Navigating imposter syndrome: When you're a doctor but don't feel like one

By Jules Murtha | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published May 26, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • Imposter syndrome may manifest in doctors as an inability to accept success, attributing it to chance instead of their capabilities, fear of being “found out” as fraudulent, and disappointment regarding their accomplishments.

  • Physicians dealing with imposter syndrome may struggle to maintain personal wellness, along with their capacity to learn and build a career.

  • Doctors can mitigate feelings of self-doubt by sharing their experience with colleagues and mentors, and cultivate a growth mindset that turns mistakes into learning opportunities instead of perceived failures.

Did you know that physician burnout can be a result of imposter syndrome? Feelings of self-doubt can hinder your performance and your satisfaction at work, making success feel far away—even if you’ve achieved plenty of it in your career.[]

To address the feelings of self-doubt associated with imposter syndrome, doctors can initiate a dialogue about it with colleagues. Additionally, you can embrace mistakes as opportunities to improve, rather than beating yourself up about your shortcomings.

How imposter syndrome manifests in doctors

Imposter syndrome exists among physicians of all experience levels.

From trainee physicians to veterans, self-doubt can cast career-shaping shadows on individuals across the board, according to an article published by Academic Medicine.[]

Self-doubt is especially common among physicians during career transitions. In situations where physicians must exhibit confidence—say, in the face of a new challenge—they often lack confidence. Since medical careers entail numerous transitions and ladders to climb, recurring self-doubt is a common experience among doctors.

Knowing the signs and symptoms of imposter syndrome can help you identify and address it.

Identifying physician imposter syndrome

There are several signs of imposter syndrome to look out for, most of which pertain to how doctors perceive their successes and missteps.

The inability to accept one’s professional success, for example, is a telltale sign of imposter syndrome. It’s usually accompanied by the tendency to credit one’s success to chance instead of a hard-won skillset achieved through years of training.

Other symptoms of imposter syndrome include focusing on mistakes rather than celebrating your achievements, hesitancy to challenge yourself, and fear that you’ll be discovered as a fraud, according to an article published by the Canadian Family Physician.[]

Fortunately, there are actions physicians can take to overcome imposter syndrome and pave the way for personal and professional success.

Create the space to transform self-doubt

If self-doubt has its grip on you, talk about it with your colleagues.

According to an article published in Academic Medicine, sharing feelings of self-doubt with fellow physicians and healthcare professionals can be an important coping mechanism. By doing so, you may quickly discover that you’re not alone in your imposter syndrome struggle.

By breaking the silence, you’re creating the opportunity to transform your personal work culture. Ditch the self-punishment every time you make a mistake; instead, lean into missteps.

When you can embrace mistakes, you can reframe them as opportunities to grow and do better. With this growth mindset—the essence of the medical culture—you can safely acknowledge your feelings and improve upon your skills, while taming imposter syndrome to make the most of your career.

What this means for you

If you struggle to accept success or praise, and fear being “found out” as a fraud, you may have imposter syndrome. Physicians who suffer from this also tend to pore over mistakes rather than celebrating their accomplishments. To diminish the syndrome’s negative effects, communicate these feelings to colleagues. Using mistakes as learning opportunities instead of setbacks may help you overcome self-doubt.

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