How to identify and overcome imposter syndrome among doctors

Article by Claire Murphy29 Jan 2023
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Feeling like a fraud despite your accomplishments? You’re not alone. Many doctors experience imposter syndrome, a psychological phenomenon that can negatively impact mental and emotional well-being.

Let’s take a closer look at imposter syndrome, how it affects doctors and what can be done to overcome it.

What is imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which an individual experiences feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, and fraudulence despite having accomplished significant achievements. It is particularly prevalent in medical students, junior doctors, and high-achieving or successful women.

Individuals with imposter syndrome often attribute their success to external factors such as luck or being in the right place at the right time and fear that they will be exposed as a “fake” or “fraud” at any moment. This can lead to anxiety and stress, as well as a reluctance to take on new challenges or opportunities.

It can affect anyone, regardless of their level of education, experience, or profession. It is more prevalent among women, people from marginalised communities, and people who are perfectionists or high achievers.

It can have negative effects on one's mental and emotional wellbeing, as well as one's career and personal life. It can lead to anxiety, stress, and depression, as well as a reluctance to take on new challenges or opportunities. It can also lead to procrastination, perfectionism, and burnout.

How does imposter syndrome affect doctors?

Imposter syndrome in doctors is highly common due to the high-pressure and high-stakes nature of the medical profession. A study in the Medical Education journal discovered that for many physicians, the origin of their imposter syndrome was medical school. The fast-paced and competitive nature of medical school kickstarts stress, comparison and other factors that breed imposter syndrome.

Doctors are expected to be experts in their field and make life-or-death decisions on a regular basis. This high level of responsibility can lead to feelings of pressure and stress, which can exacerbate imposter syndrome symptoms. Additionally, doctors are often surrounded by colleagues who are highly accomplished and successful, which can make them feel like they don’t measure up.

Doctors are also required to continuously update their knowledge and skills, which can make them feel like they are never fully prepared for the next challenge. They may fear that they will make a mistake or fail to diagnose a patient correctly, leading to feelings of fraudulence.

Combined with all of this, doctors in training are often judged by their supervisors and mentors, which can lead to feelings of insecurity and self-doubt. This can be further exacerbated by the competitive nature of the medical profession, which can make it difficult for doctors to acknowledge their own successes and feel worthy of their achievements.

It is important to note, as written in Academic Medicine, that these feelings do not discriminate on level, medical professionals across their careers may experience this imposter phenomenon.

How do I tell if I have imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is characterised by feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy despite having accomplished significant achievements. Everyone experiences self-doubt to a certain extent, when it starts to affect your daily life and wellbeing is when it becomes a bigger problem to be dealt with.

Some key indicators include:

  • Attributing success to external factors rather than personal abilities and skills.
  • Lack of ability to celebrate or accept one’s professional successes
  • Fear of being exposed as a “fake” or “fraud” and being deemed inadequate or unqualified.
  • Constant self-doubt and a lack of confidence in one’s own abilities.
  • Difficulty accepting praise and recognition for accomplishments
  • Avoiding taking on new challenges or opportunities out of fear of failure
  • Setting unrealistic expectations of oneself and striving for perfectionism
  • Fixating on mistakes as opposed to celebrating accomplishments
  • Procrastination and difficulty completing tasks due to fear of not being good enough

Imposter syndrome in medical students

Imposter syndrome is often experienced by medical students, particularly during their early years of study. In the case of medical students, they may feel like they don't belong, that they're not smart enough, or that they're not capable of becoming competent physicians. The pressure to succeed in medical school, combined with the rigorous academic demands and clinical responsibilities, can exacerbate the condition.

Recognising the signs of imposter syndrome and seeking support from peers, mentors, or mental health professionals can help medical students overcome these feelings and succeed in their studies and future medical practice.

How to deal with imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is not a permanent condition and can be overcome with the right tools and strategies. All of the pathways to dealing with it can feel difficult as experiencing imposter syndrome is overwhelming, but it is possible.

Here are 5 key tools for you to use in order to tackle imposter syndrome:

  1. Challenge negative self-talk by implementing daily affirmations.

Imposter syndrome is often fuelled by negative thoughts and self-talk. The more we are aware of these thoughts, the sooner we can challenge them. Take time each morning to identify your key strengths, they don’t necessarily need to relate to your medical role. Carry these strengths with you, visualise them, in time you’ll find that the more you focus on these positive attributes, the easier it will become to combat thoughts of self-doubt.

  1. Develop a growth mindset by focusing on learning new things.

There is a never-ending amount of knowledge to be acquired in the medical field, which can make you feel like you’re always behind. Instead of getting stuck and focusing on the limitations of what you don’t know, focus on what you can learn and improve upon. Embrace the gaps as challenges and see them as opportunities to grow and develop new skills. This can even apply to using learning style assessments to understand your own personal strengths and how to work with others.

  1. Boost your confidence by setting realistic goals and celebrating achievements.

Setting unrealistic goals can lead to feelings of inadequacy and failure. Instead, set achievable goals for yourself, and work towards them in small steps. Just as important as setting yourself a realistic goal every day, is making sure that focus on the success of achieving it. Celebrate these wins, even on tough days, to counteract negative experiences and build momentum. You can save positive feedback sent from patients or create a personal archive of moments you're proud of, to look back on your achievements down the line.

  1. Practice self-compassion by treating yourself as you would a friend.

As best as you can, be kind and understanding towards yourself. Recognise that everyone makes mistakes and has moments of self-doubt. Learn to accept your own imperfections and treat yourself with the same kindness and compassion that you would offer to a friend. Acknowledge imposter syndrome as a normal reaction to your environment, and remind yourself that the feeling doesn’t mean you are underperforming.

  1. Lean on others by surrounding yourself with people who support you.

Seek out support by surrounding yourself with people who believe in you and will help to put your skills and strengths into perspective. Our insecurities generally come from the desire to be a good doctor, which is why so often we are our own worst critics, seeking out mentors who will give us honest feedback on our strengths and areas for potential improvement. Asking for support does not signify incompetence – it instead shows a desire to grow. Remember that you’ve made it to this point in your medical career because you are highly skilled and hardworking, when you can’t remind yourself of these things, find social support to help you out.

Imposter syndrome is prevalent among doctors, leading to feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt, and is a risk factor for burnout. It is important for medical professionals to recognise and address these feelings in order to maintain their mental wellbeing and provide the best care for their patients. With the right tools and strategies, it’s possible to build self-confidence and develop a more balanced view of oneself. Keep in mind that it’s a journey, and it’s important to be patient and kind to yourself and those around you along the way.

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Claire Murphy
Article by Claire MurphyMedrecruit Editor
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