Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

Imposter Syndrome—it’s everywhere among premed and med students.

Imposter Syndrome is described as the feeling that you’re a fraud and that you’re inadequate at what you do, despite accomplishments and other evidence that suggest otherwise.

I recently heard a talk by a fourth-year med student at my school who discussed the impacts of Imposter Syndrome. He said that almost everyone he asked about Imposter Syndrome has said, “Yes, I feel this way too.”

Personally, I’ve had these feelings at various points too. When everyone else seems so accomplished and organized and confident, it’s easy for me to feel like I’m behind and not doing as well.

I’ve learned to recognize some of the signs of Imposter Syndrome, as well as develop some ways to overcome them:

Sign #1: Thinking everyone else is doing better

A common feeling of Imposter Syndrome is that everyone else is ahead of you—they’ve accomplished more, they have more knowledge, their lives are just more put together.

In undergrad as well as med school, I’ve often heard talk about being the “admissions mistake:” the one who was accepted by accident. I understand that feeling; at one point I irrationally wondered whether my med school admissions committee had made a mistake and would refuse to let me in when I showed up for the first day.

If I ever get this feeling, that others are ahead of me and I don’t belong among my talented classmates, I remind myself that my view of others’ lives and accomplishments is a limited and possibly biased perspective. In reality, I have my own knowledge and experience to offer that may be different from others’, but it is just as valuable.

Sign #2: Feeling dissatisfied by anything short of perfection

Med students tend to be perfectionists by nature. We are used to being strong students, doing well on exams, and pushing ourselves to understand all the material for each class.

But in med school, it’s impossible to do that. No matter how driven or dedicated you are, with the volume of information and the complexity of the material, it’s impossible to understand everything perfectly or get 100% on every exam. This can lead to feelings of falling short or not being good enough.

Personally, I try to accept that given how complex and difficult the field of medicine is, there’s no way that I’m going to acquire all of this knowledge right away. No matter how much I study, there’s always going to be something I don’t know yet. So rather than studying all the time, I set aside time for studying, and time to do other things. I strive to set reasonable expectations of learning for myself that I can feel good about achieving.

Sign #3: Feeling like your success is due to luck

Another common feeling associated with Imposter Syndrome is that your accomplishments don’t count—that others got to where they are because they were talented and worked hard, but you just got lucky.

Remind yourself of your positive attributes, what you’ve accomplished, and the challenges that you have overcome, whether in your work life or personal life. Write them down if you need to. I often find that getting my thoughts down on paper helps to put things in perspective. It also always helps to get an outside opinion from a trusted friend or family member who can give a more unbiased view.