The Imposter Syndrome Part I: Once Thought Rare, Now Known to be Common Among Physicians

by | Apr 29, 2014 | Physician Burnout, Physician Resilience

You didn’t learn about it in medical school and you probably rarely talk about it. But you need to be aware of a syndrome that’s all too common among physicians all over the world. It strikes regardless of specialty, income, or years in practice. Although there is no definitive data, it’s believed to have reached epidemic proportions.

What am I talking about? It’s the Impostor Syndrome! If you have Imposter Syndrome (IS), you may fear that it’s only a matter of time that you’ll be “found out” as a fraud. Despite abundant external evidence of success and accomplishment, you regularly find it difficult to believe that you are, indeed, a success. You may attribute your accomplishments to luck or chance, not believing that you actually have the intelligence, fortitude, and skills required to get to your current place in your career. You likely also have an inflated sense of the success and aptitude of others.

When the Imposter Syndrome Strikes

Whatever your professional status, you can still get IS. Listen to what Dr. Margaret Chan, Director of the World Health Organization, says about herself: “There are an awful lot of people out there who think I’m an expert. How do these people believe all this about me? I’m so much aware of all the things I don’t know.”

The emotional drain of IS is significant. It erodes your sense of confidence, and contributes to the emotional exhaustion and lack of sense of accomplishment emblematic of physician burnout.

The syndrome does not only strike physicians but is particularly common among this group. Why?

1)      There are simply too many technological advances to keep up with. No matter your specialty, the body of knowledge is growing rapidly.

2)      Medical training emphasizes perfection. You’re taught early on that you should know the answer to everything related to our field, and, if you’re not perfect, you’re a failure.

3)      Physicians tend to be their own harshest critic, focusing much more on negative qualities than their strengths.

So, how do you make the diagnosis of IS in physicians? The criteria include all of A, B, and C:

A. The patient must be a physician.

B.  On at least a weekly basis, the patient believes they will be “found out” as a fraud.

C.  The patient believes that all other physicians in their specialty know more than they do.

Do you or someone you love suffer from Imposter Syndrome? If so, you can take comfort knowing that it affects almost all physicians. Once a diagnosis is made, knowing how to manage the syndrome is key. Stay tuned for Part II to find out more about treatment of this common disorder.

  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.