The Physician Philosopher Podcast

TPP #75: Imposter Syndrome in Medicine – How Doctors Can Overcome

The root of my impostor syndrome comes simply from this… I don’t think very highly of myself.  And I never have.

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Now, don’t confuse this for a lack of confidence.  I’ve never lacked confidence.  I can look back at the hundreds of times I’ve spoken publicly and draw from those experiences and know that I am probably going to give a great talk when I stand up in front of people (though that isn’t always true… sometimes we try new things and they flop… its part of the process).

… but if I am being honest, I’ve always had a low view of who I am internally.  I’ve always been a hard-master on myself. I talked about in Episode 21 when we talk about choosing curiosity over shame where I talk about the Henry Ward Beecher quote that used to sit above my desk in residency.  The quote about being lenient on everyone else and a hard master on me.

You may be asking, however, what exactly is Impostor Syndrome? According to the source of all knowledge and wisdom (aka wikipedia), impostor syndrome is defined this way, “Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon, impostorism, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience) is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their skills, talents, or accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud.’”  

This was me to a “T”.  While everyone else may have thought I was doing great things, I felt like I was somehow going to mess up and make this all go away. Then, everyone else would know what I knew – which is that I can be a raging dumpster fire internally.

Fake It Til You Make It

The way that I dealt with my impostor syndrome for a long time is to do what we are all told to do in medicine.  Fake it until we make it.

This method tells us to put on the mask.  And that – if we convince everyone else we are good enough – maybe we can convince ourselves, too.

The problem, of course, is that this doesn’t work.  You can’t outrun the internal work of figuring out who and what you are.  And this comes from self-confidence, not confidence.  

Self-confidence is knowing who and what we are internally regardless of whether we have done something before or not.  Are we a burned out hot mess?  Or a bad-ass boss of our life?  Are we a good spouse and parent?  Or a train-wreck at home?

What story are we telling ourselves when no one else is listening?  This is what matters.  Who we know we are is the antidote to any impostor syndrome we might have.

So, let’s look at a few tools you might use to defeat impostor syndrome, if this is a beast you are looking to slay in your life.

Choose Self-Compassion

Compassion is composed of two words.  Com, which means “with”, and pati, which means “to suffer”.  This is why compassion is often described as suffering with someone.  Yet, compassion isn’t only external, it can also be an internal process.

When it is, this is called self-compassion.

Dr. Kristin Neff, a psychologist, researcher, and author of the book Self-Compassion, argues that self-compassion is composed of three parts.  This includes self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. Self-kindness is an ability to look at ourselves in an objective third-person perspective.  

It is a skill I could employ when I drank one more beer than I “should” after a tough day.  Or when I raised my voice at my kids after the thirteenth time they asked me to buy them a cell phone. 

What Would Someone Else Say To You?

How can we employ this kind of self-kindness?  There are a few ways.

One way is to ask ourselves a simple question.  If someone else was going through the same thing that we are going through, what would we say to them?  We can try to employ the external compassion we offer others for ourselves.  

For example, when I recently gave a talk on burnout with a new format, it didn’t land as well as I would have liked it to.  I could choose to beat myself up for changing my talk.  Or I could say, “I wonder what someone would say to me if I told them I tried a new talk with new ideas and it needed some work after I gave it for the first time?”  

They’d probably say, “Hey, it was your first talk!  Looking back when that talk is amazing, you’re going to remember this first time and what you learned from it.”

When we externalize the conversation, we can often see how we are beating ourselves up.  This can help us deal with that negative self-talk we often have that leads to our impostor syndrome.  

What Would You Say to Your Younger Self?

I had already figured out this piece, but it wasn’t until the talk I referenced previously by Rachel Hart that I learned there was another external person I could think of to help defeat my impostor syndrome.  

Before Rachel’s talk I would talk about my accomplishments and dismiss them.  I would say, “well I got into medical school at Wake because this one person got me an interview” or “well my business has been successful because I am the only male physician coach with a large audience.”

At every turn, I would discount and dismiss my success, because – if I didn’t – I’d have to admit that maybe I’m not as bad as I think I am internally.  I’d actually have to deal with possibly liking myself.  That’s where Rachel’s talk came in.

Rachel Hart told us that if you suffer from impostor syndrome and discount or dismiss your accomplishments, imagine talking to the younger version of ourselves. 

In fact, she said, why don’t you print off pictures of you when you are younger.  You know, as an 8 or 10 year old.

And – while looking at the eyes in that picture – trying telling yourself that what you have accomplished isn’t worthwhile.  That you are just a fake or a fraud.  That what you have done doesn’t make you worth anything.

An Honest Moment for an Impostor

And – MAN – when she said that it struck me to my core.  I could never imagine telling my 8 year old boy or 10 year old girl anything as negative as what I say to myself. 

What if all of this success that I’ve created isn’t luck?  What if this business isn’t a fluke?  What if all the accomplishments I’ve had weren’t just fortunate happenstance but were a result of me being a total bad-ass.

What if I didn’t have to hide my impostor syndrome with humility?  

When I thought about it this way, it immediately changed everything for me.  I couldn’t look back and tell the 10 or 15 or even 20 year old version of me that what I had accomplished wasn’t  enough.  That I needed to accomplish more in order to be lovable or worthy.

That’s why after all the talks were done I went up to thank Rachel for her talk and immediately lost it.  I just wanted to say thank you, but her talk had shaken me to my core.  I never realized until that moment why I struggle with Impostor Syndrome… So I – as a 36 year old man – stood in front of someone I was meeting for the first time and cried.  Like ugly, embarrassing crying.

And, you know what? It felt great.  For the first time in a long-time I didn’t have to be ashamed that I am a passionate guy.  That I cry more than my wife.  That this is the way that I am wired.  I was taking the first step to becoming the hero of my own story.

From Impostor to Heroes

Speaking of heroes – for those who have followed me for sometime, you know that I love Ben Rector’s music.  So, when his song came out on his new album called “Heroes,” I loved it from the jump.

The song is all about how the people we look up to in our lives when we are younger are like heroes to us.  They may have been a pastor at church. The captain of the team.  A senior when we were freshman. Or our best friend’s mom or dad.

And, like all heroes, there comes a point where we realize with a sudden dose of reality that all of these heroes are human. They make mistakes. They fail. They fall flat on their face. Sometimes in the most unbelievable ways.  

And after some time, we are the leader.  We are the captain on the team. Or we are the mom or dad leading the way.  

At some point, we have to let go the image of them being the hero, and – more importantly the idea that we even need a hero.  We do not need a hero. You know why?  Because we are the hero of our own story.  

You and I do not need to be rescued my friend.  You are not an impostor any more than I am.  If you are listening to this podcast, you have graduated from college and medical school.  Odds are you have graduated from residency, too.  At the very least you are a highly accomplished medical professional.

And this brings me to my last tip on dealing with impostor syndrome.  

You Are Someone Else’s Hero

If you are ever doubting yourself, I highly encourage you to consider what someone else might say to you.  And I love the idea Rachel Hart proposed about talking to a younger version of ourselves.

A more tangible way to deal with impostor syndrome, though, is to think about one simple fact.  You are already a hero in someone’s eyes.  It may be your kid.  It could be your audience if you are an entrepreneur.  There is a good chance one of your patients thinks you’re the cat’s pajamas, too.

Even on your worst day, someone looks up to you.  What would your favorite fan say to you?  I bet they would tell you that you’re awesome.  You know why? Because you are.  

Editor’s Note: If you are a physician who is burned out in medicine looking to learn how to create the personal and financial freedom you need to create a life you love, make sure to schedule a consult call with one of our physician coaches.


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1 Comment

  1. Param Bala

    Love this ! So needed it


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