How to overcome impostor syndrome and live with confidence​

By Dr. Murray Erlich

Doctors in surgery

Establishing oneself as a medical professional is a feat requiring incredible fortitude and sacrifice, not to mention years of study and development.


But what happens when that goal is achieved and it doesn’t feel the way you expected it to? 


Medical professionals often speak about the pressures experienced along the road to career fulfilment, perceived from their families, friends, peers, and most often applied by themselves. It’s a heavy weight to carry and it can be challenging to ever relieve oneself of it, even after the objective success of completing medical school and beginning a career.


Those pressures can manifest in myriad ways, one of the most common being impostor syndrome.


What is impostor syndrome?

impostor syndrome is a psychological pattern of doubting one’s capabilities. Despite achieving the necessary requirements for a job and receiving external validation, an individual will continue to question their abilities and qualifications and fear being exposed as a fraud. They are plagued by self-doubt and fears of inadequacy.


Common behaviours of someone experiencing impostor syndrome include avoiding new opportunities, downplaying achievements, overpreparing for tasks they’re experienced with, or even self-sabotage to preempt the failure they feel destined for.


While it is not a recognized psychiatric disorder, the experience of impostor syndrome should be taken seriously. The feelings most often associated with impostor syndrome include anxiety, depression, dissatisfaction, and burnout. And the impact it can have on a person’s life and potential can be debilitating.

Why is impostor syndrome common in the medical profession?

Rates of impostor syndrome are high in the medical profession, in part because of the incredibly high requirements to enter the field, and then of course the ensuing pressures of the job. A study in the journal Medical Education found that cases of impostor syndrome can begin in medical school and may follow people well into their established careers, with cases ranging from 22% to 60% among physicians in training and practice.


In trying to understand why impostor syndrome is so common in the medical field, the International Journal of Medical Education pointed to these common risk factors:


  • The competition to enter medical school

  • The hierarchy within medical education and the effects of medical culture

  • Unrealistic expectations of oneself by medical students

  • Unrealistic expectations of medical professionals from society


As society tends to place a career in medicine on a pedestal, it can be hard to ever truly feel deserving of the position and responsibilities, and so it’s common for medical professionals to adopt a drive for perfection. But this comes with many pitfalls. For one thing, each day in the profession brings new challenges, so professionals are continually chasing perfection with each new case. It’s a relentless cycle.


With so many highly intelligent peers in the field, comparison is common among medical professionals, which can lead to feelings of inadequacy and self doubt. The trouble is, these feelings, while completely normal, are hard for medical professionals to express. They don’t like to show vulnerability, so any feelings denoting weakness are pushed aside and a facade of strength and confidence is upheld. And because almost everyone around them is playing the same game, it’s even harder to find the confidence to break through the stigma and speak honestly.


Medical professionals are humans, prone to all of the normal feelings of humans. Society must begin to recognize that a medical professional who feels weak or insecure can still be exceptional in their career. Only then can we begin to create a field where these professionals can speak openly about their feelings, and seek the help they need to feel at peace within themselves.

What does it mean if you’re experiencing impostor syndrome?

Many medical professionals take impostor syndrome as a sign of weakness and an indication that they don’t “have what it takes” to make it in the field. 


This is untrue.


impostor syndrome is most common in high achievers, who have in fact earned the necessary credentials and approvals to qualify for their roles. 


impostor syndrome has often been linked to negative mental health, such as anxiety and depression, which is why it’s critical to seek help if you believe yourself to be experiencing it. 


When untreated, self-limiting thoughts can lead to self-limiting actions.

Methods for overcoming impostor syndrome


The desire to overcome impostor syndrome is incredibly admirable–it demonstrates a recognition that the outlook is not only unhealthy and challenging, it’s also inhibiting growth and happiness–something everyone is deserving of. 


There are many ways to overcome impostor syndrome but the right method will depend on the individual and the severity of their situation.

Seek constructive criticism

If you’re questioning your performance in your job, ask your colleagues for constructive feedback. Accept their guidance, develop areas they’ve outlined for you, and recognize the growth you achieve.

Internalize praise

When praise is given, believe it. Acknowledge the authority of the person recognizing you, and remind yourself of why you deserve it.


Practice self reflection

When thoughts of impostor syndrome rise up, it can help to reflect on situations where you did succeed and felt confident in your position. Self talk can be an important component of this as well. Repeating phrases confirming one’s education, experience, and skills can help to calm fears and affirm one’s ability.

Tune out the “shoulds”

When all we hear is “we should have this,” or “we should do that,” it can be hard to feel proud of our accomplishments that fall outside of those societal standards. Ignore the “shoulds” and instead focus on what feels right to you,

Define success and failure

Putting pen to paper and writing out what success looks like, and what failure looks like, can help frame where in fact you fall between the two. 


While all of the above methods can be helpful for overcoming impostor syndrome, adopting these on your own can be challenging. This is where coaching can be a powerful tool. With regular coaching sessions, you can benefit from the guidance of a professional who will teach you the tools to overcome impostor syndrome and hold you accountable to using them. Having a support person who helps you commit to meeting your goals, helps prevent you from falling back into old thought patterns and behaviours, and offers ongoing encouragement, helps ensure that you do overcome impostor syndrome.


Life beyond impostor syndrome

Overcoming impostor syndrome is a process, especially as people continue to grow and develop their careers, but it can be managed. In new environments, with new pressures and surrounded by new people, it’s common for familiar feelings of impostor syndrome to return. But with the right tools, they won’t be allowed to take hold. 


The true benefit of coaching is the lasting tools an individual will always have at their disposal, to draw on no matter where they are and what they’re facing. Thanks to the tools learned in coaching, they’ll know what to do to alleviate feelings of impostor syndrome creeping in and know without a doubt the strength they carry within them.