where I am and have met all the competencies required to get there 

  • Feeling like someone is “watching me” and waiting for me to mess up 

  • Feeling like I someone “snuck” through the cracks and got this job, as opposed to earning it based on merit 

Do you see how clearly that exercise can help you outline emotions vs. facts? Once you are clear on the separation between the two, you can start to challenge yourself to focus on the facts instead of the emotions. 

Being accurate and realistic of what others know 

One of the biggest culprits of imposter syndrome is overestimating other peoples knowledge. For some strange reason, we automatically assume that other people know “more” than we do, even if we may have the same background and experience as them. Sound familiar? 

Although I don’t recommend spending too much time comparing yourself to others, it is helpful to develop an accurate portrayal of your own knowledge. Remind yourself of all the hard work you have done, and the countless hours or studying, learning and practical training you have completed to get to where you are. 

View failure in a different way

One of the biggest lessons that I have worked through as an entrepreneur is how I view failure and making mistakes. Prior to doing this important mindset work, I would do everything in my power to avoid failure and avoid making mistakes. This would lead to me over preparing for absolutely everything and feeling an intense amount of anxiety and stress at the thought of failing. 

Although over preparing isn’t a bad thing, the anxiety and stress I was feeling ultimately were. 

Now, instead of viewing failure as something I “must avoid”, I view it as a “necessary part of the journey”. I accept failure and making mistakes as things that are guaranteed to happen and opportunities for growth and development. Looking back, I have grown more from the mistakes I have made versus the successes that I have had. 

One thing I would say about this is that I’m still not perfect. I struggle with this feeling all the time to this day. But the important piece here is that I’m now able to recognize when it happens and work through it in a constructive way. 

Think like a non-imposter 

Something that has helped me a lot in my past is the idea of “thinking like a non-imposter”. If I find myself in a situation where I feel scared, anxious or nervous stemming from a place of imposter syndrome, I ask myself “what would a non-imposter do?” And then, that’s exactly what I will do. 

So one example of this is when I was working as a corporate dietitian. One thing that I constantly struggled with in that role is feeling like I didn’t know enough about “business” to feel worthy of sitting around a table with people who were highly educated in marketing, finance, food science, etc. Even though I was there to represent a dietetics perspective, for some reason I still thought I should be an expert in all of their professions too in order to have a valid perspective! Unfortunately, this fear would hold me back from voicing my opinion and speaking up when I really needed to. 

At some point, I started to ask myself - how is this mentality benefiting me? It was ultimately preventing me from sharing my thoughts and opinions, and progressing in my role. I wasn’t being viewed as a subject matter expert in my role because I wasn’t saying anything! 

So eventually I started to challenge myself in those situations to think “what would a non-imposter do?” and without thinking too much about it, just start doing exactly that. Usually this meant saying whatever was on my mind instead of holding it in out of fear. Now, this was not easy at first. It felt insanely uncomfortable and nerve wracking but ultimately, was an incredibly valuable stepping stone for my career. I started to be recognized for the incredible value that I could bring to the team, and in turn that actually made me feel more confident in the work I was doing.