Dr Jessica Metcalfe shares her experience with imposter phenomenon, perfectionism and burn out
In Dr Jessica Metcalfe’s first year at dental school in Boston University, she tried hiding among her professors and peers because she was scared that someone would call her out for being a fraud. “I thought they were going to get to my name on the list and send me packing back to Canada because they [realised] they had made a mistake and picked the wrong person,” she said during a virtual sharing session.
The crippling self-doubt and imposter phenomenon dragged on for a long while as she worked hard to establish her medical career. “Every time I tried something new, that voice, the inner critic, would come up telling me I’m not good enough,” she said.
She experiences the same self-defeating thoughts even as a practising dentist. It got so bad that she found herself avoiding certain procedures with patients. “I didn’t want to go into work,” she said. “I needed to be perfect, but perfectionism is a perspective – my work was good and yet for some reason I thought that I was failing the patient.”
She went so far as to ask another dentist to check on her work, asking if she needed to redo or resend the work. Even when her colleague assured her that her work was good, the voice “kept reoccurring to the point that it contributed to my burnout”.
“Your self-doubt becomes so crippling that you feel this fear that you’re going to be found out,” she said. “So you overwork to try to predict and prevent mistakes. You underestimate your own abilities, and you explain away your successes. This becomes problematic, especially when you keep telling yourself this over and over again, because then it's that much harder to get out of it.”
The impact of imposter phenomenon
Dr Metcalfe was speaking at Key Media’s inaugural International Women’s Day forum for global employees and her anecdote on the harsh ‘voice in her head’ showed just how impactful the imposter phenomenon can have on your performance and professionalism.
Another problem with the ‘inner critic’ is that its impact isn’t just imagined – it’s very real. Research has shown that the monologues or inner dialogues you have with yourself can affect your reality and how you process everything that comes at you in life.
It's been the subject of several neuroscientific studies, with one conducted by scientists at the University of New South Wales suggesting that the brain tends to register the monologues as an external voice, treating it like an actual conversation instead of a passing thought. Another study by researcher Mark Scott from the University of British Columbia had similar findings about how we process our inner voice the same way as we do external speeches. This is why you should be more conscious of what you’re constantly saying to yourself ‘in your head’.
“The way that you choose to speak to yourself is heard just as loud as if you were having a conversation with someone else,” she said. “So why do you deem it appropriate to use those negative words or speak to yourself the way that you wouldn’t speak to a family member or a friend? You can change that voice.”
Read more: How to beat imposter syndrome at work
How to deal with imposter phenomenon
The ideal way to ‘change’ the voice is to start with acknowledging it. “Instead of trying to suppress [negative thinking] and putting them out of the way, you need to actually experience them,” she said. “Suppressing them doesn’t allow your brain to figure out the solution.”
So listen hard and listen good to what your inner voice is saying every time you encounter a new or particularly difficult challenge at work, then try to answer the questions that come up. “Usually, the questions that come up are what ifs,” she said. “What if I don’t know the answer? What if I can’t do this? What if I’m not good enough?”
Explore the questions further and narrow them down to be “a little bit more specific”. For example, if you’re starting a new task at work, instead of asking, ‘what if I failed?’, zero in on what you’re scared about. Is it the fact that it’s a completely new field of work? Or is it because you’re not familiar with the skills needed for the project? Or maybe you need to work with a colleague you haven’t spoken to before and are a little nervous about how that relationship will pan out?
“When you get specific with your question, your brain can start to answer it,” she said. “When your brain answers the questions, it can calm itself down.”
Once you’ve conquered the first round of tough questions, you should aim to flip the entire experience into a positive one – so tweak the way you speak with yourself and ask things like, ‘what if I succeeded? What if this went well?’
“Now you’ve taken it from it being a problem to an opportunity,” she said. “By doing that, you’re going to see how your body physically reacts [to difficulties] that come up and how they change.”
‘There’s nothing wrong with experiencing emotions’
Unfortunately, the reality about imposter phenomenon is that you’ll probably experience bouts of it throughout your professional career, which is why you need to train yourself to develop the ‘muscle’ to fight against the symptoms – the feeling that you’re an ‘intellectual phoney’, the crippling self-doubt and fear of failure, as well as the obsession with perfectionism. However, Metcalfe reminded that it’s natural to feel those things because it’s just part of the human experience.
“There is nothing wrong with experiencing those emotions,” she said. “We look at them in a very negative context because of the way that society has [treated] them. There’s that comparison aspect of good versus bad, which we then relate to the perfect life that we’re supposed to lead.”
And what’s helped her feel worthy of all her achievements in her life thus far has been a simple exercise.
“Instead of saying, ‘I am good enough’, I’ve learned to tell myself, ‘I’m good’,” she said. “By cutting off ‘not enough’, I am choosing to speak to myself in a more neutral tone. You can change the way that you view the uncomfortable situations that come up [in your life].”