What do Michelle Obama, Albert Einstein, Maya Angelou, and yours truly have in common?
We’ve all suffered from the Imposter Syndrome! (I’m flattered by any other guesses.)
Take a second to think about how much damage the Imposter Syndrome has on your life. How many moments that should be greeted with excitement and passion that are claimed by anxiety and fear? How many compliments have you brushed off, how many achievements are taken for granted, how many moments lived feeling like we don’t deserve what we’ve created for ourselves?
What exactly is this pernicious, incessant phenomenon, and how do we get rid of it?
I’ll dive into all of that below – but first, I wanted to share a brief moment where I felt like an imposter earlier this week.
Imposter Syndrome At Work
I’m faculty at Harvard Medical School, which means in exchange for a fancy title, I get the wonderful privilege of teaching HMS residents each year 🙂
This week, we got started with our Zoom sessions, and I led several exercises to build resilience. I looked at the underslept, overachieving array of faces on my screen, and couldn’t help but ask myself what the heck I was doing there! In front of this incredibly acclaimed group of twenty- and thirty- somethings, the cream of the crop of residents, I felt like a massive phony.
I was certain that my teaching methods paled in comparison to those of their superior instructors, and that I was better off signing off the Zoom session, or better yet, letting the residents teach me!
In that moment, despite my professional accomplishments, my natural talents and honed skills, my years as a resilience, mindfulness, and burnout coach, and the fact that I’ve taught Harvard residents for many years, I felt like an imposter.
The Imposter Syndrome is a sticky and pervasive sense that no matter how far we’ve gone, we have to constantly watch our backs for fear of being “found out” as frauds.
Let’s see how some of the aforementioned icons put it:
Imposter Syndrome: Who Does it Affect?
“(I) work to overcome that question that I always ask myself: “Am I good enough? Am I good enough to have all of this?” – Michelle Obama
“The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler” – Albert Einstein
“I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody and they’re going to find me out.” – Maya Angelou
“No matter what we’ve done, there comes a point where you think, ‘How did I get here? When are they going to discover that I am, in fact, a fraud and take everything away from me?’” – Tom Hanks
“I have spent my years since Princeton, while at law school and in my various professional jobs, not feeling completely a part of the worlds I inhabit. I am always looking over my shoulder wondering if I measure up.” – Sonia Sotomayor
Does any of this resonate with you? Do you ever feel like your successes were a fluke, that you aren’t as deserving or capable as your peers, or that one day you’ll be exposed as the lousy excuse for a success that you are?
Know that you’re not alone! Besides those above, many sources estimate that up to 70% of professionals experience I.S. at least once in their careers. And I have not met a physician yet who did not suffer from I.S. We all do! You may doubt this but that’s just part of the hold I.S. can have on us. We can even think that they are fake imposters yet we’re the real deal! Let’s take a closer look at this disconnect.
Build Resilience: Understand the Nefarious Info Gap Behind It All
The root cause of the Imposter Syndrome is a maladaptive belief we can all have about what other people are really like.
We spend all day with ourselves – and as we walk around, our past mistakes, embarrassments, and failures bounce around in our head, bumping against future worries about family members, finances, workplace conflicts, and occasionally, an experience in the present moment.
In the midst of all that high-definition exposure to our own rough edges – we see the shiny polished exteriors of our coworkers and those around us. We see smiles, happy marriages, thriving children, promotions, new houses, additions, and miss the inherent messiness of life that is carefully omitted from casual conversation.
While we’re all too aware of our own snafus, hiccups, and challenges, we’re all pretty good about not showing them. Add social media and relentless expectations for what success looks like, and it can be easy to start to feel like you don’t belong because you don’t perfectly fit the mold.
We can quickly believe that we’re on the far end of human failure, an outlier, a fluke, and an imposter.
Get to Know the Cycle of Perceived Inadequacy
In feeling like imposters, we tend to be hypercritical of ourselves and focused on what we perceive we aren’t doing well. And we’re equally hyperfocused on what we perceive others are doing well. We create what’s known as a cognitive distortion that leaves us feeling like an imposter. This is the cycle that keeps us locked into I.S. But is this an objective or subjective process? I think you’ll agree that it’s about as subjective as it can get.
Moreover, the more attention we give what we aren’t doing well (and what we think others are) the harder it is for us to be resilient and confident in our work.
Build Resilience with 6 Simple Strategies
After reading about how pernicious the Imposter Syndrome can be, you’re probably wondering what steps we can take to combat it! Here are 6 highly effective strategies you can use to let go of imposter beliefs, build resilience, and gain trust that you are worthy of the success that you have attained.
1. Take the leap of faith
A core cause of the imposter syndrome is a flawed picture of what other people are like. We’re stuck with our mind 24 hours a day, so we see our nastiest thoughts, we’ve been there for our worst moments, and we know our flaws all too well. But all we see of the people around us is everything they want us to see – everything they’re doing well! Social media only furthers this information imbalance.
The best way to get around this gap is to take the leap of faith that other people are experiencing and have experienced the same self-doubt and negative thinking that you have. Look at the array of people who experience this – Michelle Obama, Tom Hanks, Albert Einstein, Maya Angelou – to name just a few. Understanding that it’s normal to experience self-doubt and that the people around you aren’t as perfect and polished as they may seem decreases the power of the imposter syndrome.
2. Notice and Name
A core truth that I teach my clients and that is essential to overcoming the Imposter Syndrome is recognizing that thoughts are, in fact, just thoughts. In other words, these randomly appearing neuron-firing events are just that. As successful professionals, we subtly learn to take our thoughts as fact but not the truth is that not everything we think about ourselves is true.
When you recognize yourself having an imposter thought (“I hope they never find me out,” “I’m not good/smart/talented enough for this,” “I don’t belong” etc.) notice that thought, name it, and remind yourself that the thought is just a thought and nothing more. Just the act of labeling slows down our amygdala over-activation and involves our prefrontal cortex, giving us the space and presence to choose how we respond to the thought.
Being able to detach/ de-identify with negative thoughts is a core part of my coaching model and a resilience skill that my clients quickly master. When we are able to notice a negative thought, nod at it smilingly, and go do what we wanted to do anyways, the thoughts quickly lose their power, and fade away. Much like the clouds in the sky.
3. Focus on the facts
In detaching from the Imposter Syndrome, it can be extraordinarily helpful to view your accomplishments as someone outside of you would see them.
Take some time to write down a “brag sheet” or a list of all of your professional and personal accomplishments. Push yourself to write them down as objectively as possible. Then, in times when you are mired in self-doubt, take a look at your brag sheet.
Being able to reference an objective brag sheet helps us get over all of the humps towards self-belief that we create for ourselves.
Here’s an example from one of my physician clients
Achieved a 3.7 GPA undergraduate.
Survived medical school and residency
Practiced medicine for 15 years and patients are happy with my care
No malpractice cases!
Purchased a home and paid 40% of the mortgage
Make beautiful knitted and crocheted sweaters
Am an amazing godmother and friend
4. Build your strengths muscle
In business and in our careers, most of us are trained to notice problems and focus on the things we need to fix. it’s the negativity bias we hear so much about.
This thought pattern can be very helpful when dealing with sick patients, relationships that need repair, struggling students, or the problem sets that we are yet to complete. But it can be very maladaptive when building resilience and dealing with our own minds. Most of the professionals I’ve coached are entrenched in negative beliefs and are so used to focusing on their weaknesses that they feel like they don’t have any strengths! This is a pattern that can be quickly reversed – it just takes intentionality. And practice.
Focusing on strengths gives you more energy and resilience to tackle the challenges in both your professional and personal life, giving you more confidence and helping you develop a realistic sense of your strengths. It’s helping people develop these upward spirals that really make my day as a coach.
5. Develop catchphrases
At times, the negative chatter in our minds can be so stormy and overwhelming that noticing and naming isn’t going to cut it. In times like these, when we get caught up in the storm, it’s helpful to have some catchphrases in our arsenal that we can utilize to calm us and bring us back to the present moment.
I’ll share some of mine:
“I am worthy and talented and I deserve this”
“I trust my judgement and I make strong decisions”
“I am endlessly resilient to whatever life throws at me!”
Or my motto:
“I am good, I do my best, and I cannot control all the rest”
These can be incredibly powerful in gaining our footing during turbulent times. Try these out and see for yourself.
6. Start the conversation
Oftentimes, seeing is believing. It might be a lot to ask to take a “leap of faith” and assume that what’s going on in our heads is actually going on in most of the people around us. So check in with your friends and coworkers and start the conversation about the imposter syndrome. You don’t have to share every single dire moment you’ve been experiencing, but opening up and sharing some of the thoughts and emotions that you’ve experienced around the imposter syndrome can have a couple of surprising effects.
Firstly, naming and talking about this shame and doubt has a way of taking the wind out of its sails. Being able to shed light to these experiences makes Imposter Syndrome anxiety much more manageable. Secondly, you’ll be surprised how many of your coworkers and colleagues are experiencing exactly the same imposter beliefs as you.
Utilize the steps laid out in this guide and take time to appreciate your strengths and accomplishments, to talk with the people around you about the imposter syndrome, and to notice and name imposter thoughts without attachment or judgement. This is a syndrome you can move past and you can live a shame, doubt, and imposter-free life! You deserve it.
If you’ve missed any previous posts in our popular Mindfulness In Medicine Series, here’s a list of them for your convenience.
- Managing the difficult co-worker
- Patient satisfaction in healthcare and mindfulness
- Mindful parenting
- Self compassion mindfulness for physicians
- Mindfulness and non-physician healthcare administrators
- The top 10 common myths about meditation
- Doctor stress, overwhelm and physician burnout
- Being present with patients
- Mindfulness leadership for physicians
- How to prevent medical errors causes and physician burnout
- Beat imposter syndrome anxiety symptoms with mindfulness