If you are a physician reading this, please pat yourself on the back. You made it through medical school and residency so, de facto, you have both resiliency and grit (serious buzzwords, y’all). But as anyone who has gone through these professional challenges, it often doesn’t seem so.
I am 44 years old and am faculty at a major public university. Cis-gendered, heterosexual, married, two kids and a full time job. Which really doesn’t make me too different from the majority of the people with whom I work. Yet, the weight of imposter syndrome is on me. The niggling voice exists that says, “You’ve pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes, and it’s only a matter of time before you’re found out.” I’ve never failed an exam, yet was unshakably convinced that I failed both my written and oral boards.
When I bring up Imposter Syndrome at a meeting, a sea of nods confirms that I am not the only one in this boat. Luminaries such as Toni Morrison, Tina Fey, Viola Davis, Sheryl Sandberg, all suffer from the idea that they will be discovered as frauds. This very fact gives me pause, as looking at other successful peers and finding myself lacking in comparison to them often drives my own imposter syndrome. Yet, here we find that the most successful people in the world have the same doubts. Who the hell are these people comparing themselves to?
Additionally, it causes me to feel like a split personality. I feel great criticizing myself, but when patients repeatedly call me nurse, miss, or by my first name despite a clear, cordial, and professional introduction, I feel my hackles rise. All of a sudden, my inner monologue runs along the themes of, “Four years of medical school, four years of residency, attending physician, expert in my field, I teach this stuff, and you are gonna call me ‘girl’ or ‘anesthesia” or interrupt me or cut me off or belittle me? Not today, friend. Not. Today.” But why is it that my confidence wavers when I am talking to myself that way? And, what’s a successful, high achieving type-A woman to do?
I don’t have a lot of answers, and there isn’t a lot of research on how to alter these patterns of self-doubt and anxiety that plague us. I’m not an expert in psychology or change or cognitive behavioral therapy. I am just a person who is trying to find out what holds her back and things that I can do that make me feel better. This guy wrote an excellent blog post addressing this issue, though I take issue with his discomfort with “being girly.”
Here’s my brief list on what I have been trying to do to get this yoke of self-doubt off of myself:
- Try to see yourself as others see you. I know there are people who do not think I am a fraud, and have said so. I try to see myself the same way they see me.
- Remember the compliments. As our harshest self-critics, it is easy to perseverate on the criticisms (both self and other) that we hear. And equally easy to dismiss the compliments or praise that we may receive from our patients, colleagues and bosses. Keep a mental (or real) file of the things you know are good about you. They are just as real as the critiques that you will spend too much time ruminating on.
- A corollary to #2: Spending time deflecting praise is a waste of your energy. It also allows you to keep good thoughts about yourself from sinking in. Authenticity is another buzzword, but for a good reason. Any authentic assessment of yourself should include what’s great about you, not just what feels bad. This takes a lot of practice!
- Cut yourself some slack. Doctor, you aren’t perfect and no matter what trials you went through in high school, college, medical school and residency, you never will be. You are human. Failure is human. Ergo, you will fail. The key is to offer yourself the same grace that we offer each other. We all try our best and it’s time to take off the hair shirt. It went out of fashion a long time ago.
- Literally phone a friend. This isn’t just you! Call someone you trust and can be vulnerable with. And then, let them tell you how great you are. Notice the ways in which you try to minimize their compliments. Because that’s the voice you need to quiet.
- My best friend in medical school would say, “Don’t tear down the monuments.” That means, when someone compliments you or acknowledges your work, be brave and say, “Thank you,” instead of deflecting by saying it was luck or anyone could have done it, or you couldn’t have done it alone, etc.
- Fake it, until you convince yourself. Amy Cuddy’s famous TED talk goes into this a bit. Watching this talk is one of best ways to spend 21:02 minutes that I can recommend.