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Imposter Syndrome: You Are Not Alone

Evan Winter

Many of us have experienced it. You’re a college student, a member of a professional organization, a young company manager, a seasoned executive, or part of virtually any group working toward large goals. You see your peers reaching one major milestone after another and receiving praise from superiors or other members of your company or class. You’re accomplishing everyday tasks as you should, and perhaps even going above and beyond what is expected, but you can’t seem to shake this feeling that you do not belong. The completion of one project only provides momentary relief before you become anxious about the next, and you often set the quality expectations for your work extremely high. All these feelings and more are part of the imposter phenomenon, or better known as imposter syndrome (IS), and physicians are especially susceptible. 

Defining imposter syndrome

The imposter phenomenon was first classified by psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Clance in the late 1970s after recognizing a pattern in clinical settings, specifically with professional women. They initially avoided the term “syndrome,” with Dr. Clance once stating “I didn’t want it to be seen as one more thing people could see as wrong with women.” The phenomenon is still not viewed as an actual disorder, despite widely being known today as “imposter syndrome.” IS is characterized by an inability to internalize one’s accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud. Individuals experiencing IS often set very high standards for themselves and will feel inadequate if they do not reach those standards time after time. 

Who is affected?

Imposter syndrome was first thought to be unique to women but has since been observed in men as well. In the 1980s, Dr. Clance partnered with psychology professor Gail Matthews for further study. They conducted a survey which found that 70% of people, regardless of gender or socioeconomic status, had experienced IS at some point in their careers. Regardless, further research shows that IS most often affects women and minorities. A 2016 survey of American medical students revealed that more than twice the number of women experienced IS than men, 49.4% versus 23.7%. “We’re more likely to experience imposter syndrome if we don't see many examples of people who look like us or share our background who are clearly succeeding in our field. This is especially true for black and indigenous people, for whom overall representation across almost all white-collar fields is alarmingly low,” said clinical psychologist Emily Hu in a 2020 BBC article. This in combination with IS being common in high-achieving intellectuals places women and minority physicians at very high risk.

The side effects

If left unchecked, imposter syndrome can hinder growth by preventing us from pursuing new opportunities, relationships, and hobbies. IS makes people question their own abilities, especially if they are used to performing at high level and suddenly experience failure. In order to cope with that idea, they may begin procrastinating and further impeding personal or professional development. Many IS symptoms are exacerbated by our modern communication channels like social media. We too often see only the best snapshots of other’s lives through platforms like Instagram, promoting the idea that our peers always have their lives more put-together and are excelling in everything they do, at all times. 

How you can cope

There are number of ways to adjust your mindset when finding yourself in the grip of imposter syndrome. First off, remember that you are not alone. It has been found that the majority people experience IS at some time in life. If you feel you are alone in your field, try your best to find allies who support you. This is where social media channels actually serve to help instead of hurting. If it seems no one like you is nearby, use those online communities to connect with like-minded individuals. Together, you can work on new ideas and promote your field to others who feel like imposters and are afraid to move forward. Also attempt to focus on what you have achieved, instead of worrying about what you might not accomplish. Embrace your highlights and celebrate the little wins before being so quick to worry about your next goal. Finally, consider that sometimes being an outsider is normal. There is a first for everything, and you may be a trailblazer. That fact might feel awkward at times, but your journey is unique and necessary to create the ideal life and career for yourself as well as those who will follow your path in the future. That is something to be extremely proud of. 

Moving forward as a physician

Due to the competitive nature of medicine and lack of diversity in many specialties, physicians are unquestionably prone to imposter syndrome. Despite a daunting medical landscape, there is plenty of room for growth and change. We are in desperate need of physicians, no matter what their gender, race, or socioeconomic background. If you are a physician feeling like an imposter, there may be some awkward moments, unexpected failures, and other difficulties to face throughout your journey, but remember that you are needed to show others what is possible. 

When searching for an attending position, physicians may not know what they deserve in salary, benefits, and other contractual items. It is especially important to know this information if they are one of few women or minorities in their respective specialties. Do not let imposter syndrome make you settle for less than anyone else. Pay gaps are real, but Resolve is working every day to close them. If you are a physician who is unsure whether you are being offered the proper employment contract, reach out to Resolve for help reviewing and negotiating terms. Visit the contract review page to learn more.