What are the “things” you use to define yourself? Do you best identify with your familial status (mother, husband, daughter?) Or do you describe yourself by your talents (musician, artist, writer?) What is it that matters most when it comes to saying who you are?
I happen to classify myself most consistently with the person I am in my professional life. Despite my varied and intricate physical and emotional components, the sum total of how I label myself is by what I do for a living. I am a veterinary oncologist.
These were my thoughts as I attempted to thaw myself out after completing a soggy, icy, and slippery 15-mile group run. I was a few weeks into a new-to-me marathon training program, contemplating what I’d gotten myself into. I was an experienced (though not fast) runner, having completed two previous marathons, three half-marathons, dozens of 5 and 10K races. But I’d never participated in a running club before and I’d never attempted training for such a lengthy distance over the frigid winter months.
My muscles were aching, my body was chafed, and I had blisters encircling both insteps. In the midst of my misery, I questioned what kind of person would subject themselves to this torture. My gut answer was only a real runner would commit to such an irrational plan. But deep down, I didn’t consider myself as a real runner at all.
Veterinarians are notorious over-achievers in their professional lives. We work extended hours, frequently sacrificing personal time for the sake of the pets we treat. We undervalue our worth, providing discounted services because otherwise we could be accused of ‘being in it for the money”. We are criticized for being greedy and inflexible when we don’t do such things. We struggle to please owners and help animals, despite facing severe financial and emotional restrictions that thwart our best intentions.
Many veterinarians possess an “imposter syndrome”. This occurs when highly accomplished individuals lack confidence in their capabilities, downplay deserving their success, and fear their inadequacies will be exposed.
Veterinarians consider themselves “lucky” to have achieved their degrees rather than recognize their hard work. They’re worried owners may discover they aren’t as knowledgeable as their accolades suggest. They compulsively try for their patients, even those they cannot save. They worry about not being good enough, even though the truth tells the contrary.
Despite defining myself by my career choice, I was guilty of possessing the imposter syndrome in my professional veterinary life. And on that freezing cold morning, I also felt like an imposter as a runner.
When people would tell me how remarkable it was that I could run 3 or 6 or 10 miles, I would discredit my abilities and think of those who run further and more frequently. I was constantly considering how far I didn’t run or a how slowly I completed my miles.
Given my propensity to temper my accomplishments at work and on the track, I couldn’t help but wonder if I possessed some sort of baseline character flaw. Why was my default set to lessening my achievements? When I really considered it, when push came to shove, each time I’d felt like the biggest of imposters, I always made it through. Could I really be that duplicitous and be as proficient as I’d grown to be?
I don’t always have the solution to help my patients. There are times they die, despite my greatest efforts to the contrary. There are times when owners are unhappy with my service, or expect more than I can provide. I constantly worry about being an ineffective doctor. But I help far more owners and pets than not.
Likewise, I’ve had many times where I’ve set out to complete a long distance, only to find myself walking after running a few shabby miles. I’ll never win the races I participate in. My mile time has fluctuated greatly over time. Yet I still register for races and train for their distances, and still feel compelled to run as often as I can.
On that cold winter morning, I recognized that when I feel like an imposter, I’m allowing the critical voice inside my head to act as my enemy rather than my champion. Whether working in the exam room or running on the road, I would always be the only one appropriately equipped to decipher that voice.
It’s just as easy for me interpret something negative, allowing insecurity to propel me towards disappointment professionally or on the pavement, as I could hear something encouraging, and use it to push me towards achievements in either venue. And if my definition of myself rests on what I hear, I must listen carefully and be more objective in my interpretation.
And that in the end, all that really matters is that I push through and finish, one step at a time.