Chronic self-doubt that ruins success
“I don’t know if I deserve this award,” I said again as I stepped onto the podium to receive the recognition I have worked for years. The next day, a medical student while on tour expressed how happy she was to be part of my team, and I followed up with the phrase “There are better teams in the hospital than ours.”
These phrases are common when you are suffering from impostor syndrome. Impostor syndrome can be defined as a set of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite obvious success. According to an article in the Harvard Business Review, “Impostors suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraud that trumps any sense of achievement or external evidence of their competence.”
I have suffered from impostor syndrome since my medical school years, and it has at times become debilitating to the point of paralyzing me in the face of a new opportunity. Questions like “Is my place here?” “They made a mistake, right? I don’t deserve this” invaded my thoughts and took away the joy of new achievements. At many times, I let my impostor syndrome undermine my accomplishments. I still remember crying in the bathroom of a very prestigious institution because I felt like an impostor during the opening speech of a statewide conference. I was crying because I was afraid of being discovered, and they would notice that I was the wrong person for this address.
I have far too many stories like these, in which I felt like an impostor doing what I love most: treating patients and conducting research.
Why do we suffer from impostor syndrome?
In my case, it’s multifactorial. I am a woman of color in a system designed by the majority group that is unlike me. Walking through hallways full of pictures of people who don’t look like me reminds me every day that this place wasn’t (or isn’t) welcoming to people like me. Family history is also a cause of impostor syndrome. As the daughter of two surgeons, impostor syndrome was rooted in my family dynamic, in which we value success above all else. Other causes of impostor syndrome include personality traits, a new environment (new job or position), social anxiety, and negative interactions with superiors or leaders in your field.
What are the consequences of impostor syndrome?
It’s unique to each person, but what I’ve seen with myself and my colleagues is that we hold ourselves to higher standards that are unattainable, and the feeling of failure becomes a daily practice. . You end up working harder, longer hours than your coworkers, to balance feelings of self-doubt and personal incompetence.
Impostor Syndrome has been associated with anxiety, rumination, and depression, and in the case of academic medicine, it can force a person out of academia. It can be difficult to fight self-doubt when working in a system where grants, publications and other accomplishments are seen as bargaining chips.
In my case, procrastination was a negative response to my impostor syndrome. I often make paella in the middle of a workday for no other reason than to decrease the chances of feeling like an impostor that day.
I haven’t been able to get rid of my impostor syndrome, but I have learned to control it in times of stress. It all started with a post-it on my computer screen saying “You belong” or writing on my hand before a big presentation: “You are not an impostor”.
But that wasn’t until I asked myself, “Do I have to be perfect for others to approve of me?” that I was able to advance. To overcome impostor syndrome, you need to start asking yourself tough questions. I need to become comfortable with some deeply rooted beliefs that I have about myself. I started to question my thoughts of self-doubt and to share my feelings with colleagues. Realizing that I wasn’t the only one feeling like an impostor helped me be kind to myself.
It’s a long journey and I’m a long way from overcoming impostor syndrome, but now I know that I belong to medicine and try to help others in the same situation. If you see someone who seems awkward or lonely, ask that person a question to bring them into the group as this person may have impostor syndrome like you. We are stronger together and we cannot let impostor syndrome cut off our wings until we have learned to fly.
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About Dr Narjust Duma
Narjust Duma, MD, is originally from Venezuela, born to a Colombian mother and a Dominican father. She completed her internal medicine residency at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and her fellowship at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
Her clinical interests include the care of women with lung cancer, including their unique aspects of cancer survival. She is the principal investigator of the Sexual Health Assessment of Women with Lung Cancer Study (SHAWL), the largest study to date evaluating sexual dysfunction in women with lung cancer. She also opened the first clinic in the Midwest dedicated to women with lung cancer only.
Dr Duma is a leading researcher on gender and race discrimination in medical education and medicine. She is the recipient of the 2018 National Hispanic Medical Association Resident of the Year Award, the Mayo Brothers Distinguished Fellowship Award, and the 2020 LEAD National Conference Rising Star Award for Women in Hematology and Oncology. Connect with it:
The Duma Lab, formerly known as the Social Justice League, was founded in August 2019 and focuses on issues of social justice in medicine, including gender discrimination and bias in academic and clinical medicine, disparities in cancer health and medical education.