Lit leadership lessons: Dealing with Imposter Syndrome in your dental career

By Amisha Singh, DDS

Leadership. You have heard the word, and maybe even understand the importance for your dental practice and your career. But this concept, which supports an industry of educators and thought leaders, remains an enigma for most practitioners. And there is one fundamental reason for this: Leadership in theory and leadership in practice are two very different things. Bridging them, especially while adding in complexities like practice ownership, team dynamics, and clinical challenges, is difficult but not insurmountable. So, with help from this new column we are launching and other amazing resources like IgniteDDSUniversity.com, you can bridge that gap and start seeing how leadership impacts your practice and your life.

The first thing we must discuss, especially for leaders who are newer practitioners, is the concept of “imposter syndrome.” I had no idea what this was when I was in dental school (it’s a much more popular concept with a fantastic body of research behind it now). When I learned the term, I finally could name something which had plagued me for … well … it seems like it was the entirety of my academic career. There is power in naming things. In naming Imposter Syndrome, I began to intentionally dismantle it and its effects in my life.

Imposter Syndrome, as defined by Harvard Business Review, is the concept of “doubting your abilities and feeling like a fraud.” Does it boggle your mind that there is hard science backing this concept? It sure boggled mine. It turns out that imposter syndrome disproportionately impacts high-achieving individuals1. Welcome to one of the most ironic realizations of my life: Imposter syndrome, the feeling of thinking you do not belong, you somehow snuck past the guards and stole the achievement of your dreams instead of earning their fulfillment, impacts people who are doing exceptionally (yes, especially including doctors) more than the average person.

So this brings us to two important reasons why we must talk about imposter syndrome before we discuss leadership:

  1. Everyone is feeling it! We often look around and think we are alone in our doubts and fears and worries. But science debunked this and showed us, most of us are feeling it, few are discussing it.
  2. In order to access our true leadership potential, we must name imposter syndrome, dismantle it in our minds, and to do this, we must talk about it. We must bring the monsters into the light.

First, let’s understand what it is and how to identify it. It manifests as:

  • Feelings of an inadequacy or fraudulence despite a track record of success
  • Being unable to recognize the wins in your life or stopping to give them adequate mental space
  • Being unable to internalize your success (or giving yourself due credit for your wins)
  • An inability to be resilient or make internal judgement through failure or growth
  • Downplaying or discounting success
  • Having thoughts of not belonging or intellectual self-doubt

Sounds familiar? You may be battling Imposter Syndrome. These thoughts are usually intricately woven into the fabric of our internal dialogue so they take time and intention to recognize and bring into the light. When you hear or identify internal dialogue which supports any of the following, the first step is to make a habit of pausing and reflecting. Are these thoughts a byproduct of my imposter syndrome?

Once you have identified it, how do you tackle or prevent imposter syndrome from impacting the outcomes or your leadership potential? There are many different ways, but one of my favorites is the “Table and Four Legs” exercise. Anytime I have a thought which underlines my inadequacy or brings forth doubt, I reflexively reach for a piece of paper and rely on this exercise.

I draw a table with four legs stabilizing it. On this table, I write the negative thought. For example: “I am a bad leader.” I try to find four tangible pieces of evidence which irrefutably support this conclusion I have drawn. Often, I can find only one (the one failure, mistake, learning opportunity, etc. which has led me to this ill-fated conclusion). Then I inverse the statement and draw a new table to support the exact opposite and find four pieces of evidence from my life which can support the opposite. Often, here I find my table has the support of even five or six legs. Keep adding legs until the reasons are exhausted. Just like a table cannot stand on one (often short and insubstantial leg), I teach myself through this exercise that the gremlins of my imposter syndrome cannot support their claims with single moments of failure. This exercise helps me remember how important failure is to growth and eventual success.

And lastly, it is important to note that Imposter Syndrome is a chronic ailment and there is no ultimate cure. By approaching imposter syndrome and your thoughts with intentionality and awareness, we pave the road to minimizing imposter syndrome, but there is no permanent eradication and no final solution. As we notice the thoughts which are manifesting as imposter syndrome for us and approach them meaningfully, we can create a life where the thoughts do not come so often. Through consistent work, we can become consistently stronger leaders.

Next article: Sound advice every dental practice should hear … from a baseball usher.

Dr. Amisha Singh is a Denver native and loves living in beautiful Colorado. She is a dentist and has dedicated her career to equity and inclusion in higher education and healthcare. She is faculty at the University of Colorado School of Dental Medicine and serves as the Director of Diversity and Inclusion. She serves on the ADA Dental Wellbeing Advisory Committee, the ADA Council for Health Literacy, and the ADA Women in Leadership Thinktank. She is also a blogger and professional speaker who travels the country to inspire other healthcare professionals and advocate for equity in higher education. She currently serves as an ADA Success Speaker, participates in the ADA Institute of Diversity in Leadership and is the founder of the CDA Diversity in Leadership program. She was recognized as one of the 2017 10 Under 10 Top ADA Dentists nationally. Her passion is encouraging entrepreneurial spirit, inspiring others and she wants to dedicate her life to helping create equitable paths to success for all.  When not practicing dentistry, she loves to get lost in a good book, cook, and do all things creative.