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Ep231: Feel Like You Don’t Belong in Nursing School? (neither did I . . . how I overcome impostor syndrome)

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I want to share with you four significant moments in my nursing career.  These are moments that were “pivotal” to my career, yet I felt unworthy of the success and accomplishment.

My goal with this isn’t to provide myself with some sort of self therapy by talking about my past . . . on the contrary, I hope that by sharing these experiences you might avoid my fate and find a new sense of joy in your accomplishments and begin to feel proud of what you have done.

My Experiences

2011

We had our son, Taz, during my first semester.

It was the first day Spring semester of 2011.  My wife and I had just moved across the country for me to begin nursing school.  This was the first time I was going to meet my new cohort.  The small group of 25 of us were going to go through hell and back again on our journey to RN.

I walked into the small conference room and found an empty chair.  Trying to avoid being too obvious I peered around the room trying to “size up” the competition.  Immediately, I chilling through ran down my body . . . “I’m the only lucky one here.  Everyone else here is so much more prepared than me.  I hope no one discoverers how dumb I am.  Oh well, you’re probably going to fail out soon anyway.”

2013

Heading to work as a new intern.

Another first day.  This time it was my first day on the job as a brand new grad nurse in the Neuro ICU of a large Trauma I hospital in Downtown Dallas.

The room was packed with fresh nurses.  Again, I arrived an found an empty chair.  Before I could even open the “Orientation Pamphlet” the same thought entered my mind . . . “Keep your head up.  Smile.  No one will realize that you are the lucky one.  Somehow your application fell through the cracks.  All these other new nurses probably went to better schools, did better internships, and will survive nursing orientation better than you.”

2014

One of our first emails.

I sat my wife down and told her I wanted to start a website called NRSNG.com.  On the site I was going to post “study aids for nursing students” because “I felt like I was jipped during my nursing school experience, and I want to help other future nurses have a better experience than I did”.

She said, “Wow, that’s a great idea!”

Aaaaand . . . there came that voice . . . “Are you crazy?!?!?  Who is going to want to listen to you?  What have you got to share that will help other students?  People are going to trash you online and tear you apart.  They are gonna know that you are a terrible nurse and teacher”.

2015

Fun in the ICU on Halloween.

7:15pm.  My ICU manager pulls me aside.  “Jon, we’re going to start training you to be a charge nurse.”

After the initial shock wore off, you guessed it, the same thoughts came into my mind. . . “Why would the nurses listen to you?  You aren’t prepared to lead the unit.  Somehow, Judy (my manager), doesn’t realize how mediocre of a nurse you are.  She will certainly regret her decision to make you a charge nurse after you run the unit into the ground”.

Impostor Syndrome

Full disclosure . . . I want to tell you guys about a “problem” I struggle with.  I’ve always struggled with this as long as I can remember.  It’s something called Impostor Syndrome . . . what’s that?

Impostor syndrome is a concept describing high-achieving individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. . . Despite external evidence of their competence, those exhibiting the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be. Some studies suggest that impostor syndrome is particularly common among high-achieving women.   –Source

Essentially, despite achieving great things, despite praise and compliments, despite external accolades . . . . you:

  • Feel like a fake
  • Feel like you don’t deserve the success, like you just got lucky
  • Feel like everyone else around you somehow is more prepared
  • Believe you aren’t intelligent

There are a few interesting elements to impostor syndrome that I think apply to nursing students and nurses:

  • Exists in high-achieving individuals (ummm . . . nurses)
  • More prevalent in women
  • Affects as much as 70% of individuals (we all feel like the dumb/lucky one)

Impostor Syndrome in Nursing

I think as nurses are prone to impostor syndrome.  First of all, as we are starting out in a nursing program we are surrounded by other brilliant individuals who are all driven, dedicated, and intelligent. Secondly, in many instances, we are faking it.  When we go to clinical we are “playing nurse”, trying to provide holistic care to our patients with very little knowledge base . . . it’s tough!

With that said, I think it’s equally important that you learn to recognize this syndrome in yourself and discover how you can root it out and move THROUGH the feelings of unworthiness and doubt.

Through the 4 examples I mention above, I KEPT GOING.  I didn’t allow those moments of doubt to stop me.  These feelings of doubt and inadequacy creep in all the time as I lead the team at NRSNG.com.  Some days I’m confident as hell.  Other days, I’m scared as hell.

As nurses, our primary goal is to provide the best possible care for our patients.  While caring for another human being is intimidating, feeling worthless and doubting yourself does NO good for the patient.

Do You Have Impostor Syndrome?

If as you are reading this you are thinking, “Hey, that sounds like me”, you might have impostor syndrome.  Here are a few other ways to identify it in yourself.

  • Diligence: do you feel the need to work harder and harder so that others don’t discover you as an impostor?  Sadly, this hard work pays of with continued success and praise, which perpetuates the cycle.
  • Feeling of being phony: do you feel like you are simply giving professors the answer “they want”?
  • Use of charm: you probably have an intuitive gift for charm and connecting with others.  Do you sometimes use this gift to seek out relationships that are beneficial?  Sadly, recognition in these relationships can lead to feeling like people like you simply for your charm and not for who you are.
  • Avoiding displays of confidence: do you avoid showing confidence in your abilities or downplay your abilities?  Do you feel like believing in yourself with drive others away?

How to Overcome Impostor Syndrome

It’s important that you learn to not only recognize but overcome impostor syndrome when it bears its head. Doing so will allow you to:

  • Recognize and enjoy your successes
  • Help you reach your full potential
  • Love yourself rather than loathe

Here are a few tips to help you overcome:

  1. Stop comparing yourself to that person.  Life is not a competition.  The only person you should compare yourself to is . .  YOU.  Are you growing.  That’s all that matters.  There will always be a smarter, prettier, faster, better nurse than you.  Also, it’s impossible to know every variable in someones success and accomplishments. None of us have the same starting line nor the same goals . . . therefore, we aren’t even in the same race as anyone else.  Better stated . . . it’s not a race!
  2. Keep a file of people saying nice things about you. One of the first things I started doing when we started NRSNG.com was to keep a file of compliments.  Every time we get a nice email or review . . . it goes in the folder.  I often refer to this folder.  Whenever the nasty thought “why should anyone care what YOU have to say” creeps in, I go back to this folder.  It reminds me of the nursing students all over the world who have found success thanks to NRSNG. You should do the same.
  3. Accept that you have had some role in your successes. It’s crazy to think that you got into nursing school on pure luck, or that you got the job because your resume slipped through the cracks.  What I often tell newbies is . . . it’s the admissions committee or the managers job to determine if you should have the job/get into school, once that decision has been made you don’t need to worry about it. You are where you are due to your hard work and effort.
  4. Be honest. Realize that nobody knows what they’re doing. Most startups fail, great nurses fail the NCLEX, I have terrible grammar skills, you will make a medication error as a nurse, the greatest of the greats fail too.  Failing doesn’t mean you’re a fake.  It means you are human.  Be honest about what you do know and be honest about what you do know.

Conclusion

If you feel like an impostor . . . you’re not alone.  Most of us are terrified to admit it.   Doing so just proves we are fakes. My point is, rather than giving in to the toxic rhetoric nursing admins love to share on the first day of school (look to your left, look to your right.  One of those nursing students will fail out), I want to reword it a bit . . . :

“Look to your left, look to your right.  Chances are both of those nursing students are scared as shit and feel like they are gonna fail out too.”

You’re not alone!  We are here for you.  I know how terrifying it can feel to think you are a fake.  Be a bit easier on yourself this week!

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Date Published - Feb 27, 2017
Date Modified - Feb 26, 2017

Jon Haws RN

Written by Jon Haws RN

Jon Haws RN began his nursing career at a Level I Trauma ICU in DFW working as a code team nurse, charge nurse, and preceptor. Frustrated with the nursing education process, Jon started NRSNG in 2014 with a desire to provide tools and confidence to nursing students around the globe. When he's not busting out content for NRSNG, Jon enjoys spending time with his two kids and wife.

28 Comments

  1. Shane

    I teared up reading this. I was plagued with these feelings in nursing school and continue to deal with them to this day. I’m 46 and nursing is a second career and I just finished an internship on a critical care unit and am now on my own on that same unit. I battle with imposter syndrome on a daily basis but I’ve found that if I’m honest about it the more seasoned nurses have been so awesome in letting me know that it’s very common among nurses and many of them experienced the same feelings. Thank you so much Jon for putting this in writing. It is immensely comforting knowing I’m not alone in this!

    Reply
  2. Kim Marcum

    I just listened to you impostor syndrome and I feel this way all the time. I worked in a factory for over 25 years in Quality Control, I did first piece inspection (measuring every single dimension on the blue print with the new part) and Calibrating equipment in the plant. The plant closed and I stayed until the end and we got TAA ACT schooling for the majority of our jobs going out of the country. We got schooling paid for 1 time in our lifetime, but it had to be finished in 130 weeks and we had to stay full-time with not breaks or we would loose it. I started Ivy Tech Community College in August of 2013, which was traumatic for me since I hadn’t even opened a book since I had graduated college in 1986. I think I cried every day for the first year or more, I had to lean how to study and I didn’t even know what power point was. I prayed to God a lot and he has guided me. I had to go into Healthcare support because we don’t know if we will be accepted in to the RN program because it is so competitive and tough to get in. I got an associates degree in health care support with a cert in dementia care and a cert in CNA. So after this I applied to the RN program but I was told I didn’t make the list that I was on the alternate list. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do? Here I am a single mom unemployed and not knowing what path to take now. I will never forget when I got the Phone call asking me if I was still interested in the RN program at Ivy Tech and I said yes and she offered me the spot because I was on the alternate list and they had an opening come up. I said yes and hung-up the phone and cried and called my parents to tell them the news. I have now been in the RN program and I’m at the end. I look at myself as a failure and don’t know what is wrong with my brain? Why I can’t retain this information. I have had to take every med surg class over and I’m on my second round right now with Med Surg 3 and failed the first test with 30/50 and the second test 36/50 and I study for days with this outcome. I have extreme test anxiety and ADD which has gotten much better since I take medication for it, I even made the Dean’s list 2 or 3 times thanks to treatment. I only have 2 exams left and a final and I am fearful I will fail and what will become of me? I tell myself that I will never pass the NCLEX exam anyways because I can’t even pass med surg. 3.
    I haven’t worked in any healthcare area and I’m terrified I don’t know what I am doing. I chose this path because I didn’t want to have to go through another plant closing and I figured the healthcare field will never go out of business, but I’m starting to think I should have just went to another factory because I’m out of money and I’m not sure I will pass and I don’t want to look stupid in my families eyes, they are always so supportive of me and I feel like a failure. My mom tells me I have a lot on my mind being a single mom and now also a new grandma and I have 3 acres to keep up on. I feel I go 2 steps forward and someone is pulling me 4 steps backwards all the time. It’s like I’m in a deep deep tunnel and I can see the light and just when I think I’m about to reach it, it get farther and farther away. I’m glad you started this site because I feel lost all of the time and I don’t know what I am do or what the Hell I was thinking when I signed up for this. I haven’t had a life what so ever since I started in 2013 and it’s now 2018. I did get to walk and graduate with my nursing buddies, Ivy Tech lets everyone from Dec. to May to Aug. graduate and they just send your diploma in the mail when you finish and pass your classes. I don’t know if you can help me or give me any advice but I’m running out of time with just 5 weeks left of summer and as you know we have to have a 75% to pass and their is Absolutely no rounding.
    Thanks for letting me vent
    Kim Marcum

    Reply
  3. Dawn Graves

    Have to admit I felt that all the way through nursing school and through 461/2 years of being a nurse. It always seems to hang around. I was the first nurse on one of the first Civilian air evac teams in the US. The first RN to be the Paramedic Cooridnator and EMT instructor for a city fire department. Done home care, school nursing and am now teaching OB/PEDS in an LVN program and still have those feelings when I look at the people I teach with I still feel the same way. Don’t know if it will I will ever feel like I’ve done or know more than everyone else.

    Reply
  4. LaWanda

    I am so glad to see you address this issue. I suffered quietly with this, to myself. To the point I wanted to quit being in the RN program. I didn’t realize other nurses suffer from this as well. Thanks for providing a safe place to talk about it.

    Reply
    • Jon Haws RN

      Jon Haws RN

      LaWanda,

      I think the silence on this issue comes from so many of us never wanting to expose our weaknesses. Being a “STRONG” nurse who never cries is seen as almost a badge of courage . . . I don’t really agree with that. We are humans and it’s okay to have emotions . . . including fear and doubt! Keep it up!

      Reply
  5. geri

    I still feel like an impostor after 30 plus years in nursing.. I still ask questions when not sure. Nursing is always changing …never stagnant ..

    Reply
  6. Nyo nyo smyth

    Thanks for sharing your experiences. Love to read its.

    Reply
  7. uturn1997

    Jon, I was getting annoyed with some of the lessons on NRSNG. On numerous occasions I felt the flow was interrupted by you or another instructor having to say “oh sorry” and then correct something that was said. I was expecting the flow to be flawless and the material presented in expert fashion. What you did with this blog changed everything for me. You see, I was viewing you as an instructor. My instructors demand what seems like near perfection from me. I was demanding the same from you and your staff. This blog reminded me that you are my brother. You admit your imperfections, lay them out for all to see. I have true respect for you. Thank you for being one of the few if not the only, to remind us that we can make it to graduation. I do not understand why weeding us out with psychological warfare is so common. We are in school because we are compassionate people that desire to make positive change. Thank you for supporting those of us that are giving it everything that we have. This additional resource is a blessing.

    Reply
    • Jon Haws RN

      Jon Haws RN

      Thanks so much for your honesty. We do try our best to provide “perfect” resources for you but we do embrace INTELLECTUAL HUMILITY at NRSNG. We don’t know everything, we aren’t perfect, we make mistakes . . . it’s as simple as that. We believe one thing that is really missing in nursing education is the ability to say “I’M WRONG!” . . . it’s as if it’s become impossible to say those words. We try to take the opposite approach. Please tell us when we’re wrong!

      Reply
  8. Tracz Betts

    Thank you- this information was so helpful, I felt as though you were talking directly to me. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I start nursing school in the fall as a 45yr d second career student, I am so nervous but thankful I found your website! You are doing a great job! Accept it because it’s true. 🙂

    Tracz-

    Reply
    • Jon Haws RN

      Jon Haws RN

      Tracz (I love your name)!

      Thank you so much for the kind words and know that we are so happy to have you as part of the NRSNG Family! You are starting an amazing journey and YOU CAN DO THIS!

      Reply
    • Anna

      Tracz, I started nursing school at 52. And I was not the oldest student. I felt inferior and stupid the whole way through. When I passed the NCLEX, I thought it was a fluke. I have spent my first two years on the job struggling with my inferiority complex. I wish I had read this sooner. Welcome to nursing.

      Reply
  9. Laura

    I love this! I most definitely have imposter syndrome. I’ve been an LPN since 2015 & I’m now in the mobility program to become an RN & I still feel inadequate all the time!! Even though I do pretty well on exams & in clinicals I often feel like I just got lucky & I get by on my personality because I’m usually pretty charming according to most people ( I wouldn’t even say this about myself, it’s just what I’ve been told by others). Anyway, it’s so encouraging & reassuring to hear other people feel this way too!! I already get your emails with the study guides & cheat sheets & I love them! Keep doing what you’re doing because you’re helping so many of us in this crazy chosen profession of ours!!

    Reply
    • Jon Haws RN

      Jon Haws RN

      Laura,

      Thanks for the kind words. As nurses we tend to be a bit hard on ourselves. I think we are compassionate people who want to do the best by our patients but that can come with being a bit hard on ourselves. I’m so glad you’re enjoying the resources!

      Reply
  10. Cindy

    I have felt this way since I graduated LPN to working in the ER and now in school for RN. I have yet to feel like a ‘real’ nurse. I didn’t even know this was a real thing. But, man, do I feel it. I focus on my mistakes more than the victories and this is a problem. Thank you for helping me identify it and for the encouragement and tools to move past it.

    Reply
    • Jon Haws RN

      Jon Haws RN

      Cindy,

      I know exactly what you mean. It seems like whenever we start to feel a bit comfortable, a new hurdle or challenge arises. Keep it up! We’re all trying our best!

      Reply
  11. Adeline fotso

    I felt like this article is about me. I started my orientation as a PCU nurse yesterday. I dont even open my mouth. Im scared patient and coworkers will not like my accent (french background.) I m scared everything i wil say or do will be silly …

    Reply
    • Jon Haws RN

      Jon Haws RN

      Adeline, who wouldn’t LOVE a French accent. . . . lol. In all seriousness, I felt the exact same way in orientation and I’m sure many of the other newbies do to. Keep it up and have faith in you!

      Reply
  12. melissa

    I’m sitting in the computer lab on my nursing campus now feeling like a complete imposter and totally isolated. I’m in second semester and the friendships developed in first semester seem to have gone out the window. There is an atmosphere of frustration and almost jealousy that seems to drift throughout the classrooms. It doesn’t feel as if we are as supportive of each other as we once were. In fact, it seems that the better one does on exams, the more that person gets shunned.

    I witness snickers from students when someone answers a question wrong. I’m flooded by constant negativity, stress and outright rude behavior. People who used to be so open to study or answer a simple question seem to be too busy to even say hello or they have latched on to one person and are not interested in speaking to anyone else besides the extra “appendage/classmate”.

    I understand that nursing school is stressful, but I’m being greatly affected by the atmosphere. I may also be completely delusional from lack of sleep too. I try to engage other students in conversation, since I spend so much time on campus with them, but the cliques make me feel like an outsider. I probably play a role in this situation, but everyone seems to busy to even study together unless it’s their best nursing friend. I hope I’m not alone because I never used to feel this isolated and depressed. I know depression is a nursing school side effect. How to overcome it, I’m not sure.

    Reply
    • NRSNG Support

      Hey, Thank you for reach out! Nursing school isn’t easy at all! Please look at these Great blog posts to help you find your confidence:

      That Time I Dropped Out of Nursing School – https://www.nrsng.com/quit-nursing-school/
      Vulnerability and Confidence as a New Nurse – https://www.nrsng.com/vulnerability-confidence-new-nurse/
      Confidence Before Nursing School Clinical Skills Tests – https://www.nrsng.com/nss-ep14-confidence-before-nursing-school-clinical-skills-tests/

      Reply
    • Heather

      Hello Melissa,

      I realize you posted over a year ago so hopefully your circumstances have gotten better since then. In case they haven’t I wanted to share my own experiences with you and offer some words of encouragement.

      I’m a 4th year Nursing student studying in Ontario Canada. I’ve often wondered if my experiences of feeling isolated by the competitive nature of the Nursing program was universal in Nursing programs or unique to my University. I think it’s safe to say that creating an inclusive and supportive environment between nursing students is something all nursing programs struggle with. It takes a unique group of individuals to overcome the tendency to protect oneself by putting others down.

      I spent the majority of my degree protecting myself by unintentionally isolating myself. I didn’t even try to create connections with others for fear that they would find me out and see how unintelligent I was and how much I struggled with balancing my work life and school life. I was afraid to open up to others for fear of being judged or ridiculed. I struggled a great deal with my own mental health and eventually it led to me failing a course. After failing I finally reached out to the health services department and started counselling. It was uncomfortable and I didn’t really want to at first but it led to some very beautiful growth and inner development. I started going to some group workshops and discovered there were other nursing students who were struggling just like me. I actually failed a couple courses which brought me a lot of shame. However, failing those courses was probably the best thing that could have happened to me. I learned to see failure as an opportunity for growth rather than something to be ashamed of. I learned how to take back the power I had given others over how I feel about and view myself. I learned how to create boundaries and protect myself without closing myself off to connection with others. I learned how to interact with people who made me feel intimidated without allowing that feeling to turn into self-deprecation or shame. In essence I learned how to navigate challenging situations and relationships which also helped open up the opportunity for me to find people who I did connect with. Closing myself off to everyone meant that I missed the opportunity to engage and connect with those individuals that were just like me, feeling lost and alone, unsure and afraid. I also found comfort in creating friendships and connections with people outside of my program who I met through various extracurricular activities.

      If you haven’t already I highly recommend reaching out and asking for help either from a guidance counselor or your school’s health services. It’s one of the hardest things to do but it’s worth it. Also making time for self care by engaging in activities completely unrelated to your program where you can relax and make new friends is also a great way to restore and rejuvenate your energy and self esteem.

      Keep your head up and good luck!

      Reply
  13. Graciela

    This was beyond helpful. I have impostor syndrome! I am 18 years old & in an RN program. It’s my first semester and people are AWLAYS saying something or another about me being “so smart” or “so dedicated” for being in RN school at my age & I consistently say “Oh I dunno I just got lucky” I have believed this for the longest time about everything I have done & especially in nursing school. People around me have a 96average in the class & here I am brushing by with a 76. It’s a little infuriating especially since clinicals start tomorrow & I feel like I know absolutely nothing.

    Reply
    • Jon Haws

      Jon Haws

      Graciela . . . thanks for being so honest with your feelings. You are going to do well in clinical. Just trust yourself and take a lot of deep breaths.

      Reply
      • Monica

        Jon,
        I am going to be honest. I have thought of deleting you from my mailing list… I am a public health nurse now but your posts are always interesting… Keep it coming!

      • Jon Haws RN

        Jon Haws RN

        Monica,

        YAY! I’m so glad you’re staying with us. I’ll do my best to keep you here!