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3 Tips To Overcome Imposter Syndrome As a Nurse

6 Min Read Published July 21, 2022
3 Tips To Overcome Imposter Syndrome As a Nurse

I’m not good enough.

That is a statement that nurses with Imposter Syndrome are likely to make.

Unfortunately, they’re usually wrong. And those feelings are not based on rational thought.

Imposter Syndrome, or impostorism, refers to an “internal experience of intellectual phoniness.” Feelings of impostorism often start in nursing students who are beginning their careers. Yet, for some, Imposter Syndrome follows them through their careers. It even causes debilitating anxiety and depression.

Here’s what nurses need to know about Imposter Syndrome, a self-test to see if you might have it and how to beat it.

What is Imposter Syndrome in Nursing?

According to Psychology Today, Imposter Syndrome occurs when someone struggles to believe they deserve their achievements.

Other terms for it are Impostorism or Imposter Phenomenon. It causes individuals to feel like they aren’t as smart or capable as others think they are. Even though others hold them in high regard, they feel inadequate.

Those feelings are very stressful. The affected individuals fear that eventually, they will be exposed as frauds. 
Nurses and nursing students are in the perfect position to experience Imposter Syndrome for the following reasons.

  • Nursing is a well-respected profession.
  • Nurses, especially student nurses, may feel an enormous sense of pressure. The nature of the education and training that the profession requires is intense.
  • Nursing school is notoriously difficult.
  • After students graduate, they are immediately put in high-stress, mentally- and physically demanding roles.

The profession requires nurses to make critical decisions that can mean the difference between life and death, even more so for critical care nurses.

It is easy to see why new nurses may feel unworthy, unprepared, or incapable.

Is Imposter Syndrome real?

Imposter Syndrome is a concept that has been around for about 50 years. But, it is not an official psychiatric condition. And therefore, it is not recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). However, it may be linked to other mental problems such as anxiety.

Psychologists acknowledge that impostorism is a very real problem.

Around 25–30% of high-achievers suffer from impostorism. Others who are at higher risk for Imposter

Phenomenon include:

  • Perfectionists
  • Those with neurotic tendencies
  • Adults who faced intense academic pressure as children
  • Those from competitive environments

Psychology Today suggested that about 70% of adults experience Imposter Syndrome during their lives.

History of Imposter Syndrome

Imposter Syndrome was first described by psychologists Suzanne Imes, Ph.D., and Pauline Rose Clance, Ph.D., in 1978. The researchers studied a sample of successful professional and pre-professional women who struggled with similar feelings of inadequacy. They asserted that Imposter Phenomenon happens in high-achievers who have trouble accepting their success.

Clance developed The Impostor Test to help individuals see if they had Imposter Phenomenon traits and, if so, to what extent.

Recent data shows that impostorism affects both men and women. Yet, it may affect certain racial, ethnic, and religious minorities more.

Imposter Syndrome in Nursing Students vs. Licensed Nurses

Imposter Syndrome can affect nursing students and licensed nurses alike.

One study found that the prevalence of Imposter Syndrome among nursing students ranged from 86.8–100%.

While this figure is extreme, it is not surprising to anyone who has completed nursing school.

It seems normal for nursing students to question themselves. The transition from nursing lectures to direct patient care is swift. Soon after graduation, students find themselves administering life-saving treatments alongside seasoned medical professionals.

Yet even experienced nurses can struggle with Imposter Syndrome. Occasions when a licensed professional nurse may feel inadequate or incapable, might include:

According to the Harvard Business Review, any time a nurse moves into a new job, a new role, or even has new responsibilities, they may question their abilities.

Yet, the nursing field has paid little attention to how Imposter Phenomenon affects the profession. More research is needed to understand and combat imposter syndrome in nurses and nursing students.

Symptoms of Imposter Syndrome in Nursing

Imposter syndrome in the nursing profession can be hard to spot. Nurses who struggle with impostorism often keep their feelings to themselves because they fear being exposed.
Yet, here are symptoms of Imposter Syndrome that you, or someone you know in the profession, may experience.

  • Feeling like a fake or a fraud
  • Doubting your abilities as a nurse
  • Worrying that others might find out that you’re not “good enough”
  • Criticizing self and perpetuating negative self-talk
  • Difficulty believing that you’ve made it to this [job, title, specialty, fill-in-the-blank]

These internal feelings may manifest externally as behaviors, including:

  • Self-sabotage
  • Belittling your achievements
  • Avoiding professional challenges out of fear
  • Social anxiety

Sometimes, these external behaviors can affect a nurse’s job performance and patient care.

Imposter Syndrome in Nursing and Patient Care

Imposter Syndrome may be mild. It may be limited to uncomfortable feelings or occasional tinges of anxiety. 
Still, more serious cases can lead to behaviors that negatively impact performance at work. 
Students and professional nurses who question their abilities may be paralyzed by fear. They may not speak up even though they know something is wrong. Impostorism may also affect patient care by contributing to the following:

  • A nurse’s poor attitude (i.e., negative outlook, blaming others)
  • A nurse’s inability to earn the patient’s trust which reduces patient satisfaction
  • An organization’s limited growth due to poor motivation and limited adaptability by nursing staff

The Imposter Phenomenon is also associated with lower job satisfaction. And it may lead to increased anxiety and depression.

How to Beat Impostorism in Nursing

Imposter syndrome can limit personal, professional, and organizational growth. It stops individuals from pursuing new opportunities.

Here are three ways to beat your own Imposter Syndrome.

  1. Change your mindset. Acknowledge your achievements. Practice awareness of your thoughts. Rose O. Sherman, EdD, RN, NEA-BC, FAAN, said nurses should identify their thoughts as “empowering” or “disabling.” You must interrupt negative thoughts when your self-talk is full of self-doubt. Replace them with positive ones, like “I can do this.”
  2. Surround yourself with the right people. Look for a mentor who has taken a similar path. Then use them as a resource or a sounding board to deal with impostor feelings. It will help you fight imposter syndrome.
  3. Share your feelings. Most people with impostor feelings suffer in silence. Talking about your feelings with a trusted colleague or mentor can give you a new perspective. And it will help combat the feelings of impostorism.

Finally, remember that competence leads to confidence—not the other way around. You will become more certain of yourself as you develop your talents and hone your skills. 
Don’t be so hard on yourself, and you may see that you’ve earned (and will continue to earn) your successes.

Sarah Falcone
Sarah Falcone Contributor

Sarah S. Falcone, BSN, RN, is a nurse and health content writer in Fort Worth, TX. She has worked in various settings, including Med-Surg and L&D, but home health has her heart. Sarah is a passionate advocate for moving advanced levels of care to the home, where her clients can safely receive medical treatments they need, with greater satisfaction and comfort. She focuses on patient experience, outcomes, and advancing clinical models using innovative technology to serve patients better. Sarah draws from 15 years of practicing patient care and nursing leadership, to share her own nursing experiences and expertise online. Connect with her on LinkedIn!

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