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

first day of nursing school

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


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.”


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. “


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”.


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 someone’s 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 NURSING.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 NURSING.com. 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.


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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