Imposter Syndrome in Medical School: Recognizing What It Is and Overcoming It

By Viemma

I don’t deserve to be here. These people are actually smart. 

If they really knew me, they’d know that I have no right to be here.

One of these days, people will realize that I’m a fraud.

The admissions committee must have made a mistake. 

If you’ve had any of these thoughts since matriculating into medical school, congratulations. You are a normal human being. 

So, you’re afraid of being “found out”. Nice! Did you know the Maya Angelou found herself feeling the same way? She once said, “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, 'uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.'” 

Imposter syndrome

Lucky for you, there’s a name for what you’re feeling:

That’s right, imposter syndrome. 

From the moment you received your medical school acceptance letter in the mail, you have been experiencing internal push back that has to do with this achievement having anything to actually do with you. Even though you’ve been highly motivated since you came out of the womb, you can’t believe any of the praise that you have received. This is far from being modest. You’re constantly looking over your shoulder for the other shoe to drop. The part where someone says “gotcha!” and tells you that your medical school acceptance was a joke.

You’re being held back by the thought that someone like you couldn’t possibly succeed, given what you know about yourself. How stupid, anxious, and incapable you truly are. If only people knew the real you! It’s best you leave the possibility of triumph to others.

Getting acclamation for being a medical student by family and friends makes you squeamish. You want to shush them because they’re blowing your cover, but you resist the urge. 

Just wait until they find out I don’t know as much as they think.

Imposter Syndrome 1 

Faced with new responsibility and prestige, you conclude that you’re an imposter. Nothing more than an actor playing the part. The white coat with your name on it, the student ID that gets you through security at the hospital... it’s all a façade. And someone will call you out on your bluff soon enough.

You have never been so wrong.  No mistake was made. You are not a fraud. You deserve to be here.

There’s a reasonable explanation for all of this.  You are experiencing imposter syndrome because you have an unrealistic view of what other people are really like. You know yourself from the inside, but you only know everyone else from the outside. Their more or less polished surface.  So, the issue is not that you find yourself to be flawed. The issue is that you are failing to recognize how flawed everyone else is. That you think all these capable and admirable people around you could not be like you at all. If only you knew how similar you and your colleagues were… 

Imposter syndrome affects so many medical students. It’s a plague and it doesn’t discriminate by institution or competency. While it may be difficult to break free from, you can overcome it.

And here’s how:

Call it out

Recognize that these ridiculous, undependable fears you are experiencing are a thing, not a you thing. Normalize it. Go ahead and call it by its name. 

I’m going through some heavy imposter syndrome right now. 

That’s right. Confront those limiting beliefs of yours. Let them know that you’re totally onto them. 

Have a little faith

Trust that you are not much different from your colleagues and that more likely than not, your minds work in the same way. In spite of what they may look like on the outside, believe that they are just like you. Because the reality is, you have no idea what’s happening to them on the inside and you’re torturing yourself by assuming what comes out of their mouth always matches what’s in their heads. Tell yourself that everyone must be as anxious and uncertain as you are. That even the most qualified people can be afflicted by self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy.

Talk about it to others

You are not alone so don’t be alone. Talking to others about your imposter syndrome will reveal just how common it is. Finding out that some of your peers are currently dealing with imposter syndrome or have dealt with it in the past can offer a lot of relief. It really is a thing, not a you thing. In opening up to an advisor or mentor, you may find that they too had a run in with imposter syndrome. Nothing beats being reassured by a person you hope to emulate.

Own your successes

You have a natural tendency to focus on what you haven’t done rather than what you’ve done. Glad to know you’ll never settle for mediocrity. But can you cut yourself some slack for just a second? You worked hard to get to where you are today, and you know it. Acknowledge that. You didn’t just get lucky. You are gifted. You are able. You belong. 

Accept yourself

You don’t have to understand every medical school lecture or get a perfect score on every medical school exam to be worthy of the accolades you earn along the way. Don’t let your mind tell you otherwise. 

Stop with the comparisons

Instead of preoccupying yourself with being the best, focus on doing your best.

Some of the greatest people struggled with imposter syndrome. It is okay to occasionally (or regularly) feel that you aren’t [insert adjective here] enough. Just don’t give your fears the power to seep into your identity. You were meant to be a doctor. It’s time to believe it.

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