Looking at the (Wo)Man in the Mirror: How to Confront Imposter Syndrome

“In a few months people will be calling you “Doctor”.  It’s important that you become a drug information expert.  I remember the exact moment that I heard this statement.  I was in one of the final courses in my Doctor of Pharmacy degree program, and my toxicology professor stressed the importance of being a pharmacist, and ultimately an integral member of the healthcare team.  In this moment, that was a few weeks before my graduation from the program, I should have been elated by this statement.  I should have been excited that I had gone through these years of education and had been equipped with these tools for success.  Instead, I was filled with the most anxiety that I had ever experienced.  I thought to myself, “I’m a fraud, I don’t know anything.  There’s no way that I will be able to answer the questions that I’ll be asked.”  Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time that I have felt this way, nor would it be the last.  As I’ve matriculated through training, and am preparing to enter the academic realm, I have been able to identify exactly what this feeling is.  This feeling of doubt, feeling as though I don’t deserve my job nor accomplishments is none other than “impostor syndrome” commonly referred to as the impostor phenomenon.

Impostor Syndrome is said to be experienced by more than 70% of individuals at any point during their lives.  In those individuals that have experienced impostor syndrome the following characteristics have been defined.

  • They are typically women, and most often Black Women.
  • They are habitually individuals that set incredibly high expectations for themselves, also known as “perfectionist.” Often the slightest mistake drives them to question their competence.
  • They are “Experts” or individuals with a specialized skillset.  These individuals often feel the need to pursue more certifications or trainings to solidify their skills.  Additionally, experts often refrain from being vocal in settings that could be positively impacted by their expertise, due to the fear of falling short.
  • They are individuals that are a part of a minority group.  Interestingly, minority groups are 50% more likely to suffer from impostor syndrome.

What does Impostor Syndrome look like?

The answer to this question, is that impostor syndrome looks very different for each and every individual.  However more often, especially in my case, impostor syndrome can look like one of two things; procrastination or over-working.  During my residency year, I was tasked with completing a continuing education presentation and the presentation sent me into a tailspin of self-doubt.  Instead of being encouraged, and adequately preparing for the presentation, I procrastinated.  I was filled with so much self-doubt that I was paralyzed by fear; the fear that I could not deliver a quality presentation or in the midst of giving the presentation I was fearful that I would deliver misinformation, therefore revealing a gap in my knowledge of the topic.  Completely opposing the procrastination that I experienced during residency, as I have progressed through specialized training, I have begun to identify habits of over-working.  The fear of being a specialist and not being able to answer pertinent questions often forces me into a place where I tend to over study, and completely envelope myself in my specialty information.  This often results in me having a complete lack in “work-life” balance and experiencing very severe burn out.

How to overcome impostor syndrome?

The first step in overcoming impostor syndrome, is acknowledging that it exists and that while it is normal to experience, it is possible to overcome the impostor mindset.  Methods for overcoming impostor feelings include:

  1. Posting Positive Affirmations – Irrespective of momentary doubts, you’ve completed a doctoral degree program, you are equipped, and you are worthy of rising to each and every challenge.  Having a few positive words to reaffirm this is always helpful.
  2. Learning to evaluate constructive criticism – As a professional there will often be times where you are given criticism.  It is important to remember that the better you become at a particular task, the more of an asset you become to the healthcare team.  Use the criticism to discern where you can build rather than allowing for it to stifle your growth.
  3. Share your feelings with trusted mentors, a therapist, or friends and family members – It is helpful to confide in individuals, that are invested in your best interest, about what you’re feeling.  These individuals will be able to reinforce that your thoughts are not foreign, and they can provide you with the necessary encouragement.

Impostor Syndrome is normal, especially amongst minority groups (distinguished by race and/ or gender) in STEM fields.  The major key to overcoming these moments of doubt is to not allow them to overpower nor limit your success.  You are worthy, and you are destined for success.

By: Jacinda Abdul-Mutakabbir PharmD, MPH, AAHIVP

Image: https://www.mortgagefinancegazette.com/features/impostor-syndrome-impacts-success-life-04-05-2020/

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