Imposter syndrome and how the little monster brings us down.
by Ashley Brodrick, OMS-III
This article was originally published in the July/August issue of the Tarrant County Physician. You can read find the full magazine here.
“Am I really cut out for this?” A question most medical students have asked themselves time and time again. Imposter syndrome is this little monster in the back of our minds that tells us we are inadequate; it grows every week, with every test, and with every medical encounter. It tells us we are destined to fail. It tells us we are never going to make it, we are never going to learn, and we are never going to be good doctors. This little monster puts doubts into our minds about our ability to be successful physicians. If you are lucky enough never to have been visited by this little monster, I applaud you.
Medical school is this arduous four-year journey that tests us mentally, physically, emotionally, and sometimes even brings us to our breaking point. Why is medical training so taxing on our emotions, leaving us feeling empty, drained, and questioning if we are made for this career? Medical school is competitive by nature, with a national acceptance rate of 43 percent. This means you must be the “best of the best,” graduating with extraordinarily high GPAs, and performing well on the MCAT. Don’t get me wrong, being a doctor is no easy task. You are responsible for another person’s life, something that I consider to be a tremendous honor. However, at what point do we start to take a step back and reconsider this competitive atmosphere that we have fostered for so long and look at applicants on a holistic level and not just a statistic on a sheet of paper. I can tell you I would rather have a doctor that understands my concerns and listens to me than one who scored in the 99th percentile on their standardized exams but never questions their diagnosis. I would rather have a doctor that IS questioning their diagnostic and treatment decisions for me—not because they don’t know the proper protocols, but because they care about getting my treatment right for me as an individual. M
I am no stranger to imposter syndrome; however, this little monster did not visit me until my second year. My first year of medical school was the year I thrived, leading me to believe that maybe I could make it through without letting that little monster get the best of me. My grades were above average, I was making friends, and I was becoming more confident in my ability to talk to patients (even if it was standardized and following a script). The real challenge for me came during my second year, when my self-doubt started setting in. I was having difficulty connecting the dots and putting everything together. My classmates seemed to be following the right path, understanding how the different diseases connect across organ systems, whereas I felt like I was stumbling every step of the way. Each block presented a new challenge and fed that little monster even more. While I could understand the information and explain it flawlessly to my friends, it was just not coming together on the tests. This inability to perform well on exams did a number on my mental health. You don’t realize how deep into a hole you are until you turn around and realize you can no longer see any light, making it impossible to escape. Each day I would wake up with my heart racing, but you know what I did? I told myself this was normal; this is what medical school is supposed to be like. Stressful, hard, and exhausting, it takes everything out of you along the way, while proving to everyone that you are the “best of the best,” having the highest level of education, being in the top 0.29 percent of the population. The one thing I did not tell myself was that medical school did not have to be this way.
Medical school puts you in a bubble, one that is hard to escape. You are surrounded by medicine 24/7, and during my first two years I found it difficult to talk about anything other than medicine when I was with my friends and family. Every time I went home it was always, “How is school going? Any recent tests? What are you learning now? Making good grades still?” It was never, “How are you handling everything? Is there anything you need help with?” I knew they were trying to show an interest in my education, and genuinely wanted to know what I was learning, but I did not have the energy to go into detail. So, I found myself falling into the same routine of saying, “School is going well, just the same every day. I spend 10 hours in the library and when I get home I take Sadie on a walk, then sit on my couch and watch TV until I do it all over again.” This wasn’t always the case. I was hanging out with my friends, going to dinners, TV show watch parties, doing normal adult things, but whenever I would tell people about this, I would be hit with, “Shouldn’t you be studying? How do you have time for all of that?” I decided it was not worth it to try to please everyone and explain myself, so I shut down and didn’t tell anyone outside of medicine what was going on in my life. To some degree I felt this fed that little monster even more, because I was not sharing all the extraordinary things I was learning. I was not sharing how I was learning to properly perform a physical exam on patients. I was not sharing the complex pathology behind diseases and how to treat them. I was not sharing how I was developing my communication skills with our standardized practice patients. I was not sharing how I was constantly being uplifted and supported by not only my classmates and friends, but also my professors and faculty advisors. Looking back, I think the main reason I decided to suppress and not discuss was because of my imposter syndrome. I felt that if I started to talk about a subject and got one thing wrong, then my months of learning proved nothing, showing that I didn’t belong in this field.
I had this grand idea in my mind of what my clinical years in school would be like, but the pandemic added hurdles and setbacks, which further contributed to my imposter syndrome. I’ve spent most of my third-year rotations online— 60 percent, to be exact—which has left me questioning if I really am ready to begin my residency. I’ve never witnessed a code, never rounded on in-patient care, my note writing skills are lacking, and frankly, I just have not had the experience I feel is necessary to graduate medical school. Thus, imposter syndrome is in full effect for me right now. I made it halfway through my third year when I realized I was just getting to my first full in-person rotation. Thankfully it was OB-GYN, the field I have fallen in love with and will be applying for in the 2022 residency match. I felt comfortable taking a gynecologic history, performing PAP smears, delivering placentas, assisting in the OR, and even having the incredible opportunity of catching a baby. Now, as I am nearing the end of my third year, I realized I had the expectation that I would know so much; however, I feel like I know so little and find myself looking forward to the day when it will all come together. When I look around at my other classmates, I realize I am surrounded by people who were at the top of their class, and while I am one of those people, I still find myself feeling inadequate. I still find myself wondering how they can connect the dots on their rotations and see the big picture. I still find myself wondering how they know what questions to ask. I still find myself wondering simply how they make it look so easy. The one benefit of spending most of my clinical time online is it has allowed me to have time for self-reflection. This year has allowed me to foster relationships with my friends in ways that would not have been possible with a full work schedule. This year has allowed me to make myself and my mental health a priority. Most of all, this year has shown me the amazing support system I have cheering me on every step of the way, especially during the hard times.
So, while I try my best to contain this little monster, there are days when it breaks free from the room it is kept in, and I sometimes am still unable to contain my feelings of being inadequate. When these days come, I’ve learned how to work through them. I remind myself of how far I’ve come to get here. I remind myself of the years of education and knowledge I have gained on this journey. I remind myself of the countless individuals who have supported me, encouraged me, and helped me on this path. I remind myself of what lies ahead, and while it is a long and arduous road, it is one I am happy to be on. Sacrificing the best years of my life to being confined to the library, where I am studying and absorbing an overwhelming amount of information, has been worth it to me. Some might ask why, and the only answer I can give is that whenever I am asked what I would do if I wasn’t in medicine, I honestly do not have an answer. So, this is how I lure the monster back into its room—by reminding myself of my worth, my perseverance, my triumphs, and my successes throughout this journey.
Part of me is curious if it is the competitive culture of medicine that contributes to imposter syndrome, or if it is the self-doubt we carry in ourselves because of how difficult the road is to becoming a doctor. My biggest question going into my fourth year is how do we combat this? How do we tell medical trainees that it is okay to have these doubts; that they are normal, and that you are still learning and absorbing everything around you? How do we tell them that medical school is hard, but you don’t have to endure it alone? I think the answer to these questions is acknowledging that everyone experiences imposter syndrome at least once, and it is okay to have these doubts. It is okay to take a step back and say, “Wait a minute, was that the right call? Was that the right diagnosis? Should I have treated my patient’s condition in a different way?” Acknowledging this monster allows us to not become complacent in our careers, ensuring we are doing the best job that we can. This is a big part of the reason I chose to pursue medicine—the constant educational and learning opportunities, the inability to ever become complacent in your job. My time in medical school has opened my eyes to the type of physician I want to be. I want to encourage and reassure the medical students I will one day work with that it is okay to not know the answer to everything. It is okay to ask questions out of curiosity, even if the answer is something that I view as common knowledge. It is okay to be nervous, it is okay to be scared, it is okay to simply not know things. Medical students are exactly what they are called: students. Here to learn, here to observe, and here to take in everything around them. They should be able to do this without fear of humiliation or being deemed incompetent. I want to be the type of resident that shows my students that I too suffer from imposter syndrome right there with them, and that with the right tools and strategies, it is possible to cage the monster.
My challenge to this generation of physicians is to look back on your time in medical school and think of a resident or preceptor that showed an interest in your education and made you feel like you belonged. Do you think you could have survived that rotation without their help? If you find yourself answering “yes,” I give my applause to you, but if you find yourself answering “no,” hold on to that thought, remembering it for when you have students of your own.
We don’t have to be alone on this journey. We should work together to normalize the conversation around the mental exhaustion medical school creates in individuals. We should work together to lift and encourage our peers. We should work together to ultimately say it is okay to have imposter syndrome, but here is how we can deal with it before it becomes something greater than we can contain.