Career advice

Imposter syndrome: how nurses can learn to silence their inner critic

There are steps you can take to control the triggers of self-doubt

There are steps you can take to control the triggers of self-doubt

Picture: iStock

It’s that time of year again where the pressure is on to ‘have your best year yet!’

Apparently, all you need to do is set your goals, create your plan and BOOM… you’re away. But sometimes things just aren’t that simple, and although we start off with the best of intentions and much ambition, it is easy to let things slide a few months down the line.

When life gets in the way of our goals

So what is stopping you, me and so many others from sticking to our carefully drawn out plans? 

Life can throw us curve balls and some situations are beyond our control – those yoga classes you eagerly signed up for in January, for example, become impossible when you can’t fit them around your off-duty.

But what if you see your dream job advertised yet don’t get around to submitting the application? Did you really run out of time, or was there something else going on?

Beware the nagging voice in your head

It is easy to blame external forces, but we all have a role to play too. The key is to not let your inner critic – that nagging voice inside telling you that you aren’t good enough – take charge.

This ever-critical part of you means that, instead of unwinding after a long shift, you end up doubting every decision you made.

Over the years, listening to your inner critic can become your default position. You learn to shy away from supposed ‘danger’ and become scared of stepping outside your comfort zone. You feel everyone else is better than you and one day, your incompetence will be found out.

‘Healthcare is stressful, so it is no surprise many nurses doubt their own abilities and do not take credit for their achievements’

This is where imposter syndrome steps in. The term ‘impostor phenomenon’, as it is known in the world of psychology, was coined in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes.

It is a growing area of interest – a quick Google search brings up almost four million results – because almost everyone has an internal critic. There are now many specialist coaches, researchers and support groups dedicated to the subject.

You can achieve a life free from misplaced self-doubt  Picture: iStock

Nurses often fail to recognise their own success

It is widely acknowledged that healthcare is a stressful working environment, so it is no surprise many nurses doubt their own abilities and do not take credit for their own successes and achievements.

‘Make a conscious effort to observe how you speak to yourself and notice when your inner critic appears’

Chris Lake, former head of professional development at the NHS Leadership Academy, summed up imposter syndrome when he said: ‘Pretty much everyone has, at some point, said “I feel that at any moment I’m going to get found out for the fraud I know myself to be”.

Despite most of us having an inner critic, and imposter syndrome being prevalent, we can learn to ignore the critical and often habitual voices and choose new ways of thinking. It is hard work and you will have to look deep within, but the rewards make it all worthwhile; a life where you don’t doubt yourself and feel confident in your own worth is possible.

Look for patterns in your thoughts and feelings

To lessen this voice of self-doubt, the first step is to become aware of it. Make a conscious effort to observe how you speak to yourself and notice when your inner critic appears – what were you doing or thinking? How were you feeling?

This will help you to observe patterns or triggers that open the floodgates and allow your inner critic to take over.

Give your inner critic a name

Getting to know your triggers can help shift control back to you, so be curious and inquisitive. It can even help to give your critic – or saboteur – a name. I’ve called mine Dr Doom because he is continuously offering unhelpful advice. Over time, I have learned to recognise when Dr Doom is ‘talking’ and I am getting better at ignoring him.

If you are curious about how you are feeding your inner critic and sabotaging your own success, a free saboteur assessment will give you invaluable insight into the different ‘voices’ inside you and how you can learn to adapt your thinking.   

Minimising the effects of imposter syndrome

  • Accept that what you are feeling is normal. Newly qualified or recently promoted nurses are particularly vulnerable, but imposter syndrome can affect nurses at any stage in their career
  • Have honest conversations. You are not alone, so be brave and talk about how you are feeling
  • Seek inspiration by looking at related TED talks or joining social media support groups. If you are doubting yourself you will be feeling vulnerable, so try to avoid frantic late-night surfing online. Use trusted resources instead, such as those recommended by friends or colleagues
  • Keep gathering feedback. Don’t just see this as a task to do every three years as part of revalidation. When you notice your inner critic attacking you, read examples of positive feedback and use this as rational evidence to combat the irrational cycle of negativity
  • Set realistic expectations both of yourself and others. No one is perfect, and we all have strengths and weaknesses. Ask for help with tasks you struggle with and accept that sometimes ‘good enough’ is absolutely fine
  • Prioritise self-care. Be as kind to yourself as you are to your patients


Mandy Day-Calder is a life/health coach with a nursing background. She runs a healthcare training company

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