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Impostor Syndrome: The Chronic Self-doubt That Ruins Success

Narjust Duma, MD · Duma Lab

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October 12, 2021

"I am not sure if I am deserving of this award," I said once again when going up to the podium to receive recognition for which I have worked years. The following day, a medical student during rounds expressed how happy she was to be on my team, and I followed with the phrase "There are better teams in the hospital than ours."

Those phrases are common when you are suffering from impostor syndrome. Impostor syndrome can be defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. According to an article in the Harvard Business Review, "'Imposters' suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence."

I have suffered from impostor syndrome since my medical school years, and at times it has become debilitating to the point of making me feel paralyzed when facing a new opportunity. Questions like "Do I belong here?" "They made a mistake, right? I don't deserve this" have invaded my thoughts and taken away the joy of new achievements. On many occasions, I have 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 when giving the keynote address of a statewide conference. I was crying because I had the fear that I would be discovered, and they would notice that I was not the right person for that keynote address.

I have way too many stories like these, in which I felt like an impostor doing what I love the most: caring for patients and conducting research.

Why Do We Suffer From Impostor Syndrome?

In my case, it is multifactorial. I am a woman of color in a system designed by the majority group that does not resemble me. Walking through hallways full of pictures of people that don't look like me reminds me every day that this place was not (or is not) welcoming of people like me. Family background is also a cause of impostor syndrome. As the daughter of two surgeons, impostor syndrome was rooted in my family dynamics, in which we value achievement 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?

This is unique to each person, but what I have seen in myself and colleagues is that we hold ourselves to higher standards that are impossible to reach, and the sense of failure becomes an everyday practice. You end up working harder, for longer hours than your colleagues, to balance the 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 the person to leave academia. It can be tough to fight self-doubt when working in a system where grants, publications, and other accomplishments are considered currency.

In my case, procrastination has been 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 have not been able to get rid of my impostor syndrome, but I have learned how to control it during times of stress. It all started with a Post-it note on my computer screen saying, "You belong," or writing on my hand before a big presentation, "You are not an impostor."

But it wasn't until I asked myself, "Must I be perfect for others to approve of me?" that I was able to move forward. To get past impostor syndrome, you need to start asking yourself some hard questions. I have to become comfortable confronting some deeply ingrained beliefs that I hold about myself. I started questioning my thoughts of self-doubt and sharing my feelings with colleagues. Realizing that I was not alone feeling like an impostor helped me be kind to myself.

The journey is long, and I am far from overcoming impostor syndrome, but I now know that I belong in medicine and try to help others in the same situation. If you see someone who seems awkward or alone, ask that person a question to bring them into the group because that person may be suffering from impostor syndrome as you do. We are stronger together, and we can't let impostor syndrome cut our wings before we learn how to fly.

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About Dr Narjust Duma
Narjust Duma, MD, is originally from Venezuela, born of a Colombian mother and Dominican father. She completed her internal medicine residency in Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and 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 survivorship. She is the principal investigator of the Sexual Health Assessment in Women with Lung Cancer (SHAWL) Study, the largest study to date evaluating sexual dysfunction in women with lung cancer. She also has opened the first clinic in the Midwest dedicated to women with lung cancer only.

Dr Duma is a leading researcher in gender and racial discrimination in medical education and medicine. She is the recipient of the 2018 Resident of the Year Award by the National Hispanic Medical Association, the Mayo Brothers Distinguished Fellowship award, and the 2020 Rising Star award by the LEAD national conference for women in hematology and oncology. Connect with her:
Twitter: @NarjustDumaMD
Instagram: narjustdumamd

The Duma Lab, formerly known as the Social Justice League, was founded in August 2019 and focuses on social justice issues in medicine, including discrimination and gender bias in academic and clinical medicine, cancer health disparities, and medical education.

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