Imposter syndrome, also known as imposter phenomenon, is a common behavioural psychological occurrence estimated to affect one-third of young people, and 70% of the population are likely to experience it at some point in their lives. It also disproportionately affects high-achieving individuals, particularly those in medicine and healthcare.
Affected individuals may find themselves struggling to accept their successes, and may fear being exposed as a fraud. Interestingly, imposter phenomenon was first described in 1978 by psychologists Clance and Imes, who documented the phenomenon among high-achieving professional women.
It is important to note that imposter phenomenon is more of a cultural concept rather than a medical diagnosis. Despite this, the overwhelming prevalence and impact of imposter phenomenon on individuals and their mental health renders it a crucial topic to explore.
I’m Kiran and as I approach my fourth year of medical school here in the UK, I would like to share my experience of imposter phenomenon and include some thoughts from my peers.
A series of unfortunate events
As previously mentioned, imposter phenomenon is highly prevalent in the healthcare profession. And thus, as a medical student, I am no stranger to it. However, I believe that the disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic have greatly worsened many students’ experiences of imposter phenomenon.
In January 2021, when I was in my final year of sixth form, former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the cancellation of GCSE and A-Level examinations, along with the indefinite closure of schools. Two years of late-night studying and endless coffee suddenly felt tragically redundant. After lots of uncertainty and speculation, it was agreed that A-level results would be decided by our teachers.
This initiated the beginnings of my imposter phenomenon. Ultimately, I do not feel that the A-level results written proudly on my CV were earned. Perhaps I would have achieved those results, but perhaps not. Unfortunately, I will never know as my year group were robbed of the opportunity to prove ourselves academically. Given that A-levels are crucial in determining admittance to university, these "fake" A-level results have amplified my feelings of being an imposter
It felt strange arriving at university having not sat any physical A-level examinations. Many of my peers muttered that they may not have even made it to university if not for Covid-19, as they doubted their academic capability with no way of proving their competence, and I certainly related.
Furthermore, our subsequent formative university years were largely online with no face-to-face examinations. Feelings of adequacy and success arise from positive reinforcements and formal recognition of accomplishments. The absence of in-person examinations and face-to-face interactions therefore led to a significant lack of academic validation, magnifying my sense of imposter phenomenon.
A word from my peers
I wanted to ask my peers about their experience of imposter phenomenon to capture the impact of the pandemic. I carried out in-person interviews, and sent open-ended questions to a handful of medical students. Here are some of their thoughts.
For Kate, a 4th year medical student, her struggles began in medical school. She stated that, "there have been many times when I have felt out of place and inferior to my peers, despite generally performing well in examinations." Kate also wrote about the difficulty of, "being surrounded by so many intelligent individuals" and commented on how this made her feel inadequate, causing her to doubt her competence as a medical student.
I also spoke with two 4th year medical students who had experienced imposter syndrome since the pandemic. Echoing my own insecurity, one of them stated that due to never sitting A-level examinations, he wonders if he, "would be in medical school, or any university for that matter, if not for the pandemic." The other student spoke about the negative impact of online teaching, stating that, "because of the pandemic, my former years of university were severely lacking praise due to no face-to-face interactions", and emphasised how this severely affected his academic confidence.
I finally spoke with James, a final year medical student, who gave an enlightened perspective about how he has managed to overcome his imposter syndrome. He implied that being open about imposter phenomenon is vital, stating that, "recognising that it is a common and shared experience makes it a lot easier to stomach."
Tackling imposter phenomenon
Imposter phenomenon affects everybody differently, exemplified by a previous blog focussing on "Imposter Dad" syndrome. Considering the prevalence and overwhelming nature of imposter phenomenon, I thought I would conclude by suggesting some ideas on how young people can try to tackle imposter phenomenon.
Young individuals, particularly students, often tend to downplay achievements as we feel that we do not know everything. But it is okay to not know everything, and celebrating successes is critical in helping to internalise accomplishments and diminish feelings of self-doubt. This is stated neatly by Valerie Young, an internationally renowned expert on imposter syndrome and co-founder of "The Imposter Syndrome Institute" who stated that "everyone loses when bright people play small." Furthermore, as medical student James stated, talking to others and sharing feelings may help to reduce feelings of isolation and encourage healthy discussions about one’s self worth. Maryam, the Founder of Neurominded, previously wrote an informative article on overcoming imposter syndrome which I would reccommend reading too.
Fundamentally, it is important to note that whilst individuals have a role to play in overcoming their own imposter phenomenon, there are wider systems that play a crucial role. It has been found that imposter phenomenon is particularly prevalent amongst under-represented individuals, such as BIPOC (black, indigenous, and other people of colour) working or studying in a predominantly white environment. A lack of representation could be causing BIPOC people to feel as though they do not belong, but it has also been suggested that BIPOC can even feel as though their success is a product of affirmative action. Hence, changes in diversity and inclusion are essential to help tackle imposter phenomenon on a systemic level.
Finally, it is possible that imposter phenomenon may have to be accepted throughout certain changes in life, such as a career shift. It is important to recognise that whilst feelings of being an imposter may arise, developing strategies to work through them and not letting them interfere with overall well-being is key.