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How to Deal with Dental Imposter Syndrome

Students in dental and medical fields show high levels of imposter syndrome. A study carried out by Henning et al on people studying for medical, dental, nursing and pharmacy degrees indicated that around 30% of all students were suffering from imposter syndrome.

For some people, imposter syndrome disappears when they leave school and start practicing on patients. But for others, the feeling of inadequacy lingers on years after they become a dental professional. 

What is Imposter Syndrome?

It’s estimated that 70% of people will experience imposter syndrome at some point in their lives, making it remarkably common, even if it’s not frequently discussed.

Imposter syndrome is when an individual cannot experience an inner sense of success or competence, despite clear external evidence. It’s mostly prevalent among highly achieving individuals who credit their success to luck over their own abilities. People who suffer from imposter syndrome often fear they’ll be revealed as a fraud by others. 

Common traits of imposter syndrome include:

  • Not being able to acknowledge that your accomplishments are deserved.
  • Exclusively comparing yourself to your more successful peers.
  • Discounting your success and instead accrediting it to external help, timing or luck.

Real Imposter Syndrome Experiences

Meghan Taylor, a recent MPH graduate of Saint Louis University, struggled a lot with imposter syndrome as a first year graduate. She’d often ask herself, “How in the world was I accepted into this program? Did the admissions committee make a mistake? Do I really belong here, among these competent, intelligent individuals?”

Leah Kanda, a dental student at King’s College London, explained her experiences with imposter syndrome: “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.”

How it Affects Dental Professionals

Imposter syndrome can affect professionals in any industry. However, dentists, dental hygienists and dental assistants seem to be especially prone to it because they’re regularly faced with new challenges they’ve never experienced before.

One study revealed that dental students had an increased sense of imposter syndrome at school when they were being assessed on new hand skills they hadn’t previously practiced. A student who took part explained that they experienced feelings of inadequacy because they believed they weren’t as “science minded” or advanced as their peers. 

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Learning new skills and demonstrating them with the added pressure of wanting to impress mentors and peers often results in imposter syndrome. As dentistry is constantly developing, feelings of inadequacy are bound to happen within a dental practice setting, especially with the additional pressure of trying to make a good impression on the patient.

What You Can Do About it

Imposter syndrome isn’t something you have to suffer through in silence. An online module to help first-year dental students overcome imposter syndrome provided some excellent coping mechanisms. As a result, student imposter stress levels dropped from 13.6% to 4.9%.

To help you overcome feelings of self-doubt, we talked to dental professionals who experienced imposter syndrome first hand. They shared their solutions that helped them conquer it and realize they truly do deserve recognition for their success.

Surround yourself with support

“I know it’s tough, but one of the best things I did to overcome imposter syndrome was to talk about it with people I knew I could trust. I tried talking to family and friends first and while they were supportive, they didn’t really understand why I felt so overwhelmed.

It wasn’t until I spoke with other dental assistants that I realized I wasn’t the only one who felt this way and could begin to work my way out of it.” — Sarah J, RDA

View failure as a learning opportunity

“Imposter syndrome often comes from the fear of failure. It’s important to remember that failure is normal and gives you the chance to learn all kinds of lessons. Normalize failure and understand it’s something everyone experiences throughout their lives. Just because you make a mistake doesn’t make you a failure. It makes you human.” — Carlos G, Dentist

Talk to your mentor

“When I was a graduate student, I constantly felt like I wasn’t good enough and that I didn’t deserve to be where I was. One day, I plucked up the courage to talk to my professor about it and he helped hugely.

He explained that he wasn’t always a successful PhD, he was once a grad student struggling with the same feelings I was. Seeing first-hand how other people overcome feelings of self-doubt and succeed really motivated me to do the same.” — Caroline W, RDH

Try therapy

“Your mental health is just as important as your physical health. If you were suffering from back pain every day, you’d see a doctor. So why not see a therapist if you’re suffering mental pain every day?

Asking for help isn’t a weakness, it takes great courage and strength. Therapists are trained to help people deal with feelings like this and just a few sessions could save you years of internal pain.” — Joshua F, Dentist

Focus on your merits

“I’d never really experienced imposter syndrome in school — it didn’t hit me until I started working in practices. I began temping as a dental hygienist and when I turned up for a placement, I was always worried they were going to send me back through the door because they’d made a terrible mistake and hired me by accident; this went on for years.

Eventually I began to realize that the practices were hiring me because I was a great asset to their practice. I was qualified, I had the right experience and I was good at my job. I deserved to be there! Focusing on my abilities and strengths helped me understand my true value.” — Paloma C, RHD

Welcome positive feedback

“I still struggle with imposter syndrome when it comes to patients, but I’m getting better at it every day. One of my biggest issues was acknowledging that positive feedback from patients was genuine. When someone complimented me on the care I’d given them, I was convinced they were just saying it because they felt obliged to. 

I’m now coming to understand that each bit of praise I get is because I did a good job and the patient was happy with my work. Listening to people’s words instead of trying to read between the lines really made me feel better about myself.” — Julia H, Dentist

You’re Not an Imposter

You’ve come far to get to where you are today and you deserve to feel proud of your achievements and successes. When we accomplish something, the first thing we often do is check our to-do list for the next task to complete. This isn’t a healthy way to work and can lead to burnout over time. Instead, take some time to celebrate your win, be proud of yourself and acknowledge that your hard work paid off.


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