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Let's Talk About: Imposter Syndrome (and my journey to overcome it)

Have you ever felt like, no matter how hard you trained for something, you just don't belong? Or like everyone is smarter than you? That at any moment, everyone is going to realize that you're there by mistake, or some happenstance? This exhausting state of mind is all too common, especially in women, and is called Imposter Syndrome.

Imposter syndrome is the feeling you get when you start doubting your own abilities. Anyone can experience imposter syndrome, but there are certain things that can contribute to it. For example, a minority in a dominant culture majority occupation can feel imposter syndrome when people make comments about "minority hires." Microaggressions can lead to imposter syndrome in minorities. People with imposter syndrome not only feel unqualified to do the task at hand, but they feel like they've fooled everyone else into thinking they are qualified.

Today's blog is focusing on my own, personal, journey through Imposter Syndrome and coming out the other side appropriately confident in my abilities and accomplishments. This perspective is from a minority in medicine (female, Arab) and is mostly my own, though many other people will share similar experiences. I started medical school and what I felt like was a disadvantage, it took me three tries to get in, and I had thoroughly convinced myself by that point that I was only let in as a charity case. I felt like there were many privileged strings being pulled in the background for me, and I started out feeling inadequate and like I didn't belong. What was worse, I thought I was the only one to feel that way. Everyone else seemed smarter and more competent than I was. I felt like I was barely getting by. I did not feel like I earned my spot in medicine or in my residency program. Throughout my five years of training, I continued to convince myself I didn't belong, that I wasn't as good or smart as everyone else, and that I was a fraud. I could see my strengths, but they didn't seem to overcome my weaknesses. My first couple of years out of training revolved around feeling like my colleagues were smarter than me, and unsure how I'd ever measure up.

Coupled with this were some "background noise" I hadn't realized I'd been doing. I grew up believing that although women could be and do anything they wanted, being too smart or accomplished was a turn off. No one wanted to be around the know-it-all. It's a common trope we see for women in media. The high powered woman is unloved, cold, distant, and critical. Her partner cheats on her or leaves her because his ego can't handle it. Or she's constantly single and dates go terribly because she's "high maintenance." All these messages turned into a constant need to both prove myself as worthy but also as not a threat. People would compliment my intelligence and I'd respond with "oh no, I'm really not that smart. I just pretend well." Or some other comment. Not only was I chipping away at other people's confidence in me, I was unknowingly chipping away at my own confidence.

This changed about my third year as an attending. I remember a patient's father saying "wow, you must be really smart." I responded with my usual "nah, I'm just good at faking it." I then stopped and said "you know what, I'm going to accept your compliment and acknowledge that yes, I am very smart. I worked very hard to get here, and I know what I'm talking about." That small sentence changed my entire perspective on things. I immediately started noticing a difference in how I saw myself and my abilities. I put aside some time to write down a list of things I wanted to accomplish, and how I could go about doing them. I realized that even though I didn't enjoy learning from academic journals, I was still capable of learning new things. I wrote down patient compliments and reviews, and allowed myself to internalize them. I'd walk around with a confidence that I allowed others to share in. I often tell people that I'm the best, and I allow myself to believe that. Sometimes it feels like I'm too confident, but then I remember that as a woman of color, I likely am not, and am fact even more awesome than I allow myself to believe. At my last performance review in a job, I marked myself as outstanding on things, instead of selling myself short.

Many people think that being confident can lead to being arrogant. And that is a slippery slope. I like to think that being confident has allowed me to be self aware. I recognize my strengths and weaknesses, so I know how best to grow. I realize I don't know everything, but I don't minimize what I do know to make up for what I don't. By having confidence in myself, I allow others to feel confident in me as well.

This isn't a perfectly linear path. I've had many set backs, many days of falling into the habit of making myself smaller or less. I have to constantly remind myself to accept compliments, allow my voice to be heard, and make space for myself. This journey out of imposter syndrome has also improved my own mental health. It's a journey of a million steps that started one day, will I said "why yes thank you, I am, in fact, very smart." There are so many people out there telling me (and other women, and other minorities) to be quiet, to be less, to not make others feel bad. But why should my success and skills hold another back?

Think about the messages you give or receive about being "too smart." The number of times you've called someone a "know it all." One of my favorite examples is Hermione, from Harry Potter. She's constantly name-called, instead of celebrated for how smart she is, but I love that she never stops. She's so confident, so willing to share information with others, and wants them to see her light shine. Let's all embody that, shall we?

If you're interested in learning more about how you can overcome your imposter syndrome, or feel more confident in yourself, reach out!

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