Overcoming Impostor Syndrome

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Guest Author: Jennifer Hunt, M.D.

About the Author

After training, supervising and mentoring hundreds of medical students, medical residents and practicing physicians, Jennifer Hunt, MD, became aware of the very high prevalence of imposter syndrome among high achieving women. Now, in addition to serving as the Chair of Pathology at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, she is also a keynote speaker (and TEDx speaker), dynamic workshop leader and experienced executive coach who works for current and aspiring women leaders. Dr. Hunt builds programs and individual engagements to help women overcome self-doubt, increase self-confidence and enhance their resiliency. She teaches her participants and clients skills and tools to amplify their personal power and grow faster and higher into leadership. Dr. Hunt believes that imposter syndrome is holding back talented women, and so she developed and leads a popular leadership development program for women to help address impostor syndrome in their professional lives. Her passion-mission is to increase the number of women in leadership roles across all industries through her speaking and coaching.

My Story

I remember sitting in that big auditorium on my first day of medical school. The Dean was welcoming us and said something about the amazing members of our class: a pianist who had played Carnegie Hall; an Olympic gold medal athlete; blah-blah-blah incredible, amazing people and then there was me. I shrunk down into the crack of that fold-up wooden chair, thinking, “I was the last person admitted to this medical school. I am not smart enough to be in this class, I don’t belong here.” (That wasn’t all my inner critic, I really did get off the waiting list the day before school started.)

Mine is not a rags-to-riches success story. By the time I graduated, I could suture, write a note (in paper charts!), draw blood, do CPR (after being remediated through ACLS), and do everything else a medical student should be able to do. My Dean’s letter was bland and my evaluations read like standardized form letters. By my account, I started out as an average newly admitted medical student, and I graduated as an average newly minted medical doctor. Or, was I?

A couple of weeks ago, a fellow medical school colleague and I were chatting and she said

“We always knew you would be a Chair. You were on that path from the beginning.” I was taken aback and a little shocked. Didn’t they all think, like I thought, that I was average? Mediocre? Passable? Or, was that just the story I was telling myself at that age in that stage?

Here is my definition of a story: 

Pieces of information, details, and emotions that are selected, arranged, and embellished to infuse meaning into circumstances (Unlocking Your Authentic Self, 2020, page 201). Importantly, a story is not equivalent to the facts. The facts about my medical student experience were a lot different from the story I used to describe it in my memories. The facts were actually much kinder than my story. And, so were my friends…who apparently had a lot more confidence in my future than I did—a lot kinder to me than I was to myself! I’ll bet a lot of you reading this have a story, too. Is your story less kind than the facts? If so, you may be experiencing a little bit (or maybe a lot) of impostor syndrome.

Importantly, a story is not equivalent to the facts...The facts were actually much kinder than my story. And, so were my friends

In one study, almost half of the women and nearly a quarter of men in American medical schools experience impostor syndrome (1). Impostor syndrome shows up as under-appreciation of your own skills and talents—where others think you are pretty awesome, you just can’t see it in yourself. It shows up as a smoldering feeling of self-doubt and worry that someone is going to eventually discover that you just aren’t as good as everyone seems to think. It shows up when you enter a new classroom, start a new rotation, or get up to present and you think, like I occasionally did, “I don’t belong here. I am not good enough to pull this off.”

So why does imposter syndrome matter?

In the abstract, impostor syndrome shouldn’t matter all that much—your self-under-appreciation and mine is mostly hidden, tucked away, and not out in the open. But in real-life it matters a whole lot. Impostor syndrome is associated with physician burnout, low self-esteem, derailed career progression, and decreased satisfaction with life. Take a look at this graph with data from a program I run for women physicians that shows a direct correlation between impostor syndrome and burnout (Figure 1)(2).

Impostor Syndrome
Figure 1. This graph shows impostor syndrome rising as burnout rises. These unpublished data come from the women in my impostor syndrome program cohorts.

How do we fix it?

When doctors start to address self-doubt, self-under-appreciation, their relentless inner critic, and beat up self-confidence, they can start to rediscover joy, satisfaction, and meaning in their careers and lives. And if you are a medical student, just starting out on this journey, how would your life change if you never again thought, “I don’t belong here”?  Remember, someone (more likely a whole bunch of someone’s) thought you did.

Impostor syndrome is complex and multifaceted. Overcoming it can be a life-long journey, filled with a few steps forward and a few steps backward. How about starting on that journey today?  Ask yourself, what is the story I’ve been telling myself? Can you relinquish that story for just a minute and tell it as unembellished, unemotional, uninterpreted facts? Let me set an example for you.

My story: I was an average student entering medical school.

The facts: I graduated college magna cum laude.

My story: I was an average medical school graduate

The facts: I graduated with a combined MD/MEd degree with honors.

Starting today, think about how you can adopt an attitude of appropriate, intentional, and realistic self-appreciation for your skills and talents.

References:

  1. Villwock, Jennifer A., et al. “Impostor syndrome and burnout among American medical students: a pilot study.” International journal of medical education 7 (2016): 364.
  2. Hunt, Jennifer.  Unlocking Your Authentic Self: Overcoming impostor syndrome, enhancing self-confidence, and banishing self-doubt, 2020 (Amazon Publishing)

If you are looking for tools about how you can prevent and overcome impostor syndrome make sure to check out Dr. Jennifer Hunt ‘s new book!

Available at Amazon!

Jennifer Hunt, MD, MEd

Website:  www.JenniferHuntMD.com

Email: JenniferHuntMD@yahoo.com


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