Imposter Syndrome in Nursing Leadership

imposter syndrome Nurse leaders often tell me that during their first year in a new role, they feel like an imposter.  One young new manager captured these thoughts so well when she said,“I just keep thinking that someone will figure out how much I really don’t know and question whether I should have been given the position.  I sometimes feel like an imposter.  My mentor tells me to fake it until you make it but I am not so sure about that.”  Imposter Syndrome has been found to be more common among women leaders who may feel that they don’t deserve the success that they have achieved despite external evidence of their competence.

Imposter Syndrome Defined

The term imposter syndrome was originally coined by two researchers, Dr. Pauline Chance and Dr. Suzanne Imes, at the Georgia State University in 1978.  These psychologists observed that there are high achieving individuals who have a secret sense, that they may not be able to live up to the expectations that others have for them. They may even think that their success is based on luck versus their own positive qualities.  In small doses, this may not be a bad thing because it reminds us to work on building our competency.  But some individuals with imposter syndrome feel a level of self-doubt that can lead to overwork and a paralyzing fear of failure.  Many nurse leaders who experience imposter syndrome have unrealistic expectations of themselves in their first year in a new role that compromise their success.

Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

A wise mentor once told me that we can easily overestimate how much time other people spend thinking about us and our behaviors.  Most people, she observed, are pretty self-absorbed.  This is important to consider because it is likely that the idea of the leader being an imposter probably never crosses the mind of his/her followers.

Learning to better manage your feelings about imposter syndrome is important.  Cathy Robinson-Walker who coaches nurse leaders provides some good advice to mitigate imposter syndrome.  Her action steps include the following:

  1. Enlist the help of a trusted mentor to discuss your feelings about imposter syndrome.
  2. Pay attention to your own self-talk and consider whether your thoughts are empowering or disabling.
  3. Make of list of the strengths you bring to the role and what you contribute.  Ask others for their input, and refer to the list when you have feelings of self-doubt.
  4. Accept that perfection and the need to “know it all” is both unrealistic and can be personally costly.
  5. Recognize that there are times when you will be on a steep learning curve in a role and need to further develop your competencies.  Be honest about what you know and what you don’t know and utilize the experts on your unit or in your organization.
  6. Be willing to be uncomfortable and move through your fear.

Most nurse leaders will grow out of feeling like imposters as they build their competency and become more comfortable in their roles.  Biographers of Eleanor Roosevelt have talked about her initial feelings of inadequacy being first lady.  In reflecting on her experience, she noted that “I believe that anyone can conquer fear by doing the things he fears to do, provided he keeps doing them until he gets a record of successful experience behind him.”


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