Four Methods to Chip Away at Imposter Syndrome and Reclaim Your Authentic Self

Lorenzo Norris, MD


October 21, 2022

Regardless of the setting, one of the most frequently discussed topics in healthcare is imposter syndrome.

Imposter syndrome was first defined by Clance and Imes as an inability to internalize success, and the tendency to attribute success to external causes such as luck, error, or knowing the appropriate individual. This definition is essential because most healthcare professionals have had a sense of doubt or questioned the full extent of their competencies in various situations. I would argue that this is normal and — within reason — helpful to the practice of medicine. The problem with true imposter syndrome is that the individual does not incorporate success in a way that builds healthy self-esteem and self-efficacy.  

Imposter syndrome has a very nasty way of interacting with burnout. Studies have shown that imposter syndrome can be associated with high levels of emotional exhaustion at work. In my experience, this makes clinical sense. Professionals suffering from imposter syndrome can spend a great deal of time and energy trying to maintain a particular image. They are acting a part 24/7. Have you ever seriously tried to act? It's arduous work. A friend once asked me to read a role for a play because "you'd be great; you're a natural." By the time I was done with rehearsal, I felt like I had run a 4 × 400 meter relay, by myself, in Victoria, Texas.

And any talk of imposter syndrome must include its running mate, perfectionism. These two conditions exist together so commonly it can be a bit of a chicken or egg question as to which came first.

Imposter syndrome, perfectionism, and burnout can form a deadly triad if not recognized and addressed quickly. In medicine, perfectionism can be a coping strategy that sets up unrelenting standards. Failure to meet unrelenting standards then serves as fuel and validation for imposter syndrome and emotional exhaustion. The consequences of this cycle going unchecked over a healthcare professional's career are seismic and can include downstream effects ranging from depression to suicide.

Some readers will relate to this, while others will shrug their shoulders and say that this has never happened in their professional life. I get it. However, I would now ask if you have ever felt like an imposter in your personal life. I'll make a cup of tea and wait for you to figure out precisely what is the boundary between your personal and professional life. Okay, all done? Great. Now I'll give you some more time to sincerely reflect if any of the traits of imposter syndrome have described you at times in your personal life. Hmmm, interesting to think about, isn't it?

I believe that healthcare professionals frequently use one credit card to pay off another, but the debt remains the same. So even if things are going well at work, we may have just shifted the debt to our personal lives. (At some point in the future, I'll share my 10 greatest father fails to date to elucidate my point.)

In my work at the GW Resiliency and Well-Being Center, I've gravitated toward a few methods supported by evidence that help alleviate imposter syndrome symptoms and potentially serve as protective factors against the future development of imposter syndrome. These include but are not limited to:

  • Keep a record of small personal success that is yours alone.

  • Have a mentor to share failures with.

  • Use personal reflection to examine what it means to successfully reach your goals and fulfill your purpose, not a relative value unit target.

  • Share experiences with each other, so you know you're not alone.

The last method is one of my favorites because it involves connecting to others and shining a light on our shared experiences and, coincidentally, our collective strengths. Once this collective strength is realized, the circumstances of that 4 x 400 meter relay change drastically. Be safe and well, everyone.

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About Dr Lorenzo Norris
Lorenzo Norris, MD, currently serves as chief wellness officer for the George Washington University Medical Enterprise and serves as associate dean of student affairs and administration for George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences.
Lorenzo is an avid sports fan and previous fantasy basketball champion of the GWU Department of Psychiatry. He is also a die-hard comic book aficionado and has been collecting since he was 5 years old.
Connect with him on Twitter: @lnorrismd


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