I recently read an article on the Becker’s Hospital Review about how overcoming impostor syndrome decreases physician burnout. After reading, I thought it would be interesting to discuss the factors that are influencing burnout in the world of pharmacy.
Not long ago, I was discussing with another pharmacist how putting yourself out there and networking plays a critical role in leading to an indispensable career. (You can get your free copy of my book Indispensable here if you’d like.) The pharmacist put it so perfectly: “Pharmacists were trained to care for others, not to ask for help.”
I feel like our training has led our profession to rely so heavily on making pharmacists feel weak in what we do.
Talk to any recent graduate that comes into the market, and you’ll often hear, “There’s so much I don’t know.” While this is true for most professions, it seems like pharmacists in particular tend to feel like they cannot succeed in the workplace.
In my years of career coaching, I’ve spoken with dozens of pharmacists that quit residency early because they felt like they could handle the stress of it all. Many of them are using phrases common to impostor syndrome like, “I never felt good enough” or “I felt constantly undermined by my preceptors/residency program director.” They felt inadequate to do the job, and they had a hard time facing the guilt and shame of never knowing enough.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from reading Zubin Austin’s (PharmD, PhD) research on personality types in pharmacy, it’s that, as a profession, we pharmacists are extremely hard on ourselves. While I feel like a bit of an anomaly in our profession in that I’m probably not as hard on myself as I should be at times, I can relate to the idea of feeling like I’m never enough.
What I’ve Faced
Even as I worked on this article, I questioned my ability to communicate effectively. I often feel like I’m never enough when I produce content—that I’m constantly struggling with my own ability to be who I want to be. Whenever I mess up or receive hateful comments, I tend to convince myself that who I am isn’t enough.
One thing I appreciated about the Becker’s Hospital Review article was where they pointed out that “medical training focuses on deficits, not strengths” and “there's a cycle we find ourselves in...the cycle of perceived inadequacy.”
This is really interesting to me because it’s almost a reflection of our education system. When I was in school, the joy I felt upon getting an A on an exam was not even close to the devastation I felt when I earned a C. The high from the good grade wasn’t as strong as the low I felt upon earning a poor grade.
During pharmacy rotations, I had the wonderful privilege of being on an infectious disease rotation with Don Scott, one of Michigan’s pioneers in ID at Spectrum Health. I loved the guy—he was a great person—but I just never could get the hang of ID. I always seemed to be struggling with treatment regimens, memorizing things, and ensuring proper dosing. I just struggled with ID.
Unfortunately, because of our rotation system, I didn’t have much choice, so I was stuck with ID. As much of a challenge as it was, it forced me to get better at ID, which was ultimately beneficial for passing my NAPLEX. Still, I had no desire to create a career in something I was not naturally good at.
How Do We Manage?
How can someone remind themself that they are great in the face of impostor syndrome, burnout, and maybe even an unsupportive/toxic work environment?
The sad truth about our profession is that, as much as we are trying to rally behind a new identity of becoming provider status and becoming more recognized in the healthcare system, it’s difficult, especially for new practitioners, to adopt the new identity of being a successful practitioner.
Why? Maybe it’s because we lack confidence. Maybe it’s due to a poor work environment. Maybe we don’t have a great mentor. Due to all of these (and other factors), we lose our sense of our ability of what we can achieve and what we can do.
I myself went through some bullying from the “mentor” who was supposed to, you know, take care of me and manage me during my initial years in pharmacy. As it turned out, she wanted nothing to do with me. In fact, she would actively try to get me to quit my very first job as a pharmacist.
So what is a pharmacist to do when they experience these feelings of inadequacy?
The best literature out there encourages self-reflection, especially reflecting on past successes. Regularly meeting with a mentor who believes in you and your ability plays a critical role as well.
What I have found personally to be extremely helpful was hiring a coach. I recently went through impostor syndrome again, but the signs were much more subtle.
First, let’s go back to when I started my pharmacy career in 2012. I went through an impostor syndrome crisis. Due to my work environment, I found myself constantly questioning all of my clinical decisions.
Fast forward a few years and I was in a completely new environment. In the beginning of 2019, I noticed a constant trend in my business. During the majority of my business meetings, I would ask my contractors and business colleagues, “Am I doing the right thing?”
I had this deep-seated doubt about what I was doing and whether it was the right thing. I felt insecure because I felt like I wasn’t making the best decisions.
One of my great friends and fellow coach recommended that I seek a coach myself to help me understand what the issue was and to get help working through it. What my coach ended up helping me understand was that I was facing an identity crisis—not a midlife crisis, mind you, but more of a crisis of adopting a new identity. This is at the heart of what I think is the problem of impostor syndrome: recognizing there is doubt because there is a lack of confidence in the decision making.
My coach helped me realize this and transform into someone who was confident in what he was doing. My coach helped me “reach down deep inside.” (I know, it sounds cheesy.) I looked deeply inward and discovered that I had some very negative beliefs about my abilities and qualifications for being an entrepreneur. Sometimes I would tell myself, I'm a fake. I'm a fraud. I'm not real. I don't actually help people.
And yet, I have hundreds of testimonials from people that I've helped. I have wonderful emails detailing the lives that I've changed—even people who claimed that they wanted to commit suicide but now work in jobs that they actually enjoy.
I shouldn’t have been downplaying my role in their stories and how I had influenced them, yet my doubt persisted. My coach guided my transformation by asking powerful questions to get me to realize, through my own will, what I was doing and how I needed to change. That was the most powerful action I could have ever taken to step into a new identity.
Take Control of Your Pharmacy Career
If you’re dealing with impostor syndrome in your current job, and you want to break free from it, I encourage you to click this link to set up a time to chat. I’d love to hear from you and see how we can help you overcome impostor syndrome and move into a career and life that is fulfilling and rewarding. I found my breakthrough, and I know you can, too.
Alex is the Founder of The Happy PharmD. He loves anime, his family, and video games, but not in that order.