Skip to content

Self doubt and imposter syndrome

SHARE VIA:

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on whatsapp

Personal Story (Huw)

It was a cold winter evening, hundreds of miles from home and I was devastated.

I’d just bombed it.

The sub-speciality interview I’d waited my entire career for… and it had totally bombed. The guilt was the first thing that hit me – my family had sacrificed so much for me to get to this point, and it was all for nothing. I’d spent days reading, thousands of pounds on courses, and travelling to international conferences and spent the last six weeks thousands of miles away from my ever-supportive wife and young daughter, due to the sad passing of my father-in-law. Nothing could make up for the time missed with them. Or with him.

Then, the self-doubt kicked in. Was I ever any good at this? I’d read all the books, I’d spent years studying ventilators, cardiac conditions, use of inotropes, how CVVH works, even how ECMO works and did anybody even notice? To quote one consultant “Maybe I should just do something else?

It was the darkest point of my career. I didn’t know where to go from here. I was lost. It was my wife who, despite being emotionally drained from what she had just gone through, picked me back up again. She encouraged me to speak to Ian Sinha, a respiratory consultant, who had approached me out of the blue to offer his help (despite having never worked for him) with my application form and interview preparation. He read through my application the week before submission, despite being on holiday with his family at Disneyland – what a human being!

Other people helped me who also didn’t need to – the Liverpool Women’s neonatal consultants set up an interview panel for me. Consultants at Alder Hey spent afternoons and evenings firing questions at me. Their kindness ultimately got me my sub-speciality job. It will never be forgotten.

Personal Story (Siew Yee)

When working in tertiary neonatal intensive care, and providing care to the sickest neonates in the region, small details are important. It is impossible to predict what you will have to deal with on any given day. Will it be a delivery of a 24-week extreme preterm infant or a baby with congenital heart disease or a critically unwell baby transferred from a district hospital? The constant beeping from all the infusion pumps set up by the extremely dedicated nursing team and intermittent alarms from the monitoring screen seem to have been part of my life over the past six months.

Feeling emotionally and physically drained from a 12-hour on-call shift is common for most junior doctors, but this shift had left a big impact on me.

It was late and I was reviewing a baby. They were just a couple of days old and had been born prematurely. They weighed just over 600g – just a little bit more than a loaf of bread. He’d had a rocky start. His mother was very poorly in adult intensive care, but this tiny human had the will to fight and she had been stable over the past couple of days. The nurses told me that evening that he had not quite been himself. He had been very quiet and had become very twitchy. When I got close to the incubator a sense of foreboding overcame me – he was having subtle seizures. I felt his fontanelle – it was big and tense.

I contacted the on-call consultant and the nursing team was quick to draw up the anti-epileptics. I quickly wheeled over the ultrasound machine to do a bedside scan of his head. I showed the images to the consultant and neonatal team – we all had a deep sigh and had the same thoughts at the back of our minds. The little one had a large intraventricular haemorrhage with dilated ventricles.

The first thing that struck me was, had I missed something? Did I not act quick enough? Was the child on the right antibiotics? The sense of guilt and self-doubt quickly drowned my mind. When we handed over care to the day team, I was not emotionally ready to leave the unit. Everything had become uncertain to me. Will this little one ever get to meet her mother? Will he get to live a normal life? Is he still in pain? Had I done everything I should have done?

As a junior doctor, there isn’t a single day where I don’t question if I have done enough for my patients. If I’ve selected the right medication or if this is the right conversation to have with their family?

A very kind and intelligent consultant reassured me that all these uncertainties and feelings of self-doubt prevent us from making silly mistakes. We would have considered every option available.

Discussion

Imposter syndrome – the fear of being exposed as a fraud as expectations and responsibility increase – is common in medicine. It is experienced by up to 70% of the general population at some point in their career. It was originally described in high achieving females in 1976 by Clance and Imes, but it is now clear that people from all genders and backgrounds are affected.

It should come as no surprise that imposter syndrome is common in medicine. As junior doctors we have to move through rotations in different specialities, being asked difficult questions by seniors, being expected to suddenly become adept at performing procedures and managing wildly different patients. The luxury of feeling settled in your place of work is one that is rarely afforded. Doctors and nurses are trained to look at things with a negative mindset to identify when something is going to go wrong with a patient. When you combine these two, it would seem that imposter syndrome is the natural consequence of combining our training and the environment in which we are employed. If you identify something which you perceive as negative (about yourself), you treat it like a disease. You analyse it, reanalyse it, and then aim to correct it, often by working longer hours and studying harder than you think other people are doing because you believe that those others seem to be doing just fine. All of this occurs at the expense of your own mental health.

There will be points within the system when the pressure we put on ourselves will become heavier and heavier. About to step up a level (eg SHO to registrar, registrar to consultant)? The natural mindset, at this point in time, is that this next level must know everything about everything. Sometimes, depending on the people you work with, it can be a long time before you find out that this isn’t true. The honesty and openness with which your seniors approach their relationship with you will either build or shatter this illusion.

Departmental culture is crucial in the development of imposter syndrome. How we treat each other, and our work has a profound effect on how we value ourselves. Studies involving medical students show that negative interpersonal interactions commonly trigger a shame response.  Poor mentorship, pimping (asking a question and then saying “oh, you should feel shameful because all doctors know that question”) and derogatory talk with supervisors and peers are all common triggers.

The relationship between how you see yourself and how you see your environment also contributes to the feelings of shame, self-doubt and imposter syndrome. People from underrepresented minorities and genders are more likely to feel Imposter syndrome. When people don’t see people who look like themselves doubt creeps in as to where they fit into the system. It’s easier to see your place in the system if people look like you do.

And what is achieved by all of this? A degree of self-doubt is essential in medicine. You have to be open to questions about your motives and methods. When you lose the safety mechanism of open discussion with your colleagues (junior or senior) and the use of the hive mind, arrogance can set in. It becomes only a matter of time before a patient suffers because you did not promote an open atmosphere where anyone could raise their concerns. Someone knew what was wrong with the patient but did not or could not speak up.

There are also times when this self-doubt becomes too much. The time you spend over-working, over-studying and failing to recognise the success you achieve will ultimately lead to increased levels of stress, burnout and decreased job satisfaction and performance over time. If you are working so hard that you’re not performing your job effectively, what was the point of overworking in the first place?

In order to properly address this, we have to look at what can be done to help ourselves, help each other and what institutions can do to improve the culture around self-doubt within the workplace.

Helping Yourself

It is important to recognise your own feelings of self-doubt and know that no matter how it may appear they are common.

Try to find people around you who you can confide in who will provide you with realistic and objective feedback.

Make sure that you acknowledge your achievements and, in times of weakness, focus on these.

Helping Others

Supporting your colleagues is crucial

Educate others about imposter syndrome

Recognise when others may be going through imposter syndrome

Celebrate achievements of colleagues

Institutions

Prevention is ultimately better than cure. We need to create an environment where people can discuss their feelings openly, and feel no shame. Senior clinicians need to be honest with juniors about their own struggles around confidence and self-doubt. It’s our job to let junior staff know about the times we have struggled, and that they aren’t alone and that we will support them.

How we support junior colleagues is critically important too. We need to get rid of old-school practices in juniors and medical students. It’s not uncommon for more introspective junior colleagues to lack confidence. Studies show that by setting them a bunch of things to do/read/study you are not helping – you are actually driving them to poorer job performance and lower job satisfaction. Support them, take your time with them and (poorest done in all of medicine) praise them when they do a good job. Write to their supervisor, write fantastic feedback forms for them, tell your colleagues, in front of them, about the great things they’ve achieved.  

“Pimping” and shame promoting behaviours should be a thing of the past. Shaming does nothing for their learning and creates a lot of negative mental health issues. We need to support colleagues who make errors and stop belittling people for their knowledge base   

It, ultimately, falls on institutions to change their practices. It should not fall to junior doctors and nurses to become more “resilient”. If an environment is toxic, it is the environment that needs fixing, not the individual.  Hospitals and departments need to reflect the makeup of society with people of differing genders, ethnic groups and backgrounds. Ultimately everyone should feel that they belong.

Dedication

Huw: To Prof Ian Sinha, Prof Lyvonne Tume and Dr Costas Kanaris, three people who never faded in their support for me. Even as my situation grew dark, their encouragement shined bright.

References

Bhama AR, Ritz EM, Anand RJ, Auyang ED, Lipman J, Greenberg JA, Kapadia MR. Imposter Syndrome in Surgical Trainees: Clance Imposter Phenomenon Scale Assessment in General Surgery Residents. Journal of the American College of Surgeons. 2021 Nov 1;233(5):633-8.

Bynum IV WE, Varpio L, Lagoo J, Teunissen PW. ‘I’m unworthy of being in this space’: The origins of shame in medical students. Medical Education. 2021 Feb;55(2):185-97.

Clance PR, Imes SA. The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, research & practice. 1978;15(3):241.

Freeman J, Peisah C. Imposter syndrome in doctors beyond training: a narrative review. Australasian Psychiatry. 2021 Aug 31:10398562211036121.

Khan M. Imposter syndrome—a particular problem for medical students. BMJ. 2021 Dec 9;375.

Lazarus, Arthur, MBA,C.P.E., D.F.A.A.P.L. (2021). Impact of imposter syndrome on physicians’ practice and leadership development. The Journal of Medical Practice Management : MPM, 37(1), 367-372.

Sakulku J. The impostor phenomenon. The Journal of Behavioural Science. 2011;6(1):75-97.

About the authors

  • Huw is a Paediatric Intensive Care Registrar at Alder Hey Childrens Hospital in Liverpool. He/Him.

  • Neonatal Intensive Care, Liverpool Womens Hospital.

KEEP READING

High flow therapy – when and how?

Chest compressions in traumatic cardiac arrest

Searching for sepsis

The missing link? Children and transmission of SARS-CoV-2

Don’t Forget the Brain Busters – Round 2

An evidence summary of Paediatric COVID-19 literature

Urticaria

The fidget spinner craze – the good, the bad and the ugly

Parenteral Nutrition

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

DFTB WORLD

EXPLORE BY TOPIC

We use cookies to give you the best online experience and enable us to deliver the DFTB content you want to see. For more information, read our full privacy policy here.
[cmplz-manage-consent]