Beat Imposter Syndrome Anxiety Symptoms With Mindfulness

by | May 29, 2019 | Imposter Syndrome, Physician Mindfulness

Knowing how to beat imposter syndrome anxiety symptoms can test your patience. Dr.Gazelle looks at some examples and treatment of imposter syndrome anxiety.

Mindfulness in Medicine – A 12-Part Series

This series looks at the positive impacts that mindfulness can have on a physician’s career. This week, we look at the Imposter Syndrome, an insidious condition commonly experienced by physicians and other high-achieving professionals.

A Typical Case of Imposter Syndrome

Dr. S is a 44-year-old academic cardiologist at an elite medical center in the Northeast. She writes:

“Dear Dr. Gazelle,

I’m someone who always wanted to be a doctor. And I’ve always found teaching and taking care of patients satisfying. But I don’t know how much longer I can continue, as I’m really exhausted. And I’m not really that good at it, nowhere near as good as others. I feel like a total imposter, as I know that my colleagues are much better teachers than I’ll ever be.”

Clearly, Dr. S, you are manifesting the classic symptoms of Imposter Syndrome, the condition that makes you feel like you are not meeting the expectations of your role, and a fear that you will be found to be “faking” your expertise. Thank you for writing with such honesty – I know that my readers will appreciate it.

You’re not alone in feeling this way – the Imposter Syndrome is something many physicians struggle with. In fact, in the over 500 physicians I’ve coached in the last decade, the only ones who didn’t suffer from the feelings of inadequacy that Imposter Syndrome anxiety brings were immensely arrogant and egotistical. The Imposter Syndrome tends to occur in high achieving individuals. Like other chronic conditions, there may not be a cure, but there are measures you can take to decrease disease burden.

Traditional Methods for Managing Imposter Syndrome Anxiety

Traditional guidance about managing the Imposter Syndrome involves finding sources that will remind you of your accomplishments. So, if you have to take your boards and there’s Imposter Syndrome test anxiety, for example, you might find someone who reassures you that you’ve always passed tests in the past. While not a bad strategy, I wonder if this type of external validation changes your sense of being an imposter? For most of us, the answer is no. We’ve already gotten many accolades, and they haven’t shifted this negative view of ourselves. In fact, when others tell us how wonderful and successful we are, it often serves to cement our perception that other people don’t understand that, in reality, we’re a big fraud.

Managing Imposter Syndrome Anxiety with Mindfulness

To combat our creeping sense of inadequacy, a good dose of mindfulness is what’s called for. Mindfulness is another word for awareness. When we practice mindfulness, we become aware of patterns, just as we do in making a diagnosis in a challenging case. The patterns we need to be cognizant of are our own. The first one we need to look for is what I call “the cycle of perceived inadequacy.” We tend to be overly focused on what we perceive we didn’t do well, and gather data that supports this perception.

“I wasn’t very articulate in that meeting.”
“I’m not a good teacher.”
“Why can’t I do better in presenting a case to a colleague?”

We can also make a lot of comparisons between ourselves and others, and focus on their accomplishments and the things we perceive they’re doing well.

“Look at how articulate they are.”
“Aren’t they a great teacher.”
“Wow, what a great case presentation that person gave.”

What we’re doing is creating a false imbalance between the abilities of others and our own. But we don’t stop there – we fuel the cycle by continuing to be hyper-focused on our deficits and equally hyper-focused on other peoples’ achievements. Not a very objective process, and you can see where it takes us.

Overcoming Our Cognitive Distortions

The second pattern we need to recognize consists of what are known as cognitive distortions. These are irrational thoughts and beliefs that we unknowingly reinforce over time. At the heart of cognitive behavioral therapy is the idea that distorted thought patterns about ourselves and the world around us can drive our own perception of our experience, and lead to unnecessary fear, anxiety, and depression. These cognitive traps not only include the magnification and minimization inherent in the cycle of perceived inadequacy, but others as well. All-or-nothing thinking leads us to see ourselves as either imposters or superstars – or to the cognitive distortion of mindreading, where we’re sure that someone sees us as a fake. Whichever one we gravitate to, there’s a distortion of the truth, and this leaves us experiencing a lot of unnecessary anguish.

Fighting Perfectionism

The third pattern that’s critical to unpack is perfectionism. Many people who suffer from the Imposter Syndrome believe that every task they tackle has to be done perfectly. Yet perfection is an unattainable standard, and the outcome of continued perfectionism will always be a sense of inadequacy.

How Mindfulness Helps Imposter Syndrome Anxiety

What does all this psychology mumbo-jumbo have to do with mindfulness? At its core, mindfulness is about awareness, paying attention to what’s going on, questioning thoughts and assumptions, and seeing things more clearly. Once we achieve clarity about our own mental patterns, we can successfully intervene to change them.

There’s a Buddhist adage about mental perception that we can draw upon:

“What is thought?
Thought is your friend.
Thought is your enemy.
No one can harm you as much as an unwise thought.
No one can help you more than a wise thought.”

Once we get to know our thoughts, we can work with ourselves to eliminate the ones that do not have our best interest in mind.

Put Mindfulness to Work for You to Overcome Imposter Syndrome Anxiety

Here are some practical strategies you can try this week:

1. Pay attention to your thought processes. Notice each time you accuse yourself of being an imposter and name it to yourself. Something like “there I go again, believing I’m an imposter.” This process of paying attention begins to create a vital distance between you and these thoughts.

2. Question your thoughts. Once you’ve noticed the imposter thoughts, ask yourself some questions:

“How do I know that the thought that I’m an imposter is true?”
“What am I magnifying here?”
“What am I minimizing?”
“Am I indulging in a bit of mindreading?”

3. Make it your mission to pay attention to your strengths. Doing so creates natural ballast for countering imposter beliefs.

4. Follow the above steps, and pay attention to how good it feels when you’ve left the shroud of Imposter Syndrome. It’s an unnecessary burden that definitely plays a part in physician burnout. And, as we’ve outlined, while it can be a chronic condition, it’s definitely one that can be effectively managed.

In summary, Imposter Syndrome anxiety is a thought process and not one that is based on fact. The awareness of mindfulness provides a path to a more objective examination of our stressful thoughts. Use the mindfulness strategies in this series to examine your perceptions. If you find yourself suffering from Imposter Syndrome, take the necessary steps to correct it. You’ll feel a great weight lifted from your shoulders.

The Mindfulness In Medicine Series

If you’ve missed any of our previous blog posts in this series, here’s a list of them for your convenience.

  1. Embrace uncertainty

When you stop and think about it, uncertainty and change are the only things that are certain. Impermanence is one of the basic laws of our world.

After all, everything changes. Our relationships change. Our kids grow up and change. Our bodies age and change. Our environments change. Our planet changes.

All too often, however, we forget this basic truth. We somehow expect things to be predictable and stable.

The problem is that this expectation sets us up for difficulty. It leaves us struggling unnecessarily when something shifts. It adds a layer of suffering above and beyond that caused by all the VUCA around us.

What I’m getting at is that we have a choice. We can meet uncertainty with reactivity or we can meet it with mindful understanding.

More than meditating on a remote mountainside, mindfulness helps us have the calm, steadiness, and clarity we need to work constructively with all the change and uncertainty.

At the same time, while we can find ourselves resisting change, we can remind ourselves that it does not have to mean something bad! Just take a moment right now to think of all the difficulties you have faced in your life and work that are now resolved and far behind you. This can help you see how change has actually been quite the positive.

  1. Respond to complexity with compassion

Even knowing that change is the only thing that is certain, it can still be difficult to weather. Living in such a VUCA time is difficult. You deserve compassion for managing all the challenges.

With mindful awareness, we can bring ourselves compassion for what we’re going through. There is increasing evidence that self-compassion is a powerful antidote to stress and even burnout. From where I sit, I think that it is actually one of the most powerful medicinals available to us.

  1. Take purposeful pauses

With mindfulness, we are aware of what is going on within and around us. We tune in and pay attention to our experience. We learn to utilize our breath to take us out of the fears, worries, stories, and preoccupations our minds are so good at generating about what might come next, and bring us back to the present moment. Here in the present, we leave that overly activated limbic state and can experience a sense of calm.

A pause also serves to allow our prefrontal cortex to come online. It creates a critically important space between our emotional response and conscious, intentional action.

Once we have paused, we can then see more clearly that fear had taken hold. 

With a pause, we become the witness of our experience as opposed to the one trapped by it.

  1. View VUCA as opportunity

I don’t know about you, but I can find myself reacting to the VUCA environment with something of a fixed mindset. With a fixed mindset, I am telling myself things like ‘it shouldn’t be this way’ and ‘why is this happening?’

When I can utilize mindful awareness, I can see that I’ve boxed myself in with a fixed mindset. I can challenge myself to grow. By grow, I mean challenging myself to see whatever difficulty I’m experiencing as an opportunity to learn.

Here again, mindfulness again throws us a lifeline. Mindful awareness involves leaning into curiosity.

I can flip the script and ask myself:

What can I learn from this experience?

How can I use this to be a better version of myself?

How can I help others cope in this VUCA environment?

What do I want to look back and see about how I acted?

In summary, while VUCA is definitely the order of the day in healthcare and beyond, you don’t have to succumb. You don’t have to live in fear. There are constructive actions you can take to help you cope with uncertainty, build calm in chaos, and even thrive in chaos and VUCA. While we can’t control much that is contributing to the VUCA time, with mindfulness we can control how we respond to it.

I hope you’ll try out these 4 mindfulness strategies as I have seen them help countless people. I’d love to hear how it goes.


To learn more about how mindfulness coaching can help you cope with this VUCA time, please reach out for a complimentary consult.

6 Free Resources To Help You During COVID19 And Beyond.

  1. 14-day meditation series 
  2. Imposter No More PDF
  3. Resilience Book Chapter
  4. Leading In Crisis PDF
  5. Balance To Burnout PDF
  6. 30-minute consult

Take advantage of one or more of these valuable resources created for clinicians and non-clinicians.