We have all heard the phrase “fake it ‘til you make it.” While it may sound like a safe and freeing strategy, what if you are found out? This what if is a common thought that some high-achieving professionals struggle with. This self-perceived notion of inadequacy, that one is a fake, phony, or a fraud is referred to as imposter syndrome.1
Imposter syndrome, also known as imposter phenomenon, was first described by psychologists Dr. Pauline Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes in the late 1970s.2 People who experience imposter syndrome may not feel accomplished, deny their successes, have a fear of failure, and have apprehension about their success, as it can lead to increased demands and expectations.3 Some of the reported symptoms are anxiety, depression, and lack of self-confidence, which have been negatively correlated with adverse psychological outcomes.1 Both men and women may experience imposter syndrome, however, it has been more commonly seen in women, students, and minorities such as African American, Asian American, and Latino/a American college students.1
While imposter syndrome is correlated with mental health issues, it is not recognized as a psychiatric disorder in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) or the International Classification of Diseases (ICD).1 There is evidence that suggests that the symptoms of imposter syndrome are also associated with job satisfaction and burnout.1 Although there is limited research on the prevalence of imposter syndrome among dental hygienists, it has been identified as a roadblock not only to dental hygienists but to the profession as a whole.4
As a Latina and first-generation college graduate, I have to admit that I became self-aware of my own struggles with imposter syndrome during my graduate studies. Feelings of inadequacy and bewildering thoughts caused me to doubt my accomplishments and made graduate school even more challenging. At times, I even questioned if I was selected for scholarships or positions in leadership simply as a token to check off the diversity agenda of an organization.
As you can imagine, this type of thinking is not conducive to a positive well-being and has the potential to harm one’s quality of life. Although I am in no position to offer advice on how to overcome imposter syndrome, I would like to share my lived experiences dealing with this phenomenon in hope to inspire future research on this topic and to let others know that they are not alone.
As dental hygienists, we share some of the same characteristics of being highly critical of ourselves and well, “picky.” Dental hygiene scholars have recommended that we “forgive our imperfections and mistakes” and “establish control driven by inner strength and commitment, not fear”.4
7 things I learned during graduate school
1. Your timeline is yours, and you should never compare yourself to anyone else.
There is a saying that “comparison is the thief of joy, and I’ve learned that this rings true. Comparing the timing of your achievements to others only inhibits your own ability to move forward. It does not matter how old you are or that it has taken you longer than others to achieve your goals. What matters is the journey and what you learn along the path.
2. Asking for help is OK—it doesn't make you "less than."
I learned that it is acceptable to ask for help; that is part of the graduate voyage. Developing the confidence to ask for help and to work with others is a huge victory not only in expanding your own knowledge but in contributing to your profession.
3. It is OK to say no.
Saying no was one of the most difficult things to do especially as a high achiever and people-pleaser; however, I learned that multitasking hindered my ability to give my time and creativity to the most important tasks at hand. Remember that your graduate studies are not forever, there will be a time when you can choose to add more to your plate.
4. There is success on the other side of struggle.
I began my graduate school journey in 2014 and quit in 2015; my self-doubt beat me. I re-enrolled in 2018 and I eventually learned that although I struggled with having to walk away the first time, there was a silver lining that surrounded this sequel. The second time around was a huge blessing as I found myself being a part of a new amazing and supportive graduate cohort.
5. Write things down.
In a time when we are using smart phones and apps, there truly is still power in handwritten goals and using organizers. I learned that writing down my goals for the week helped to keep me accountable and allowed me to visually see how much I was able to accomplish. Graduate school was like running long distance and even though there was a sprint at the end, it had to be strategically planned.
6. Perfection does not exist.
I learned that perfection does not exist a little later than I would like to admit. It was not until my last two semesters that I finally let go of the fear of having to submit perfect work. I in part blame this issue of needing to be perfect to my first failed attempt at graduate school. As soon as I began to believe that my work was good enough for a first draft, I began to realize that this was part of the necessary process. After all, graduate school is for feedback, more drafts, and more feedback.
7. Take the leap!
Last, I learned that you’ll never know unless you try. While I preached this to my son when he was applying to colleges, I struggled to take my own advice. I learned that whether you attain what you set your mind to or not, there is still opportunity and growth from either outcome so you might as well, take the leap!
The “fake it ‘til you make it” or “winging it” mentality has become such a commonly used phrase and while it can be helpful in propelling us forward to achieve our goals, we must remember to own our strengths as well as our successes. During my graduate studies, I discovered that my expertise and gifts were hindered as I was clouded by imposter syndrome.
We continually deal with the battle of inclusivity and to be recognized as the experts in oral health. This struggle for a seat at the table to not only advocate for our patient’s oral health but, overall total systemic health is dependent on our ability to be confident in what we know. It is imperative that we identify our expertise and be fearless in the pursuit of advocacy. We cannot play small, especially as dental hygienists. I encourage you to celebrate, rejoice, and believe in your achievements and stop saying, “fake it ‘til you make it” because you already have what it takes.
Editor's note: Originally posted in 2020 and updated regularly
- Bravata DM, Watts SA, Keefer AL, et al. Prevalence, predictors, and treatment of impostor syndrome: a systematic review. J Gen Intern Med. 2020;35(4):1252-1275. doi:10.1007/s11606-019-05364-1
- Clance PR, Imes SA. The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychother Theory Res Pract. 1978;15(3):241–7.
- Sakulku, J. The impostor phenomenon. J Behav Sci. 2011; 6(1):75-97. doi:10.14456/ijbs.2011.6
- Walsh M, Ortega E, Heckman B. The dental hygiene scholarly identity and roadblocks to achieving it. J Dent Hyg. 2016;90(2):79-87.