By Joelle Borhart, MD
Do you ever secretly feel like a fraud? Deep down, are you convinced that you are not actually a smart, competent physician, but are only posing as one? Have you ever thought to yourself, “Eventually people will realize I have no idea what I’m doing?”
These internal thoughts are the hallmarks of imposter syndrome, a psychological phenomenon that prevents people from internalizing their own accomplishments. Despite evidence to the contrary, people with imposter syndrome believe they’re less intelligent or less competent than others perceive them to be. They feel they have achieved success only by fooling others into believing they are smart and capable, or they attribute their success to luck. And they live in fear that it is only a matter of time before they are found out.
If you can relate to imposter feelings, you certainly are not alone. In fact, you are in excellent company! Supreme Court justices, Academy Award-winning actors, and celebrated authors are just a handful of the highly successful people to have publicly expressed imposter feelings.
Meryl Streep, who has won three Academy Awards and has been nominated for more Golden Globes than any other actor in history, once said, “Why would anyone want to see me in a movie? I don’t know how to act, so why am I doing this?” (Savannah Business Journal, 31 Dec 2012; http://bit.ly/1E2vsEw.)
The late Maya Angelou, an award-winning writer and speaker at President Clinton’s inauguration, said, “I’ve written 11 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.’”
And then there’s me. I’m not famous, but I am a member of the Imposter Club. (Hi, Joelle.) Confession: At a recent conference, I chose to speak about imposter syndrome because I did not feel qualified to speak on any clinical topic. Ironically, halfway through researching imposter syndrome, I caught myself thinking, “I’m not really qualified to speak about this, either.” I felt like an imposter talking about imposter syndrome!
Imposter feelings are incredibly common. It’s believed that up to 70 percent of successful people have felt like imposters or fakes about their work at some point in their careers. And imposter feelings are especially common in competitive fields, like medicine, where people are constantly being evaluated and reviewed by other high-achieving people.
Imposter syndrome is not an actual mental disorder — you won’t find it in the DSM-5 — but it is associated with other mental disorders such as anxiety and depression, and can negatively affect a physician’s career in many ways. For one, imposter feelings hold people back. You may not go after a new job or promotion or you may avoid opportunities because you fear being exposed as a fraud.
The good news is that imposter syndrome almost exclusively affects high achievers. Practically by definition, if you have imposter feelings you are successful; you just need to accept it.
Perhaps the single most effective way to overcome imposter syndrome is to talk about it, and not with the person with whom you usually share your internal thoughts, like your spouse or best friend. Talk to someone at work. Say openly to a colleague, “Sometimes I feel like everyone is smarter than I am, and I don’t really belong here or have any idea what I’m doing.” Because imposter feelings affect so many people, it’s very likely your coworker’s response will be, “Me, too!”
Pranay Sinha, MD, wrote about this exact encounter in a New York Times op-ed piece, “Why Do Doctors Commit Suicide?” (4 Sept 2014; http://nyti.ms/1b3wjbx.) Dr. Sinha, an internal medicine resident, shared his feelings with a fellow resident. He wrote, “I told him about the trouble I was having with collecting clinical data and presenting it in an organized way on rounds. I confessed that I did not think I belonged in the program. He listened thoughtfully, and then uttered the three most beautiful words I had ever heard: ‘Dude, me, too!’”
It’s a massive relief to realize you are not alone.
Talking openly about your self-doubt and fears can help you begin to overcome the imposter feelings that are sabotaging your career and keeping you from reaching your full potential. Take steps now to get out of your own way, and begin celebrating the successful physician you already are.