The dream unfolds late in the semester with just a week to go, usually my final semester. My college career has been exemplary … good grades, honor society member, academic behavior any parent would be proud of. But for some reason I realize that I have failed to attend any of the classes of one of my courses, usually a math course. In fact, I’m not sure I have the text or maybe I never purchased it. More frighteningly, I can’t remember in which classroom it meets or even the hour. No one else seems to have noticed my failure to show up for class. Remember, it’s a math course and BSing doesn’t work in math. There is no way I will be able to resurrect myself from this academic disaster. The dream eventually dissolves without resolution, but it will return in some permutation, fortunately less often as I have gotten older. My wife and many of our friends share similar nightmares.
There are many angles from which one can interpret a dream like this, but one explanation is that I finally have been discovered as an impostor. I had studied hard, gotten good grades but at the core of things I was a goof-off and really wasn’t worthy of the adulation I had received. My good works were merely a shell over a life of not doing all the things that other people thought I had been doing.
It turns out that I had fallen into a surprisingly common psychological trap, probably during medical school. Despite accumulating significant amounts of clinical acumen, and in my later years what some might call wisdom, my dream suggests that I still have been unable to free myself of a nagging self-doubt. In 1978, two American psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes labeled this phenomenon “the impostor syndrome” ( “Learning to Deal with the Impostor Syndrome” by Carl Richards [The New York Times, Oct. 26, 2015]). They characterized it as a feeling “of phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable, or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” The victims “are highly motivated to achieve” but “live in fear of being ‘found out’ or exposed as frauds.”
In college, I was in awe of those classmates who could play bridge for hours day after day, write their papers in the wee morning hours on the day they were due, and still get very acceptable grades. I imagined that if these guys had studied a third as much as I did or had simply begun their term papers on the day before they were due, their academic credentials would have blown mine out of the water.
In medical school I always had a sense that I didn’t belong there. I had never heard of anyone else who had gotten into an elite medical school off the waiting list as I had. There must have been a clerical error, and I had been mistaken for the scion of a wealthy benefactor with a similar sounding name. I had been around some smart people before, but my medical school classmates were in a different league altogether.
It turns out I was not alone bobbing in my sea of self-doubt. I learned from a blog entry on KevinMD.com ( “The effect of impostor syndrome on medical students” by Aryeh Goldberg, March 1, 2014) of a lecture by Suzanne Poirier at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine, during which she reported on her analysis of more than forty book-length medical school memoirs. She discovered that a theme of a sense of not belonging ran through most (if not all) of the sources she reviewed. Other observers have wondered how much the impostor syndrome contributes to burnout, depression, and suicidal ideation in medical students.
I suffered from none of those maladies, but my feeling of unworthiness followed me into practice. Even as I acquired more experience during hundreds of thousands of patient encounters, I continued to worry that the next patient through the door would be the end of decade’s long string of good fortune and my clinical ineptitude would be unmasked.
One of the most effective strategies for dealing with such feelings is sharing them. Unfortunately, most physicians don’t often find themselves in settings in which they can comfortably share these feelings with their peers. And of course it is probably not the best idea to share your self-doubts when you are trying to reassure a patient who is feeling vulnerable herself. Finding the balance between admitting that we don’t know everything and projecting the image that we know more than enough to help our patients is one of the biggest challenges facing us as we struggle to master the art of clinical medicine.
I will leave the question of whether I was an impostor to those who can be more objective. All I know is that I was damn lucky for 40 years.
Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.”