What Is Imposter Syndrome?
The term “imposter syndrome” was coined by Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance in 1978. It is defined as the “feeling of distrust in one’s own abilities and accomplishments despite evidence of ability and credentials.”
Imposter syndrome is experienced by many people and is especially prevalent among those in the medical field, according to a paper in the journal Family Medicine. Many medical students and residents may be skeptical of their own ability to perform tasks, even after many years of school and training. High rates of depression, anxiety and burnout have been reported among medical students, especially those striving for perfection but forgetting self-compassion.
For some medical students, imposter syndrome can stem from being surrounded by other students who are seemingly perfect and whose skills and intelligence appear effortless, bringing on thoughts such as: Am I good enough for medical school? Am I even smart enough for this? Is this a mistake? Do I even belong here?
You did not work your way up here just to sit in a spiral of self-doubt and compare yourself to others, questioning your own worth and value. Everyone has something to bring to the table, but sometimes we easily forget this when we do not believe in ourselves. Perceiving yourself as an imposter is detrimental to your physical and mental health, adding another layer to the already stressful journey of medical school. These feelings of inadequacy can cloud your confidence and judgment, making it hard for you to perform your role in patient care independently and possibly causing burnout.
It is important to find healthy methods of understanding and recognizing the negative impact of imposter syndrome.
Ways to Handle Imposter Syndrome
Talking it out
Talking to a therapist or a person you trust can help alleviate the frustration of feeling like a phony. Expressing your worries and feelings to someone who knows you very well can help you feel supported and understood. Confiding in those you trust can provide affirmation when facing self-doubt. Talking to a therapist can help you work out what you are feeling and help you develop strategies to recognize that you are adopting an imposter syndrome mindset and help you establish effective ways to move forward during such episodes.
Not comparing yourself to others
As C.S. Lewis once said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Comparing other students’ or physicians’ accomplishments to your own can be harmful to your well-being. Social media puts the achievements of others in the spotlight, shifting your focus from your own personal victories and diminishing your self-worth. There are so many paths in medicine from different schools and hospitals; there are just too many variables to compare. Everyone runs his or her own race, and you have to run in your own lane to make it to the finish line, as does everyone else. Your lane may be different from that of others, and that’s okay! Keep on moving and put in your best work to see it through to the end. Be proud of yourself; you deserve it!
Acknowledging your accomplishments
You did not make it this far in your journey of becoming a doctor just to feel this way about yourself! Most people who experience imposter syndrome are in high-achieving fields, so it makes sense that it is common to experience such feelings in the medical field. From pre-med, to medical school, to residency, and beyond, there are many trials and tribulations throughout the journey. To have endured the process is already a huge accomplishment in itself, on top of each milestone. Through the obstacles of medicine, including exams and training, there is a long list of achievements to look back on to help you remember how far you’ve come and recognize that you belong.
Being kind to yourself
The experience of imposter syndrome can take away from self-worth. Feelings of inadequacy can be heightened when small, simple mistakes are made. You then have to remind yourself: Hey, it happens! Don’t let negativity affect your own self-perception, but also remember to relax and give yourself a pat on the back when things go well. Acknowledge your professors’ or preceptors’ positive feedback, and accept that compliment from a patient! These are gems of reminders of why you started this journey that ground you on days when you feel you don’t belong. Trust me: You do! It’s all part of the process. Trust it and trust yourself!
You Didn’t Come This Far to Only Make it This Far
I remember that during my first clinical rotation in pediatrics, we were asked questions by the clinical preceptor, keeping us on our toes. One of the topics he covered was related to biochemistry, a topic I enjoy and am usually strong in. The preceptor asked questions and how to apply the answers clinically. I was baffled, having been caught off guard by not remembering the answers immediately. I was mentally paralyzed and upset with myself. I ended up going home and beating myself up with negative thoughts and reliving the feeling of embarrassment.
The next day, he asked us more questions in biochemistry related to pediatrics that I managed to get correct, one after the other. Even while successfully answering the questions, I still held my incorrect answers from the previous day over me, like a gloomy rain cloud, not acknowledging my success in that moment or recognizing my contributions.
The preceptor came up to me and complimented me on how I answered the questions, but I mostly shrugged his recognition off, telling him that I was still upset about the day before. “It happens,” he said, patting my shoulder. “Don’t ever doubt what you know; it will mess with your head. You didn’t come this far through all your schooling just to only make it this far. Forgive and believe in yourself.”
That line has stuck with me.
I know for myself that I have experienced personal bouts of imposter syndrome. From getting into school to advancing from first to second to third year, I felt that every milestone in becoming a doctor made me feel less and less adequate as the years went on. This mainly came from my own personal comparisons to others and feeling that I did not know enough, such as during my rotation.
It’s medicine! You won’t know everything at every given moment, but you can accept what you do and do not know, growing throughout the process. It was easier for me to accept this when I learned that other students and doctors felt the same way, even when I perceived that they were on top of everything. No one can truly be perfect, but we can all give our 100 percent.
You are not a fraud or a phony. Med school is not a mistake.
While imposter syndrome can leave you second guessing your every move, it is important to hold on to what makes you feel grounded and remember why you started this journey. You are entirely capable of your own work. Everyone starts somewhere on different playing fields. We grow and learn through experiences each day; medicine is a field in which the learning never stops. It is okay to have doubts, but do not let them consume you.
You are here. You can do this. You belong.
You are enough.