I’ve realized one of my biggest issues is a feeling of inadequacy, of being an imposter. From an outsider’s view, I’m the picture of success: I went to a top 3 Ivy league college, am currently a medical student at one of the best medical schools in the US, I have extremely kind and good-hearted friends, and I’ve been blessed with a passion and talent for music. However, I feel like any second now someone will “find me out,” and everyone will realize I am a fraud. In some sense I have always felt this way about myself: I was top of my class in high school, but all throughout felt entirely insecure in my intelligence and chalked it up solely to hard, sometimes obsessive, work ethic. I feel like ALL my successes have been due to an inordinate amount of work, not actual skill. I see others around me, especially now, who work hard, but don’t have to work nearly as hard as I do to achieve better successes. It’s frustrating because I feel like such an idiot compared to my peers. I am such a SLOW learner. It takes me a ridiculous number of repetitions to get something. My obsessiveness about learning things well has gotten me far, I guess. But, I’m realizing more and more that society, the “real world,” and especially a job as demanding as medicine, require an ability to learn quickly, and they praise a high level of common sense. I’m screwed! I truly lack both of these things. I have always been book smart, but lots of basic concepts just don’t click. I truly am an idiot.
Med school has been tough because I have to spend much more time studying than most. And I’m doing fantastic, probably top 25% of my class so far. It’s just, still, I feel stupid. I don’t understand politics, economics, things that “adults” just kind of seem to develop an understanding of at some point. Same with basic history. Totally a blur to me. I feel childish because I can never contribute to intellectual “adult” conversations about these meaningful topics. I’m not well-read- I’ve somehow just mastered the art of getting amazing grades and acing tests in school. I feel like I kind of put all my cookies in one jar, and now I’m not well-rounded.
How do I stop feeling like this all the time?Impostor Syndrome
Imposter syndrome was first identified in the 1970s. It is generally thought to be a collection of feelings of inadequacy about one’s competence that persist despite high achievements. It is common for some high achievers to fear that they are going to be “found out” as frauds and who feel as though they are not deserving of their success.
At its core, imposter syndrome is not believing the truth about one’s own abilities. It involves a discrepancy between the truth about your accomplishments and how you feel about your accomplishments. Your feelings should be in line with the truth.
Objectively, by all measures, you are a success. When you truly understand the truth, your feelings of inadequacy, your imposter syndrome, should dissipate.
Another illogical line of thinking is that you have to try harder than other people to be successful. Just because you perceive it that way doesn’t make it accurate. The only way to accurately compare yourself to your medical school peers, would be survey them about the number of hours they study and what kind of grades they receive. Without that objective information, you are guessing. And as with any survey, we have to understand that many people lie on surveys to make themselves look better, even though the survey may be anonymous.
The objective information that you do have would suggest that your study habits are superior to your peers. They study less than you and don’t do as well as you. Your efforts seemed to have paid off, resulting in your being in the top 25% of your class.
If you worked extra hard, compared to your peers, and wound up in the bottom 25% of your class, that would suggest something was wrong. But that’s not the case. You did extra work and it paid off.
Being in the top 25% of your class, excelling in school, and so forth, all require hard work. The more time you put into achieving your goals, the better you will do. That is as true for you as it is for anyone else. If you spent less time studying, then you would not do as well.
At the core of your thinking is the idea that you are not as intelligent as other people because you don’t seem to have some innate ability that you perceive other people as having. The skills learned in medical school are not innate. Everyone who wants to be a doctor has to go to medical school.
There is a myth that individuals who are good at something are born with certain talents but closer inspection shows that preparation and practice have much more to do with one’s success than an innate talent. Malcolm Gladwell wrote about this very topic in his book, Outliers: The Story of Success. He found that how hard one works is often the determining factor between who makes it and who doesn’t. “Working really hard is what successful people do.”
It’s important to assess ourselves and our abilities as accurately as possible. That’s what psychologically healthy people do. You must commit yourself to believing in the truth as it is, not how you desire or fear it to be. It would be the best way to eliminate the discrepancy between your success and how you feel about your success.
If this continues to be a problem, consider cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is especially effective at targeting and correcting illogical self-perceptions. You might also try reading about imposter syndrome, particularly among medical school students. It seems to be that because medical school is highly competitive, anxiety about one’s abilities is common.
I would also like to add that you mention your musical talent. I would suggest that you become familiar with right brain dominance. Do your friends who are so politically oriented have the same ease of familiarity with the arts? Are they as creative, as sensitive as you?
Please take care.
Dr. Kristina Randle