Picture it: you’ve just been accepted into medical school and you’re on top of the world! You feel an overwhelming sense of accomplishment knowing that you are a part of the minority who were deemed qualified enough to begin the journey to becoming a doctor. All of your family members call you to congratulate you, and your friends post pictures with you on Instagram excitedly writing “Dr.” in front of your name. The rest of your year before beginning medical school is filled with excitement, pride, and confidence. You buy every mug, cup, and T-shirt that says “Future Doctor,” “Trust Me, I’m a Doctor,” and “Soon-to-be Doc.” Before you begin medical school, it’s easy for you to imagine yourself in the white coat and even easier for you to exclaim to the world that you are going to be a doctor!
But when medical school starts, that “high” crashes to the ground. As the semester begins, your sense of accomplishment starts to dissipate. Why you may ask? For that, you can thank Imposter Syndrome.
The Ugly Face of Imposter Syndrome
“Imposter Syndrome” is the sense of being a fraud and undeserving of your accomplishments. As a medical student, you may start to experience imposter syndrome because in undergrad you were at the top of your class, but in medical school, all of your classmates are your equal. You may notice your exam scores are average, or may even be below average. Then the doubt creeps in. You start to wonder if you belong in medical school or even wonder, “Did they accidentally accept me? Are they going to realize that I do not belong here?”
Your first year of medical school continues, the stress piles on, and you are overwhelmed with a sense of struggle. You look around and all of your classmates seem confident and calm. Then the doubt creeps in yet again. “Am I doing something wrong? Why does everyone act like this is easy? Maybe I am not meant to be a doctor? Maybe I won’t actually make it to graduation?”
Now the year progresses some more, and it’s holiday break. You walk into a family dinner and are greeted with excitement, “Ahhhh our favorite doctor!!!!” You cringe, wondering if you should tell them how hard of a time you are having in medical school or if you should just play it cool. It gets worse. Your aunts start asking you about a new mole they found on their arm, or some new neck pain they have been having and what they should do about it. You happily listen to their concerns, but then you feel your face flush, realizing that you have no clinical knowledge and have no clue how to apply the knowledge that you have gained thus far. You start the new year with doubt, wondering if you should really be responsible for the well being and lives of others.
That’s imposter syndrome.
Imposter Syndrome is something that follows you throughout each stage of your medical career. Studying for boards, you wonder if you’ll be able to get a score to match into residency, or if this is when people will realize that you don’t belong in medical school. During clinical rotations, as everyone is responding to a “code” to resuscitate a patient, you’re overcome with fear, knowing you’ve never done one before. Imposter syndrome will be there when you get “pimped” with questions from your attending and somehow, and you get every single one wrong. It’ll be waiting for you at residency interviews, as you sit next to the #1 ranked student from John’s Hopkins Medical School. Imposter Syndrome never goes away.
In medical school, there is always a next step of the journey and a new goal. It’s easy to not appreciate your successes and accomplishments because you are constantly looking ahead.
Use Imposter Syndrome to Your Advantage
But there’s a secret to imposter syndrome – something that’s not found in the stories of imposter syndrome we usually hear. We can actually take the situations where we feel like frauds and turn them into motivation. Haven’t you heard of “Fake it ‘til you make it?” There is a truth to this common, yet underappreciated phrase. According to the Hebbian principle, if you perform an action in association with something else, your brain develops neural pathways that link these two things together. If you play the part and act like a doctor, aka “fake it,” then you will become confident in being in that doctor role as the neural pathway becomes more solidified and efficient. Personally, I feel the most motivated and encouraged when I am in a new pair of scrubs and wearing my freshly pressed white coat strutting into my simulated patient encounter. Despite the patient being an actor, at that moment I am a real doctor. I am expected to examine that patient and diagnose them. In the simulated patient world, we are told to buy into the fictitious nature of the encounter because that will help us to get the most out of the exercise. The patient is not real, but I am acting like a doctor and doing exactly what I would do with a real patient. How can I not walk out of that room feeling confident, competent, and successful?
This is what I’m getting at. How many times have you been told to practice like you’re going to play? Or how about the phrase, “dress for the job that you want, not the job you have.” We hear that advice time and time again, yet we forget to apply it to medicine. Instead, when we are in our scrubs at the grocery store and somebody asks, “are you a doctor?” we shy away and timidly respond that no we are just students. As a second-year medical student, I should proudly respond, “I am a student doctor.” Why is it so hard for us medical students to claim success and recognize that being on the journey to becoming a doctor is a massive accomplishment?
It’s Time to Change
Psychology tells us that we should visualize our success. I challenge you to recognize the situations where you would normally experience imposter syndrome and instead use them as motivation. When you are doing your clinical vignettes or board style clinical questions, dig deep and imagine that the patient described is sitting in your emergency room depending on you. Draw motivation and encouragement from these opportunities.
Furthermore, realize that your classmates are all experiencing the same feelings. Regardless of their demeanor and how they present themselves, they feel inadequate at times also. By recognizing this, you can forge greater bonds with each other. Be open and honest about how you feel to create a dialogue and help you support one another. This is a very unique journey, and it is not an experience that many people can relate to.
Let your family and friends be proud of you. Let your parents introduce you as their “little doctor.” Instead of cringing or feeling ashamed, let that motivate you! You are on the road to having your degree, so be proud. Accept the fact that you deserve to be in medical school. Celebrate all of your successes, big and small and realize that you need to enjoy the steps of the journey. Pride yourself in being on the journey to becoming a physician – you’ve earned it!