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Imposter Syndrome and its Effect on Medical Practice

Imposter syndrome, better known as imposter phenomenon, is by dictionary definition, “the persistent inability to believe that one's success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one's own efforts or skills.” In essence, one may feel like a fraud no matter how many accolades, or achievements they have. Imposter phenomenon is a prevalent issue in professional spheres, and the medical field is no stranger to it. From the beginning of many pre-medical and medical students' studies, they started to experience the unraveling effect of the imposter phenomenon. Research shows that 49% of female medical students experienced imposter syndromes, along with 24% of males. But what happens when those in the medical sphere don’t work against imposter syndrome? The hope of this article to shed a bit of light on a not-so-fortunate reality of remaining in close relationship with imposterism.

What are the dangers of imposterism?

Imposter phenomenon is a sneaky creature. It comes unassuming and can falsely masquerade itself as humility, when in reality, it is a consuming lie that discredits every achievement you’ve made. It tells you that you’re a fraud, that whenever you do accomplish something, that you haven’t earned it and deems your efforts to succeed useless. Coming through the back door, imposter syndrome starts to show its consequences. What falsely appeared to be humility is now infringing on your life by ushering in depression, anxiety, and stealing your joy when you should be able to celebrate each good thing that happens in your life.

Imposter syndrome introduces a number of issues that, if not addressed early, have the potential to not only negatively impact your life, but also your medical practice. This syndrome is an issue in the medical community for a number of reasons and The DO writes that imposter syndrome has several effects on one’s medical practice. Some of these outcomes include the breeding of cynicism, emotional exhaustion, and depersonalization. It has also been found that a physician’s ability to connect is also hindered, and the ability to connect is absolutely critical to providing care. Barvuta and colleagues also found in their research that imposter syndrome is “comorbid with depression, anxiety, impaired job performance, job satisfaction and burn out.”

Imagine that it has been your dream to become a physician and you’re doing the work to get there. You’re putting your best foot forward, trying your best and you’re seeing the fruit of your labor. Doors start opening, and you’re getting closer to your dream everyday-- except there’s one issue… you can’t accept these good things and you feel like one the most undeserving people, almost wishing that someone else received what you achieved. You keep up with this thought process over time and it starts to weigh on you. All of these aforementioned symptoms start to rear their ugly head and before you know it, imposter phenomenon was left unchecked. Now you’re a year into practice but you’re already burnt out, cynical, and exhausted. Because of this, the way you treat patients is affected, and not for the better. Patients deserve the best care. Patients deserve for us to come in with the best that we can offer, in helpint them with their health and wellness journeys. This aim can seem impossible if we constantly succumb to imposter syndrome. Self-awareness is incredibly important and there are a number of ways that we can kick imposter syndrome to the curb in order to prepare to be and be the best physicians possible by offering optimal care--the care that patients deserve.

So what can we do? Here are three practical steps to take toward combating imposterism.

1. Place emphasis on community: Talk it out

‘Hearing that a mentor has experienced imposterism can help relieve such feelings, the same goes for peers (Elizabeth Cox, TEDTalk)’ We need community. Find a community of people to help champion you and that you feel comfortable around, sharing your feelings and struggles. You’ll find that a lot of students have experienced similar feelings as you. And who knows? Your vulnerability could really help someone. This journey isn’t meant to be walked alone, community matters.

2. Learn what a fraud actually is

John Piper writes that a good way to combat imposter syndrome is to realize what the definition of a fraud actually is. A fraud is a “person or thing intended to deceive others, typically by unjustifiably claiming or being credited with accomplishments or qualities.” If you are not intentionally deceiving others and lying about your accomplishments, you’re not a fraud! Again, there is a difference between humility and beating yourself down. You can be joyful about and accept what you’ve accomplished without calling yourself a fraud.

3. Check your doubts at the door

The DO recommends talking back to your negative thoughts. It’s critical not to let the thoughts that imposterism brings settle into your mind negatively influence your thought processes and actions. When you do well and immediately think that you’re just a fraud, remember what a fraud is and tell yourself that you’re not one. Disarm those thoughts.

In conclusion...

Imposter syndrome can seem like a colossal obstacle, but you can absolutely win against it! You don’t have to let it affect your personal life, nor your medical practice-- you are capable of providing excellent care. Find a mentor, keep a good and supportive community and be sure to check your doubts at the door.

You can do this,

Rebecca Ince



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