Career & Life Advice

Recognising And Overcoming Imposter Syndrome As A Doctor

Monday, 6 May, 2024

Putting The Inner Critic On Mute!

Do you have an Inner Critic always circling your thoughts? You know the one. It’s that internal voice, at the back of our brains, sharing “insights” that just aren’t true. A little niggly voice that’s unhelpful at best and harmful at worst. It’s the feeling that everyone around you knows more than you do, that everything you’ve achieved is down to good luck and not something you deserve.

Right off the bat let’s address this for what it is. It’s your Inner Critic, sometimes known as Imposter Syndrome, and while the feelings are real they’re definitely not based in reality.

It’s very common in doctors – and while it’s sometimes a lifetime habit, once we recognise what’s happening we can overcome it! Let’s explore this phenomenon and address some helpful ways to put that voice on mute, once and for all.

Why do we experience Imposter Syndrome?

Why would a competent, capable doctor doubt their own ability? You’ve worked incredibly hard to get where you are and yet, there’s that little voice again! You’re not alone – it’s incredibly common in medicine and many doctors struggle at some point with managing it. 

Other than being downright annoying it can also be harmful and detrimental to our mental health. The Inner Critic contributes to the false sense that you don’t deserve to be where you are, often when you’re stepping up into a more senior role and advancing your career. 

One of the reasons it’s so widespread in medicine is that it’s associated with being a high achiever or a perfectionist. It’s also more common in those who work in competitive or highly stressful occupations, and in those whose families place a high value on achievement and success. Sound familiar?! It’s no wonder it hits us hard!

What does the Inner Critic look like?

Or more accurately, what does it sound like? In performance psychology circles it’s often described as a pattern of internalised, destructive thoughts that undermine positive experiences as well as invalidate an existing state of being. In real-world terms, it’s that nagging voice in your head making you question your decisions. It’s dreading that people are going to find out that you don’t know as much as you should. It’s feeling positive that every other intern (or registrar or consultant) has it all together while you’re constantly doubting yourself.

It shows up in lots of subtle ways and, somewhat cruelly, everyone feels like they’re the only one with this voice in their ear, amplifying their worst fears about themselves as people and as doctors.

Let me reassure you that it is, in fact, incredibly common. It’s estimated that up to 97% of medical students and doctors experience this at some point in time! Particularly at risk are doctors who feel different in some way from their peers, based on ethnicity, gender, sexuality or age. Some studies suggest it’s more common in women but men certainly experience it too, although cultural expectations mean that they probably express it differently (or not at all!).

How to overcome imposter syndrome

So, how do we deal with this outwardly quiet, inwardly loud epidemic? What can we do with that insistent voice that leaves doctors questioning their abilities and their knowledge?

  1. Recognise your thoughts

The first step – recognise that these thoughts exist. It’s easy to get used to that voice in your head, so much so that you’ve stopped acknowledging it altogether, let alone recognising that you can do something about it. 

Once you’ve realised that these thoughts aren’t based in reality, and don’t have to rule your life, you can make change. It’s important at this point to be realistic – these are thinking habits of a lifetime, so they won’t go away overnight. 

  1. Acknowledge that it’s not based in reality

While these feelings are real, they’re classed as internalised dialogue, not auditory hallucinations. They’re not based in reality. 

Sure, you’re not perfect but guess what – nobody is. Those doctors who you’re sure have it all together could be in that 97%, struggling with their sense of self and their own inner critic. 

I work with lots of doctors who struggle to accept their amazing accomplishments and it’s so important that we have open conversations about it. I find that realising just how many people around you have their own internal mean voice is incredibly reassuring.

  1. Look at your achievements

I start all my coaching by talking about achievements – what are you proud of? What are your strengths? What have you actually accomplished? Write these down and reflect on your hard work!

As you recognise and become more aware of your Inner Critic, and how often those thoughts rise up, go back to those achievements. You can demonstrate to yourself that your inner dialogue isn’t based on fact.

It can be helpful to write down your critical thoughts when they come up, and then compare them to your achievement list. Do they line up? My bet is no, they don’t, and your achievements come out on top!

  1. Acknowledge you deserve your success!

You’ve got to where you are – and achieved what you have – through your incredible ability and hard work.

You absolutely deserve your success!

Give yourself a healthy dose of self-compassion. Be kind to yourself and ditch those unrealistic expectations. My favourite tip is to try to talk to yourself as you would to a good friend. You’ll find that this helps switch your Inner Critic to an inner cheerleader (and voice of reason!). 

Mindfulness can be an incredibly helpful and powerful tool at this point. Work on developing the ability to check in with yourself about what’s going on in your head, and then witnessing it as an observer rather than buying into it.

Read more: What’s your definition of success?

  1. Find a cheering squad!

Having external validation, a cheer squad, is invaluable when you need a pep talk! Surround yourself with peers, colleagues and mentors. Look for people who understand the challenges of a medical career, the hard work that goes into it, and the somewhat inevitable pressure we put on ourselves. 

I’ve created The Bigger Picture to give women in medicine exactly that! It’s the safe space you need to explore your Inner Critic, and where you can challenge yourself to think differently. A supportive environment where you meet like-minded women doctors with a heart for connection. 

The next round of The Bigger Picture starts in June, and over 6 weeks I’ll be sharing my expertise, resources, tools, and knowledge to help you align your professional goals with your personal values. 

Move forward with confidence, knowing that your life as a doctor can go the way you want it to! 

[The Bigger Picture: Find out more]

If you want to read more about discovering the next step in your career I’ve created several articles to help you make an informed choice. Start here: Find A Career and Life You Love | A Collection Of Resources for Medical Careers


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