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When your head squirrels tell you you're not good enough, ask them why


With my final placement of first year fast approaching, I realised this week that I’m 9 months into my degree. Nine months! Where has all the time disappeared to?


Katie Sutton_SNT


My personal tutor was talking about what’s left of first year a couple of weeks ago - ten weeks of placement, a couple of weeks annual leave and then just a few weeks wrapping up the year, finishing off paperwork and all that jazz, including a meeting with our tutors to discuss how we feel about moving on to second year.

This gave me a chance to take a little moment working out how I felt, and I realised I’d felt the same before: I feel pretty much exactly how I did walking into the lecture theatre on my first day. Excitement mixed with trepidation, mixed with hope, mixed with downright fear.

It’s times like these that I get this thing I like to call “head squirrels”.

Head squirrels are little nocturnal creatures that live inside your brain and as you’re trying to go to sleep at night, they start talking to you: “The admissions tutor made a mistake. You’re not good enough for this. You’ll make a terrible nurse. It’s all well and good acing your exams and essays, but what really counts is practice and you only get to spend 50% of your time doing that. That’s not very much, is it? You’re never going to be any good at this.”

Apparently, this is known medically as “imposter syndrome”. I’m not sure it’s “diagnosable” as such - it doesn’t come with pills or fancy therapies, but it has been observed in many, many people - usually educated and successful women, who feel sure that their successes are flukes, system oversights, a matter of good timing. There’s even papers on it (oh, what a few hours of boredom and EBSCO access can teach!)

To combat my head squirrels, I’ve started using my reflective diary a lot more. Writing down my successes not just in practice, but in university as well. When I wrote down exactly how I prepared for my last assignment, the time I sank into searching and researching, drafting and redrafting, checking and rechecking - it made me realise that I truly deserved the mark I got.

You’re probably still reading this because you know exactly what I’m talking about. You’ve been there, about to describe a procedure that you could do with your eyes closed, but your brain has temporarily forgotten how to explain. You’ve tried to de-escalate the angriest service user you’ve ever met and it’s not working, but instead of thinking “win some, lose some”, you think “I’m terrible at this.”

The universities running our degrees use personal statements and interviews to pick out the best of the crop and tutors know what characteristics they’re looking for. You’re doing this because you can. You are capable, you are successful, but you don’t just have to prove it to the university and the NMC or the trust or company you want to work for - you have to prove it to yourself.

Next time your head squirrels tell you that you’re not good enough to do this, ask them why. Tell them why you can, why you’re not just capable, but why you’re awesome. Use your reflective diary to write about what you’ve achieved so that if you’re struggling with your dissertation, or as a newly qualified nurse, or when you’re thinking about going for a Masters, you get a fresh burst of confidence.

And remember: even if something doesn’t go so well, being able to identify what you did wrong and what you can do to succeed next time is a mark of strength. Welcome criticism; use it to your advantage.

Smile. You got this.


Katie Sutton is Student Nursing Times’ student editor for mental health branch


Readers' comments (3)

  • I loved reading this, i've had a year out from my degree due to ill health and spent most of it reflecting on my two years so far as a waste of time and thinking how little I've learned. I am finally fit and well and have a much better attitude about starting my third year and reading things like this definitely helps to put my mind at ease.

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  • Wow as the previous commentor has said I was exactly the same..the head squirrels led to severe stress and anxiety and i had to leave shortly after 3rd year for a 7 month break to readjust. Nursing is a calling and a huge undertaking and I think it is a normal process to question personal ability. But the uni/mentors are the professionals so if they think you are good enough then you must trust their judgement! If you pass each little goal then you deserve the eventual trophy of Staff Nurse. Now the learning REALLY starts! Good luck all x

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  • "But the uni/mentors are the professionals so if they think you are good enough then you must trust their judgement!"

    if they are professionals they will be able to offer all the support you need and help point you in the right direction.

    Self doubts can affect us all at any time during our lives and through self reflection make us stronger, more determined and eventually more sure of the direction we wish to take and show us alternatives when all else fails. it is just a tragedy it is such an anxious and highly traumatic time for some which need such a long out but is all worthwhile in the end and probably makes a more understanding and empathetic nurse with many other highly developed qualities and heightened sensitivities as well. Be patient with yourselves and give it all the time it takes and find support from those who really understand and have a genuine interest.

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