How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome

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When I graduated undergrad, I was on top of the world. I had just graduated from a prestigious university with a degree in Chemistry. I had been captain of my college volleyball team and dance team. I worked in the labs of some of my science idols. I really felt I spent 4 years at a place that I belonged. Little did I know that my experience in medical school would go differently than my experience in undergrad.

Just like any other first day, I was nervous for the first day of medical school. This nervousness was mixed with other emotions though: excitement, gratitude, sadness, anxiety, motivation. All of these emotions were overwhelming as I met my classmates. I realized how diverse and accomplished my classmates were. Several of them had taken time off before medical school to travel the world, work or get a different degree. Others were from high-ranking undergraduate schools. The more I got to know my classmates, the more I kept questioning my own place in my highly accomplished medical school class. What did I do to deserve to be here? I felt like a fraud who just had played up my accomplishments to be greater than they actually were. Maybe I did not deserve to be in medical school? Was I prepared to be a doctor?

As these seeds of doubt planted themselves in my head, I could feel my confidence wavering. Although there were some days that I felt confident, there were days where the doubts took over. I would get anxious and insecure before tests. Especially when I barely passed medical school tests, I felt like I was just slipping through. Although I always considered myself an outgoing and confident person, in medical school, for the first time, I felt afraid to speak out in classes and small groups.

Only about halfway through my preclinical years did I self-diagnose myself with imposter syndrome, whereby you constantly think you are an “imposter” or “fraud,” not being worthy of your accomplishments. I never gave myself credit. I assumed everyone else was passing with flying colors and I was silently struggling.

According to a report in Internal Journal of Medical Education, over 30% of medical, dental, nursing and pharmacy students identified as feeling like “imposters.” About a quarter of male medical students and half of female medical students identified having imposter syndrome. In addition, concerningly, imposter syndrome seems to be highly correlated with psychological distress and physician burnout.

As someone who strives for perfection, I found medical school extremely rewarding but also difficult. I loved learning the material in the first two years of medical school and working with patients, but there were times I also felt isolated because I thought I was the only one experiencing certain feelings or emotions. Speaking about my insecurities is uncomfortable; however, I realized the most important thing is to bring light to these issues, so there can be healthy discussion about how to help each other. Even now that I am in the PhD phase of my training, I realized that there are still times I feel isolated. Imposter syndrome can affect anyone at anytime. But, taking the time to reflect, I have tried to make some changes in my life that help me feel less like an “imposter”.

1. Avoid social media

I have not completely sworn off social media, but I have realized that social media can propagate a false sense of perfection. Usually, people only showcase the best part of their lives on social media. In fact, I am guilty of this myself. However, I found that this influenced me several times and would stress me out. I would feel isolated especially when my classmates were having fun and, on the contrary, I was studying. As a result, I recommend trying to take anything on social media with a grain of salt. Use social media, but try to give yourself breaks.

2. Don’t compare yourself to others

In medical school, I was surrounded by people who were extremely intelligent, motivated and dedicated. I forgot about my accomplishments because I was constantly comparing myself to my classmates. My personal qualities and excellence would feel inferior to my classmates. Although I loved surrounding myself with people who motivated me to be my best self, I forgot to acknowledge my own accomplishments. So, remind yourself every day why you are great.

3. Take a step away from medical school

Medical school can be like a bubble; talking to classmates about the morning lecturer, making nerdy medical jokes to each other, and having references that only your classmates will get is the everyday routine. The typical medical school environment is stressful and can be overwhelming in large doses. In these situations, taking a step away to work out or hang out with my non-medical friends was helpful to put things in perspective.

4. Talk about it

In medical school, often people can bottle up feelings and fear talking about mental health, because there is an emphasis on perfection and not making mistakes.  As a result, important mental health issues, like physician burnout, depression, and imposter syndrome are not discussed in fear of showcasing weakness. However, these issues are important not only for your health, but also patient quality care. If you are not healthy, how can you help someone else be healthy? I know that I am victim to the mentality of “pushing through” and ignoring important feelings. However, in this profession, being more open about mental health is important, because we are humans too.

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