Managing Imposter Syndrome in Occupational Therapy

Managing Imposter Syndrome in Occupational Therapy

Imposter syndrome in occupational therapy is an all-too-common phenomenon that I regularly see come up in almost all of the OT Facebook groups and forums. Despite how common imposter syndrome in OT is, it can still feel a bit taboo to talk about, especially in person at work where you’re feeling it the most.

I know this from first-hand experience and therefore want to talk about it here so you won’t feel alone in dealing with and managing this all-too-common stressor. 

Imposter Syndrome, Defined

First, I want to define what imposter syndrome is so you can identify these feelings you may be having, especially if you’re a newer OT grad or you just switched to a completely new setting.

Imposter syndrome is defined as a “self-doubt of intellect, skills, or accomplishments among high-achieving individuals. [They] cannot internalize their success and subsequently experience pervasive feelings of self-doubt, anxiety, depression, and/or apprehension of being exposed as a fraud in their work, despite verifiable and objective evidence of their successfulness.” [1]

This can look like feelings of being an incompetent OT practitioner, not knowing what you are doing, and/or thinking you aren’t giving your patients the best possible treatments.

Research shows that people with perfectionist tendencies/”needing to be the best” can often have feelings of imposter syndrome. This aspect of imposter syndrome can lead to over-generalizing mistakes that are perceived as lack of ability and can lead to overly critical non-constructive self-feedback [2].

I can 100% relate to this myself and find that many therapists I know (including myself) are type A people, which can lead to these less helpful thoughts and feelings of inadequacy.

But here is a really helpful quote to remind yourself:

“Imposters Don’t Get Imposter Syndrome”

I stumbled across this quote in this article from Zapier and love it. After researching this a bit more in other instances, I’ve found that this really is the case! True imposters and so-called con people don’t see anything wrong with their work and don’t doubt themselves. I’m sure you can think of multiple famous examples in the business world right off the bat.

I hope this quote helps you feel validated in your feelings that you are actually not an imposter! You’re doing the best you can and you are doing great. You got into and graduated OT school, completed multiple fieldworks, passed the boards AND got a job offer. You know more than you think you do! 

These are not easy feats, and I promise you that you do have the tools to be a competent therapist! Just keep learning and expanding your toolbox and with experience and time these feelings of inadequacy often dissipate. 

Need to be reminded of this quote later on? Print this image out and tape it to your mirror, clipboard, refrigerator, or anywhere that would be helpful for you!

imposters dont get imposter syndrome

Know That You Aren’t Alone 

Because healthcare is not an easy field to work in, and many therapists are very driven individuals to begin with, imposter syndrome in new OT grads and even seasoned OTs is so common. We often work in high stress, very busy environments with challenging and complex patients so this isn’t a surprise that we can feel this way.

To further validate that you absolutely are not alone in feeling like an imposter, simply jump on any occupational therapy related Facebook group and search “imposter syndrome.” You’ll find countless threads of OTs asking about it along with a lot of helpful advice and comradery in those threads.

If you can find a mentor as a new grad or when you switch to a new setting, this will also really help to increase your confidence through learning and talking through treatments so much more than doing all of the research on your own.

Imposter Syndrome Does Get Better with Time

After you’ve been a practicing occupational therapy practitioner for several years and get into your groove, your imposter syndrome will very likely get better over time. You’ll have your favorite interventions, you’ll have more continuing education under your belt, and will have learned more along the way from your coworkers and patients.

Of course imposter syndrome can crop up at any time even for seasoned therapists, but once you know the feeling and can identify that it’s not true, it will feel easier to manage. 

When In Doubt, Make Your Treatments Functional

If you feel like you’re really struggling with treatment ideas which may be fueling your imposter syndrome, you can always remember the best treatments are functional ones that address your patients’ deficit areas and goals. No matter your setting, you can come up with a functional treatment out of almost anything.

Your rehab patient has low activity tolerance and decreased strength? Practice bathroom transfers! Decreased fine motor coordination in their hand after a stroke? Work on brushing teeth! You don’t have to come up with new and fancy treatments each day. Go easy on yourself and address their ADLs as appropriate. Occupation-based treatments are the bread and butter of OT, after all!

Want more functional treatment ideas? We have you covered with these two e-book options that will give you plenty of functional and occupation-based intervention ideas to add to your toolbox:

The Note Ninjas ADL Treatment Guide

Be Functional: Creative, Occupation-Based Interventions for Adult Rehab Occupational Therapy (My OT Spot) 

 

Be Functional Creative Occupation Based Interventions for Adult Rehab Occupational Therapy

My Experience with Imposter Syndrome as an OT

This last section is a bit lengthy and is my personal experience, so feel free to breeze past if you’re short on time 🙂

My experiences with imposter syndrome started when I was a new grad in inpatient rehab. I just finished OT school with my last Level II being in inpatient rehab, and got my dream job working in a small non-profit community hospital, in their inpatient rehab unit.

Despite having just finished OT school and a level II fieldwork rotation in inpatient rehab, my whole first year as new grad I felt like:

1. I had no idea what I was doing (even though I did)

2. I didn’t learn anything from OT school (but really, I did!)

3. I wondered, why did my manager even hire me? How long will they keep me before they realize I’m clueless? (They never fired me or reprimanded me!)

In my first year, I was so embarrassed to do treatments in the main gym in fear that my more experienced therapy coworkers would judge the treatments I was doing, so I often worked mostly on ADLs and transfers in the patient’s rooms or the often-empty training apartment.

I now feel sad for my new-grad self that I didn’t feel confident enough to be around the other therapists that I could have learned so much from that first year. I did know what I was doing (at least the basics) and I wish I knew at the time that my feelings were normal but were holding me back. 

I wanted my treatments to be “perfect” and took so many online continuing ed courses at night at least once a week but even so I felt like my interventions weren’t good enough. I spent so much time my first year studying old textbooks and planning interventions (which is actually what led me to create this website, so that was a plus!). Looking back, my anxiety coupled with perfectionism was probably what triggered this, and I’m glad to say my feelings of imposter syndrome have mostly improved with time.

I did have a new “bout” of imposter syndrome as an experienced OT when I moved from that first job to a Level I trauma acute care position three years later, where I was suddenly thrown into highly complex neuro and trauma critical care units, with diagnoses and protocols I’d never seen before. I went back to studying at nights but this time I felt much more confident asking my experienced colleagues SO MANY questions related to all things ICU and interventions for these types of patients. Once I got the hang of this setting, these feelings also began to resolve.

I will admit I still have some anxiety working with highly complex patients or when I’m working in a new setting, which is probably not a bad thing overall! I’ve accepted that imposter syndrome in my life will be a feeling that comes and then goes, depending on where I’m at in my headspace. But reminding myself when it does return that these thoughts are not true and that I am a competent OT that knows what I’m doing really helps me overall.

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All this being said, imposter syndrome in occupational therapy is so common, and it usually does get better with time. It may come back but knowing what you’re experiencing along with how to manage it will help. You are not alone with these feelings. Reaching out to other OTs online and even talking with a mental health therapist through these feelings can be great outlets. 

If you’ve experienced imposter syndrome as an OT and overcame it, what helped you? What tips would you share with new occupational therapists experiencing imposter syndrome? 

References

  1. Bravata DM, Watts SA, Keefer AL, Madhusudhan DK, Taylor KT, Clark DM, Nelson RS, Cokley KO, Hagg HK. Prevalence, Predictors, and Treatment of Impostor Syndrome: a Systematic Review. J Gen Intern Med. 2020 Apr;35(4):1252-1275. doi: 10.1007/s11606-019-05364-1. PMID: 31848865; PMCID: PMC7174434. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7174434/
  2. Huecker MR, Shreffler J, McKeny PT, et al. Imposter Phenomenon. Jul 31 2023. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK585058/

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