In consultation with Katie Ford: talking about all things imposter syndrome, self worth, and being your own cheerleader
Katie Ford is a small animal vet with a passion for helping others in the profession with self development and overcoming self doubt. She sat down with Vet Report to discuss imposter syndrome in the profession, and how to value yourself as ‘more than just a vet’.
Interview by Alexia Yiannouli
Could you start by telling us a little bit about yourself and your background?
I graduated as a vet from the University of Liverpool in 2012 and went straight into a job in first opinion practice. I continued to work in practice and got my internal medicine certificate from Liverpool in 2016. Along my journey I experienced a lot of imposter syndrome and self doubt, and this helped me learn about methods I could use to help myself. I also found people along the way who helped me, who then trained me in those things too, and it meant that my career organically diversified and grew. By the time I had learned all of those things to help myself, I had grown to love working in practice. Now I do locum work, as it gives me the flexibility to fit in the coaching and the other things that I do. It really lets me balance all of the things that I’m passionate and dedicated about.
What helped you transition from the mindset of being ‘just a vet’ to viewing yourself as more than that?
The transition for me unfortunately happened when I was in a very dark place. It got to the point where being a vet was all that I had, and when I thought that all of my personal worth and value rested on the outcome of my cases. This meant that I would analyse everything that I did, find tiny mistakes and blow them massively out of proportion. I decided to have CBT, and I then went on to learn more about a system called broadband consciousness, which also really helped me. It was only after doing all of that when I realised that I wasn’t the negative voice in my head, and that I didn’t have to believe every thought.
I started to realise the importance of embracing the other aspects of ‘me’. When our whole identity lies in being a vet, anything that doesn’t go according to plan almost feels like a personal insult. When I started realising that I was valuable because I was me and there was only one of me, I was able to realise that being a vet is amazing – but that it’s only a small part of who I am.
That realisation only came from a place where things were very bad for me – I sought help and had a complete transformation. I’m really glad it happened, because it put me on the path that I’m on now. At the same time, I think there are things that people can do to help before it gets to that point. There’s an analogy that people sometimes use – it’s awful but it really illustrates the point well. If you slowly heat up a frog, it won’t notice the water getting warmer, as it’s happening so slowly. But if you were to put a frog straight into a pan of boiling water, it would naturally jump straight out. That’s what it was like for me – it happened so slowly that by the time I realised things were bad, something really needed to change.
What advice would you give to others for them to view themselves as ‘more than just a vet’?
For everyone it starts with a bit of self compassion and self reflection. Sometimes we just need someone external to help us with that. It’s knowing that we don’t have to believe every thought we have and that we can choose a kinder story for us. But it’s not just about thoughts, it’s about action. Sometimes doing a conscious audit of what’s happening in our lives and in our thinking can help get clear on what our values are. Once we realise what we’re not – we’re not that negative voice, we’re not that inner critic in our head – that’s when we can ask ourselves what is actually important to us.
You have to ask yourself, ‘what other things am I, apart from a vet? What other identities do I have, and how can I embrace them?’ When I was a new graduate I gave up all of my hobbies. I used to do dog training but then stopped doing it, and I also stopped seeing my friends and barely saw my family as work became more and more encompassing.
You need to get clear on what your values are and what’s important to you, and what actions you can take to make sure that those values stay important. You have to be your own cheerleader by telling yourself that you will be a better vet if you take time to recharge. Staying at work every hour of the day won’t make you serve your clients and patients better, but having that time to recharge will. That would be my main advice – to align your values, audit your thoughts, and embrace the things and roles you enjoy into everyday life.
People often have a disconnect between their values and what’s actually happening in their lives. Making time things you enjoy is just as important as making time to schedule a big surgery. This disconnect is called the ‘knowing doing’ gap – if we did everything we already knew, we’d make a big difference. It’s not just about thinking positive things, it’s about taking action in our daily lives.
“Sometimes doing a conscious audit of what’s happening in our lives and in our thinking can help us get clear on what our values are.”
What has been your interpretation and experience of imposter syndrome?
Imposter syndrome is that persistent internalised fear that someone is going to find you out. We know that it isn’t a mental health disorder, but a reaction to a set of stimuli. It can progress to depression and anxiety, which is what happened for me. I did nothing about it because I didn’t even know it existed – I really thought that I was the only one who felt like that. As a vet, it meant that no matter how many good case outcomes I had, I always felt like there was a little voice in my head that found a reason to discount the success.
I would also put a huge amount of gravitas on a small mistake which would then turn into something significant, fitting in with my belief that I wasn’t good enough. I would constantly think that I hadn’t done a good job, and that someone would find out that I was fraud. The more good comments that came in, the worse I felt. The negative voice would always be there to say “you didn’t earn that praise, and here are all the reasons why.”
I tried to remedy how I was feeling by staying long hours at work. I did more training and got more certificates, and built up an armory of qualifications so that I wouldn’t feel like a fraud. I put myself on a pedestal, but it was just me putting pressure on myself to be up there, not anyone else.
Things spiralled from there, because I couldn’t keep up with the cover I was portraying. I would jog past work and pop in just to see what was happening, just to make sure that none of my cases had come back in. If they had, I’d want to find out what I had missed and what mistakes I had made. I was constantly searching for something to confirm the inner belief that I felt about being a fraud and that I wasn’t good enough. When I started talking to other people, I realised that I wasn’t the only one who felt like that, and that’s what made me feel so passionate about sharing the message and learning the training modalities to be able to help myself and other people.
It’s awful to feel like that – you really feel like you’re on your own, and it’s such an internal battle. Externally, I was a senior vet. I had a brand new house, I drove a brand new car. Outwardly I was very confident – I’d speak on the radio, I spoke at client evenings. I would walk into the consult room with a big smile on my face and be cheery. But once the consult was finished, I’d walk into the dispensary, close the door and just sit there when no one could see. That’s what it was like in the vet profession for me personally.
Do you think there is any difference between men and women in terms of experiencing and being aware of imposter syndrome?
Imposter syndrome was first discovered in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. They studied high achieving women, and initially it was thought to uniquely affect women before it was later discovered to affect everyone.
Initially they thought that it could be caused by childhood experiences, suggesting that being compared to a higher achieving sibling could be a potential cause. Their second suggestion was that children who are high achievers had high expectations put on them by parents. It was thought that this could have added pressure on those individuals, who would then grow up to think that they had to be excellent in everything they do and find everything easy. The third suggestion was to do with the societal stereotypes we are exposed to – for example, what we think a vet should look and act like.
The most recent research has shown that men are equally as likely as women to experience imposter syndrome, but it’s important to consider whether societal stereotypes delayed this realisation for men. For example, we’re always being told to “man up” or that “ boys don’t cry” – all these things suggest that men can’t have or show weakness, or discuss their feelings, which is not the case at all. This could be why the conversation is lagging behind slightly with men than with women.
In the profession, a lot of us grew up with the stereotypical view of a vet from things like James Herriot, but we’re slowly starting to show more diversity in the profession and really show a wider view of the profession. As a woman in the vet profession, I personally never experienced any clients saying that they “would like to see the male vet” because I was in a very female dominated practice, but as a younger vet I would always get comments like, “are you old enough to be doing that surgery?” despite the fact that I’d been in practice for several years. Those sorts of comments then made me think that if they didn’t think I could do the job, and I didn’t think I could do the job, then did that mean I really couldn’t do it?
There are always going to be stereotypes from a long time ago that are still circulating in society today, but these are conversations that are slowly being discussed more and opened up in the profession.
“We need to foster a culture that says it’s ok to ask for help if we need it.”
How do you think imposter syndrome can be tackled within the profession?
The first thing would be to talk about it and acknowledge it more, which would mean that people feel less on their own with how they’re feeling. Another thing would be to normalise mistakes and failures, and make it seem less scary when they happen. We’re often programmed to think that if we make a mistake then we’re a bad person. The important thing is that we learn from it, and work out how we can prevent it from happening again.
We need to try and normalise mistakes and failures, because they’re a big part of the cycle of imposter syndrome. Clance and Imes talked a lot in their research about how fear of failure is a massive driver behind imposter syndrome. We need to foster a culture that says it’s ok to ask for help if we need it.
As members of the veterinary profession, we’re always looking for problems and how to fix things, and we put a lot of pressure on ourselves. But it’s not healthy to view ourselves as needing to be ‘fixed’. It suggests that we’re broken and that’s not the case at all – we just need additional help sometimes.
Just having people know that imposter syndrome is normal in all parts of life is a good starting point. For example, if someone starts a new role with a deep seated idea of what they think a person in that role should look like, it’s going to feel uncomfortable, but it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t still do it. If anything, switching your attention to the things you can do and the reasons why you are good in that role is a really important starting point.
Fostering the growth mindset is something discussed by psychologist Carol Dweck, who compared growth and fixed mindsets. The growth mindset is identifying that there is information in failure, and that we can always keep growing and learning as a result. It’s acknowledging what has happened, and how we can learn from it. It’s really about being our own cheerleader, and normalising mistakes and encouraging people to seek help when they need it. A belief is something that we think is true, but there might not be any evidence behind it. It’s about acknowledging that, and trying to work out if what we believe has any truth behind it, which will then determine if we actually need to listen to it. Knowing that we don’t have to believe any thought we’ve ever had is really important.
How did you get involved with the coaching and training you have undertaken in broadband consciousness and with the Proctor Gallagher Institute?
Once I finished CBT, I started looking further into personal development and what else was out there, and if there were other strategies that I could use. I came across a system called ‘broadband consciousness’, which changed my life. The essence of it is that we all have a negative voice in our head – but we don’t choose to have it, and we don’t have to choose to believe it. Instead of overanalysing and questioning it, we can instead focus on asking ourselves the question: ‘what would the real me do?’ If I was to answer that question, I would want to cheerlead myself, and instead of being critical I would want to be kind to myself. Once I learned that, everything changed.
Two and a half years ago I started sharing my story on Instagram. I really wanted people to know that they weren’t alone in how they were feeling, and that there are things out there to help. Whether that’s therapy, or even just talking to others about it. If people can find a way to externalise how they’re feeling, then it can lead to others talking about their feelings too. It starts opening the conversation up, and it’s something I’m really passionate about.
The coaching I offer stemmed from me wanting to share my knowledge and experience with people. I’ve always been very clear with people when they approach me about coaching. Therapy with a medical professional is always a good place to start if you are looking to get help. I’ll never try to coach or speak to anyone who would be better in the hands of a professional.
Alongside broadband consciousness, I have also trained in CBT, not to give therapy, but for me to get a better understanding of how I think. Three years ago I attended a doctors’ diversification conference and listened to an A&E doctor speak about the reasons behind the goals we set ourselves to achieve. It made me think about all the goals I had set for myself – they were all to try and prove myself and make myself feel valuable in my job.
Once I reached the point where I knew my value and recognised my worth, I wanted to use what I’d learnt to go and help other people. I started working with Bob Proctor at the Proctor Gallagher Institute, which changed my life. I now do one-to-one coaching with people, and I have a lot of online content and go out and speak to lots of people. I’m hugely passionate about people not having to go through what I went through, and making sure they know they’re not alone and that they don’t have to struggle.
“It’s really about being our own cheerleader, normalising mistakes, and encouraging people to seek help when they need it. “
Could you tell us a little bit about what you offer in your coaching?
I do one to one coaching with vets, nurses and other members of the profession who are looking to move towards their goals and the things they want to do, but might have little niggles or doubts about how to achieve them. A lot of that comes from self doubt, which is a huge part of imposter syndrome. I always do a one-to-one call with people first to check that they’re a suitable candidate for my coaching. For some people, therapy is a better thing to start with.
I have a 12 month programme on the way, which would allow people to have a monthly or annual membership, giving them access to webinars, online group meet ups, extra materials, and interviews.
As humans we have a forgetting curve – after 24 hours we forget 80% of what we’ve learned, unless we keep revisiting it. My idea is that instead of just providing information to access, offering it across different platforms and creating a ‘tribe’ of people all experiencing similar things can really help cement that knowledge. It also provides a support network, where you can listen to other people’s stories and really just normalise imposter syndrome and support each other.
A lot of vets might label themselves as being a ‘perfectionist’. What do you think could be done to address this in the profession?
It’s important to identify perfectionism and identify its negative traits – having decision paralysis, procrastinating, overworking, not knowing when to stop and avoiding failure are all examples of the trait. There are a lot of parallels to imposter syndrome.
The first step is highlighting awareness of what perfectionism actually is. The second thing is normalising failures and mistakes, and creating a culture where it’s ok to make mistakes. It’s also having awareness of creating labels. At one point in my journey, someone called me a perfectionist and I then clung onto that label, and started seeing everything that I did in light of me being called a perfectionist.
Once I stepped back, I realised that having perfectionist tendencies was just me wanting to do a good job, but I needed to recognise when the negative aspects of the trait crept in and be aware of them. I also realised that I wasn’t a perfectionist in all of my life – it was just in my job, and so calling myself a perfectionist really wasn’t accurate or helpful.
In a profession where you have a lot of people with perfectionist traits that haven’t fully been identified throughout their education, there’s a massive disconnect when those people are put into a world where you can’t control or achieve everything. It’s all about knowing that failures and mistakes are ok, and that even just talking about them is a great place to start.
How do you find balancing clinical work with pursuing your other projects?
I had to do a conscious audit of my values and what was important to me, and how I was going to achieve that balance. We’ve also got to be careful about the world ‘balance’, which infers that ‘work’ is bad and ‘life’ is good. It’s more of a symbiosis between them both than a clear cut line.
I work as a locum one to two days per week, as I enjoy it and like to keep my hand in. That’s a boundary that I put in place and I live by that. If I did more, I know I would become burnt out and wouldn’t be able to work to my full potential.
Do you have any exciting plans or projects for the future?
My upcoming project is a 12 month subscription based programme, where people can get access to a six week induction course on imposter syndrome, which explains what it is, its belief systems, and offers practice and tangible tips, alongside an imposter toolkit.
It will also include new resources, interviews and zoom calls being provided each month, offering an ongoing source of inspiration, information and motivation. There will also be information guiding people to sources such as medical therapies and Vet Life. It should be available from the end of November, and it’s a really exciting and interactive resource that people can use to help overcome their imposter syndrome.
To find out more information, get in touch at www.katiefordvet.com
If you would like to connect with Katie on social media, you find her on:
Facebook: ‘Imposter busting with Katie Ford’