Why are you bothering to read this? What could I offer that could possibly be useful to you? In fact, I was invited to write this column simply because I happened to be at the right conference at the right time. Soon, if not already, you’ll discover I’m actually not that clever. I’m an impostor.
I’ve thought this while staring at the blank page that is to be my article for the month. Reflecting on it, I realize you’ve probably had the same feelings of fraud at one time or another. Impostor syndrome is common. It is the experience of believing you don’t deserve a role or success despite evidence to the contrary. It often occurs at moments of transition, such as when you were accepted into medical school or matched into a competitive specialty. Looking at your peers, watching how your colleagues perform, you feel you just aren’t smart enough to be there; either someone made a mistake or you just got lucky.
I’ve seen it in my own medical group. An Ivy League–educated doctor who rarely speaks up at meetings confided in me that she’d “rather remain quiet and risk being seen as dumb than to speak up and confirm it.” I’m sure that she, as a woman in medicine, is not alone. The impostor syndrome was first described in the 1970s by two psychologists from Georgia State University who noted feelings of fraud in high-achieving women. Subsequent research showed impostor experience is widespread and occurs in both men and women.
There are potentially positive aspects of impostor syndrome: Humility can make us more effective over time and more tolerable to be around. It also, however, can be destructive. When we feel undeserving, we grow anxious and focus ever more tightly on ourselves. It can be paralyzing. When you think about how you are perceived, you fail to be present and attentive to others around you. Believing you lack innate ability, you can slip into a fixed mindset and fail to grow. Trying to keep your insecurities a secret from others, the foundation of impostor syndrome, is stressful and will stoke the fire of burnout which threatens us all. Fortunately, there is a cure.
The first step in escaping this maladaptive experience is to do what I’ve just done: Share it with others. Find colleagues or partners who care about you and who can speak frankly. By sharing how you feel with others, you banish any power that impostor syndrome might have over you. You can’t worry about being a fraud once you’ve just announced that you are a fraud; the gig is up! Choose your confidantes carefully, as not everyone is suitable to help. Avoid sharing such feelings with your patients; it can erode their confidence in you.
Reframe how you interpret situations when you feel like an impostor. Committing an error doesn’t mean you’re incompetent; moreover, you needn’t be supremely confident to be competent. Marveling at others’ abilities doesn’t mean you could not perform as well. Remember, you don’t know how much effort and time they’ve invested, and chances are you’re underestimating the work they’ve put forth.
Last, take the time to write about your success. Journaling can be a powerful tool to make your successes more salient and remind you that you are truly accomplished. Try writing in the third person, telling the story of your journey and the obstacles you’ve overcome to reach your current prestigious destination. If you still feel like a fake sometimes, there is good news. Having some self-doubt correlates with success, probably because it keeps you motivated to work hard.
Did this article resonate with you? It should. It took me lots of drafts before I got it right.
Dr. Benabio is director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego. The opinions expressed in this column are his own and do not represent those of Kaiser Permanente. Dr. Benabio is @Dermdoc on Twitter. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org .