Recognizing If You Have “Imposter Syndrome”

Hi reader! I cannot say this enough but thank you to anyone who reads these blogs and reaches out to me after. It is very touching to hear your feedback.

I recently learned that Matt Damon wrote the first draft of his film Good Will Hunting when he was a student at Harvard as an English assignment . He later went on to win an Academy Award for the film. I started to wonder, how many Matt Damons are working on their dreams right now with a Good Will Hunting equivalent in their hands, but completely doubt that they will ever be where they hope to? How many brilliant people do not see themselves as brilliant people?

Confidence – what does it actually entail? The human experience is so much performance. We hope others, even our friends and family, perceive us a certain way at all times. Whether or not you notice it, life is often like theatre.

On a similar vein, I view Imposter Syndrome as a mismatch between what we may want to see ourselves as and what we think we are able to be seen as. The way that we believe that we are perceived by others often ties into this mismatch. As encapsulated by the term “looking glass self”, we think about how others see us and make this our identity rather than deciding who we are for ourselves. Some people have never experienced Imposter Syndrome and that is certainly a win. But for those that have or may not realize they are, this discussion may be sorely needed.

What is “Imposter Syndrome”, really?

I like this definition of Imposter Syndrome from the Canadian Medical Association: a psychological pattern of fear and self-doubt. It interferes with people’s belief in their own accomplishments and burdens them with the persistent, internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud — despite evidence of their abilities. I also personally expand Imposter Syndrome to include not believing in our potential for further growth.

However, an article entitled “Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome” was published this year to challenge the notion that Imposter Syndrome is rooted in one’s self-perception. Rather, it disproportionately affects certain identities more based on the way our world operates. This Imposter Syndrome phenomenon often stems from societal and workplace cultures that both explicitly and implicitly encourage individuals to doubt their abilities. It is no secret that women, racialized folks, people with disabilities, and more do not experience everyday life the same as those who may not identify as such. Living somewhere at the intersection of this as a Black woman has demonstrated to me quite evidently why this is. They are underrepresented and often questioned in a plethora of spaces and they may not be aware of the same opportunities as their colleagues.

Likewise, I will acknowledge that I am an able-bodied, neurotypical, high SES individual and that provides me my own reassurances navigating life. I wrote the following paragraph in my summer 2020 article, entitled Awakening: “Black role models have not been in short supply in my life. My parents are well-educated and self-employed business owners, my late maternal Grandfather was a well-loved physician and senator in Nigeria. I have physicians, engineers, nurses, teachers, and everything in between on both sides of my family. I think it showed throughout my life as I always knew and was often told how much potential I had and saw what I could achieve.” Despite these examples in my life, I still have struggled to see myself in certain positions where people who look like me are few and far between.

My Experience with Imposter Syndrome

I am a medical student in my final year. To the surprise of many, I only recently felt confident in the specialties I will apply to for residency next year. I told myself for months that the reason I was not sure what I wanted to specialize in was because I knew I could be happy in many things. This is definitely partially true however there was another larger reason I would not commit: fear. Fear is the underpinning of Imposter Syndrome. Coincidentally, my word for 2021 – yes, I am one of those people – is fearless. Yet, I spent most of this year afraid.

I was afraid I would never be able to acquire the skills needed for my choice in specialty.

I was afraid I would be completely giving up the lifestyle I want.

I was afraid I would not be able to handle the training ahead.

I often thought to myself – I am not one of “those people”. I felt like I would somehow have to trick programs into accepting someone like me. “Those people” as in people who could acquire the skills; the physicians I looked up to who did seem to have the work/life balance I wanted and were doing the work I loved. I saw the people who were able to handle the training I knew I wanted to undertake. As silly as this may seem to people, I am sure there are others who may be experiencing these pervasive doubts about their aspirations.

One night, reflecting with my best friend, she said to me something along the lines of – “You need to look at the best people in the field, the people you know you want to be, and realize that you are going to be one of them.” Inadvertently, she had challenged me to start seeing myself as those people. This was a radical mindset shift for me. I started to see myself as exactly the physician I wanted to be. I looked at myself with pride and reminded myself of everything that I am currently capable of. I reflected on the work/life balance I already achieve and started to believe that I could bring those principles to any training that lies before me. I started to see myself as part of the thousands of talented humans in my specialties of interest rather than as a separate entity from them that would need to “sneak my way in”.

My example is from the perspective of being in medicine, but I am sure someone in any line of work can relate. 

Conclusions & Final Tips

As usual, I have sat on this blog post for a while. I’m told that I come off as someone who is self-assured, but I have moments all the time where I feel the opposite. While this is a work-in-progress, I thought I would share what I have figured out so far. Here are some final tips:

  1. Ground yourself in the present moment. For me, this tends to be the first step to facing many of life’s qualms. I usually have feelings of Imposter Syndrome when I am worrying about the challenges ahead towards reaching my goals or dwelling on how I got to where I am. It is harder to feel insecure when I am focussing on embracing where I am at and what I am doing. It starts with waking up grateful, showing up, and doing my best. I like to tell myself, the future you will wish you spent less time doubting yourself and more time enjoying your life. In addition, at the end of the day, being in the moment and working towards your goals will help you “prove” to yourself through your very actions that you are in fact who you might doubt yourself to be.
  2. Speak about your accomplishments as facts, because they are. I learned a lot about this from listening to the book Brag Better by Meredith Fineman. We can get into the habit of downplaying things we have done. While it is important to be humble, balance is key especially if you are someone who also struggles with Imposter Syndrome. You have done great things. That is nothing to be ashamed of. You do not need to wave your accomplishments in the face of others, but it doesn’t hurt to do it when it matters – like reassuring yourself or during a job interview!
  3. Surround yourself with confident people. I am guilty of seeing confidence in others and automatically labelling this as arrogance. Instead, I try to embrace the people in my life who exude a healthy confidence. It reminds me that I too, am allowed to recognize my strengths and feel the pride that comes with it.

Perhaps Imposter Syndrome as a term does too much to blame the individual rather than the systems at play. Regardless, I will always be a fan of putting words to universal experiences and opening up the chance to talk about them.

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