When people think of first responders, like those of us who are EMTs and firefighters, they often think of someone who is confident and capable, heroes who put their lives on the line to save others.
But each of us — no matter whether we’re a firefighter, paramedic, EMT, or police officer — is a human being with limitations, just like the people we serve. That’s why focusing on firefighter and EMS mental health is so important. We must be healthy and confident in our capabilities if we are to help others and perform our jobs to the fullest.
A simple Google search on “imposter syndrome” showcases how common an issue this is in the emergency services community. Here’s what you need to know to recognize and overcome imposter syndrome in your own life and to help others in your department.
Like any change of mindset, the first step to overcoming imposter syndrome is admitting to yourself that you are experiencing it.
What Is Imposter Syndrome?
Imposter syndrome is “A psychological term referring to a pattern of behavior where people doubt their accomplishments and have a persistent, often internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud.” Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, clinical psychologists, first used the term in 1978. During their research, they found that people in positions of leadership or authority often felt like they didn’t deserve their success, despite their individual accomplishments.
When left unaddressed, imposter syndrome can evolve into more serious mental health issues like uncontrolled stress, anxiety, and depression. It can also prevent you from pursuing new career opportunities or taking on leadership roles.
Research by the International Journal of Behavioral Science shows that 70% of people experience some form of imposter syndrome during their lives.
Recognizing Imposter Syndrome
Even though imposter syndrome is common among emergency professionals, it can be difficult to recognize. Here are some common signs of imposter syndrome you can look for in yourself and in your team members:
- Believing you don’t deserve to be successful. Do you feel like people think you are more competent than you really are? Do you experience stress and anxiety over the possibility of a professional failure?
- Thinking your accomplishments are just luck. Do you feel like you’ve just been in the right place at the right time? Are you afraid you won’t be able to replicate your successes?
- Feeling anyone could have done what you did. Do you think there is nothing special about you or your achievements?
- Deflecting personal praise. Are you uncomfortable receiving praise or owning up to your contributions? Do you assume people are just “being nice” to you?
- Believing that failure is unacceptable. Do you feel internal pressure to always succeed? Do you always feel the need to prove yourself? Do you fear failure above all else?
Overcoming Imposter Syndrome
Like any change of mindset, the first step to overcoming imposter syndrome is admitting to yourself that you are experiencing it. Recognize that the majority of people feel this way at some point in their careers. Part of building self-confidence skills in the workplace is recognizing where you are struggling and how you are working to grow stronger.
Here are some tips to help you build more confidence and competence in your role as a first responder:
- Build a network of peers. It can be helpful to create a support network of like-minded professionals who you can go to for advice or for an outside perspective. These might include your team members, your battalion chief, your friends, and family members.
- Recognize and remember your strengths. Make a tangible list of all of your strengths and achievements. This could include personal attributes, certifications, and awards. Put this list somewhere you can see it and review it often. If you have difficulty recognizing your own strengths, talk to your team members and leaders to better understand what you add to your department.
- Change the way you talk to yourself. Much of imposter syndrome stems from negative self-talk. Try to consciously change thoughts of self-doubt or comparison into positive thoughts that recognize your achievements and focus on growth.
- Continue to educate yourself. The more education and experience you have, the more confidence you will naturally have in your skillset. Consider deepening your continuing education by brushing up on critical skills and certifications or taking leadership courses that can expand your understanding and career potential.
- Accept that perfection isn’t realistic. Failure is a part of growth and a part of our job. As first responders, we consistently train and work to mitigate mistakes, but we must understand that not every call will end in success. Talk to your team. Seek advice. Continue to train. Allow yourself to learn and adapt. These skills will help you perform with confidence in future situations.
As you work hard to understand, recognize, and overcome imposter syndrome, you will be able to build resilience and the competence and confidence you need to improve outcomes in your community.