Veterinary Wellness with Dave Shuey
Black and white headshot of Dave Shuey
Words by:
Dave Shuey, LMSW, DMA — IndeVets Veterinarian Social Worker

Veterinary Medicine is a high-ideal, high-demand, and therefore high-stress career, which attracts high-achieving personalities with high abilities to self-reflect and self-evaluate, and (unfortunately) to allow those abilities too much free rein. Impostor syndrome (more accurately, “impostor phenomenon”) is characterized by internally doubting our external achievements, which shows up as fear of exposure as a fraud, attributing success solely to luck not competence, and the feeling that our status is undeserved, that we are unworthy of it.

What we know about its prevalence, causes, and treatment is in the early stages. It was first discovered in 1978 as an effect of the historical subjugation of women in the professional sphere.  Women who began joining the workforce experienced cultural retaliation for their assertion of autonomy. Inequality in compensation, downplaying achievement, and stealing credit for innovations formed the base of misleading evidence that led women to the quite rational response that they were intrinsically not good enough despite their obvious accomplishments and contributions. Through the years, more and more groups have reported experiencing impostor phenomenon, so that it has become a feature of professional life that affects everyone.

The first thing we need to know right now is that although we often stray into disease-model language when we use terms like “symptoms” and “treatment,” what we call Impostor Syndrome is not a syndrome, diagnosis, disorder, or disease. It is part of our experience to be learned from and used as nourishment, not a problem to be solved. Feel free to insist on its original name, Impostor Phenomenon.

To address impostor phenomenon, we can consider individual and cultural attitudes, assumptions, and their often-humorous interaction with objective reality and how they can work to ground us in a basically pleasant environment and sustainable attitude to our unique paths of growth. Ironically, it is by embracing the value of incompetence, and the need to “fake it until you become it,” that one can move forward to a healthier view of oneself.


Individual Solutions

Many motivational and self-help publications have described a process of attaining mastery in any given endeavor. This process is often divided into four stages:

  1. unconscious incompetence (we don’t know what we don’t know)
  2. conscious incompetence (we know what we don’t know)
  3. conscious competence (we know what we know and use it)
  4. unconscious competence (we do the right thing well without thinking about it)


The trick is in seeing this process not as a linear, goal-oriented progression, but as a natural cycle of work-life, like the weather. Growth happens at the cusp of unconscious and conscious incompetence. How we respond to the realization that we don’t know something makes a lot of difference as to whether we are crippled by impostor phenomenon or propelled forward by a sense of wonder.

This attitude has been described as “intellectual humility.” One of my teachers said that the most important quality of a clinician is “to be OK with the fact that you don’t know what you’re doing.” When we fully embrace that notion, we free ourselves from the tyrannical illusion of expertise (often implicated as a cause of impostor phenomenon), increase our connection with other brains with their own strengths, become more honestly present with our clients, and build more trust in all our relationships. In short, we have the chance to build a stronger community when we struggle.


Cultural Solutions

In the workplace and at school, one often senses at an unconscious level the values and attitudes that leadership holds regarding development and training. Let’s take a familiar cultural norm in veterinary medicine: “See one, Do one, Teach one.” This adage of course applies to every new thing we are tasked to learn as clinicians and leaders. Its endurance in our discourse points to its validity as a framework for growth, but if it is not practiced with the right attitude, it can be the very source of impostor phenomenon.

To practice intellectual humility at the cultural level, we need to view “see one, do one…” as a cycle with phases that overlap, just like the individual’s progression in competence as described above. Those that see, do, and teach with excellence have achieved their status by pretending, in the early stages and throughout their growth, to be what they are not yet, and are aware of it. They provide a safe social environment for the “younglings” to learn. A culture that works to reduce impostor phenomenon is one that reveres the technique, the skill, or the creation of policy as never-ending experiments, in which failure is encouraged, where the way is more important than the goal, and where trying is rewarded at each stage.

Impostor phenomenon is a normal response to misleading evidence. We superstitiously assign “genius” status to anyone who performs with effortless mastery. We forget that those whom we look up to had to pretend their way along when necessary, and so must we. Our environment rewards the illusion of expertise to the detriment of the experience of the learner. By embracing incompetence together as fellow learners, we detoxify our workplace and sustain ourselves and each other through the cycles of growth.


Things to try:

  • Every day, welcome yourself to a new level of incompetence. Discover something new that you didn’t know you didn’t know.
  • Use intellectual humility as stress-reduction and unburdening to build trust in your patients, clients, and colleagues, as well as to care for yourself.
  • Remember that allowing your self-criticism to overwhelm your sense of reality is as unhealthy as completely and utterly believing your own rave reviews.


Things to check out:


Veterinary-Specific Resources: