Battling Imposter Syndrome

By Sanjana Vig MD, MBA

So, what is imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is this idea that we do not belong in our jobs, or that our successes are not a result of our abilities, but rather just luck. It’s a level of self doubt that has us believing that we are not good enough, that others will think that we are frauds.


If you’ve ever dealt with these feelings: you are not alone.

Imposter syndrome is common place amongst those in high powered careers. Speaking as a female, I’ve seen this in all of my female colleagues at one point or another. I’m sure part of the issue is that, as women, we are taken less seriously, and we have to work harder just to be heard, let alone be treated on equal grounds as our male counterparts.

On one end, women have made progress, I think. This past year, the number of students entering medical school contained more females than males (read the full story below)

In addition, they are choosing more diverse career paths (e.g. not everyone is doing OBGYN), and also are being accepted to these nontraditional career paths.  

On the other end, we may be failing ourselves. I’m guilty of this and I’ve talked to many female medical friends who experience the same. In addition to dealing with the feelings of imposter syndrome, we are also bogged down by:

  1. We never feel ready to take on certain responsibilities.  Rather, we wait to obtain more training or teaching in order to move up in the ranks.
  2. We seldom take risks for fear of repercussion.
  3. We don’t speak up as much as we should in order to avoid being perceived as a “bitch”
  4. We apologize for EVERYTHING.

I can only speak from my own experiences, and I in no way am trying to lump all men into one category, but just from what I have seen with my own male colleagues and co fellows: Men do not ( or rarely ) do this.

So why do we? We are in effect bringing ourselves down when we doubt ourselves. Like HELLO, we are board certified physicians. WE KNOW THINGS. So why do we question that? By questioning ourselves, we are giving permission for others to question us as well. How can we win when we set ourselves up to lose?

Don’t get me wrong, wondering if you’re doing right by your patients is a natural part of growing as a physician and establishing how you practice. But, if we know we are doing the right thing and doing everything we can, then we need to stay confident in that. No matter what anyone says.

battling imposter syndrome
battling imposter syndrome

How can we beat the self doubt?

Daily Affirmations

There’s a book I read recently called You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life. Yes it a self-help book, but I found this one to have some actual helpful insight. It discusses how many of our self-perceptions and reactions to certain situations stem from how we were raised. In order to break away from that we have to retrain how we think.

Thus, the daily affirmations.

But I think affirmations can take many forms. You don’t necessarily need to stand in front of a mirror and say, “I’m a badass” 20 times before bed (although, if this is something you want to do, by all means go for it).

It can be a mantra you say to yourself, a word to live by for the day, or a promise to yourself. For instance, if your daily affirmation is to tell yourself “no apologies today” then keep that in mind throughout the day and make a conscious effort to catch yourself in the act.

Learn from each day and each experience

Breaking bad habits takes time and so does developing good ones. So give yourself time.  Take each day as it comes.  When you find yourself freaking out on the inside, and feeling like you don’t belong, take a minute and try to figure out what it is that is bothering you. 

Which part of an interaction or situation has you anxious and is making you doubtful?  Analyze THAT.  Then use that information to slowly build yourself up, work on yourself and beat back that self doubt so that next time you’ll be less likely to feel like an imposter.

Cultivate work relationships

I think one of the issues that makes it even harder for women is when we have to lead other women.  It makes me so sad to see when women don’t stand up for each other.  To break through that, be the bigger person; get to know your female colleagues on a more personal level. It can completely change the dynamic!

Support your fellow colleagues

This goes with the above point.  Putting others down does not make us look good, just as giving others compliments does not make us seem less able. There is more than enough happiness and success to go around. So help a girlfriend (or guy friend if you see him struggling!) out if she needs it. We do not lose by helping others. In fact, you never know what you might learn in the process.

Readjust our stance

I do think we need to stop acting defensively; we need to stop apologizing; we need to stop taking other peoples attitudes personally; we need to stop blaming ourselves for things out of our control.

(As a tidbit from my own experience, I stopped excessively apologizing and I noticed a definite shift in how I was viewed/treated.  Plus I make an effort to categorize different issues in my head….if I had no real control over an outcome, I pull myself back from worrying about it–>fewer sleepless nights aka happy :))

Imposter syndrome: Photo Courtesy of Marie-Pier Rochon

My mom once told me that people who are going to judge you, treat you badly or give you attitude, are likely going to do so no matter what. You can be the sweetest person with a heart of gold, and there will be someone who hates you. In the same way, no matter what you do for your patients, someone is going to think you did it wrong or didn’t do enough.

So let’s not focus on preventing bad behavior in others; let’s just focus on promoting our own good, confident behavior.

Be patient.

Change takes time. Your self doubt will decrease over time.

Be confident.

You know your shit and you are not an imposter: you belong and deserve to be where you’re at.

Be a boss bitch.

Cuz, honestly, the true meaning here is that you’re assertive. So Be assertive (credit to my co fellow R.S. here :-).

Above all:

Be a badass.

You already are one.