Overcoming Impostor Syndrome in Medical School

Sarah Patterson
Published on May 18, 2020. Updated on Sep 15, 2020.

Do you struggle with impostor syndrome? What if there was a way to take control of that nagging little voice that tells you you’re not good enough, and turn it into confidence? Osmosis Medical Education Fellow Sarah Patterson shares her experiences battling impostor syndrome, and how she was able to overcome it.

“Impostor syndrome can be defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. 'Impostors' suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that overrides any feelings of success or external proof of their competence.” - Gill Corkindale, 2008, Harvard Review 

Insidious onset

When I started my first week of medical school, I had convinced myself that I was not an impostor. I felt worthy to walk on campus, and in that sense, I was confident. I was convinced that my passion is what made me deserving of a spot in the ICOM Class of 2022. Then, the second week hit. The third week hit. My first quiz hit; I didn’t do well.

I remember walking the halls and seeing people studying intently, drawing out information on white boards and the glass walls of each study room, as if they were decoding a conspiracy. I felt like an outsider; somehow, I didn’t belong. I felt like a dull crayon in a box of sharps. There was something they knew that I didn’t. Surely everyone was a master at biochemistry except for me. It ate away at me, and I was almost convinced I couldn’t be successful. 

People started throwing around medical student jargon and listing off programs like Anki and Pathoma. For the life of me, I didn’t know what they were talking about. How did they know all this? Had I missed the memo? It was jarring. Everyone kept saying First Aid and talking about “the right way to study for boards.” Boards? I knew next to nothing about boards! How was everyone an expert? I felt left out. I felt inferior. I was part of the club, but not really.

Looking back, this was impostor syndrome. It wasn’t at all what I had expected. It was insidious. When I started using First Aid, I felt like the pages were written exclusively for MD students. I was too scared to start using UWorld because I felt like my brain wasn’t smart enough. I felt in the dark and hopeless and it seemed like there was no way to be better. 

Osmosis illustration of a student experiencing impostor syndrome.

Improving performance

My second year of medical school was bizarrely easier. A switch flipped; I was comfortable with approaching material and studying got a lot easier. I started analyzing my viewpoint and challenging my negative thoughts. I am just as good as any other medical student, because this is what I want to do. I deserve to be here because I’m a hard worker. I started reading First Aid like it was written for me (because it was!). I realized that the same students across the country are reading the resources that I am. The information opened itself up to me willingly. 

Nothing about the material changed; my state of mind did. As I began mentoring some of the new first years at school, I realized just how much I had learned in a year. It took this newfound self confidence to really start performing well. 

I realized that all the students that were throwing words around the previous year did not really know any more than I did. They were just trying to sound like experts about things they were new to. Perhaps they felt the same way I did, and were clinging to what little they did know. Sometimes impostor syndrome jabs me when I’m doing practice questions. Odd thoughts intrude like “I bet the students at Harvard or Yale are way better at this,” or, “These questions are designed for 99th percentile students.” This is not so! I am every bit as deserving to earn my medical degree. When impostor syndrome kicks in, I like to think about my future patients instead of myself. This isn’t about me. This is about providing the best care possible

Osmosis illustration of a student who has overcome impostor syndrome.

Taking a doubt and creating a surety

Looking back, I thought that I was above impostor syndrome and that it wouldn’t affect me. I wasn’t—I’m just like everyone else! The difference was a matter of self-actualization. I had to first accept the fact that I am not perfect. 

I started seeing our new on-campus counselor and talking about my self-perception. He helped me start to deal with my stress and helped me understand that I can do as well as I want. Perfection is unattainable and not advisable. Failure is inevitable and not everlasting. He pointed out my successes. Each time I went for a chunk of material and put in the extra effort, it paid off. Looking at material with a mind that says, “I will understand this, it’s just a matter of when” makes all the difference. 

It is only when I accept myself for who I am and embrace my strengths that I can begin to address and improve my weaknesses. Now I am sure that I can overcome difficult topics with extra effort. Now I know that there is nothing that I cannot learn.

Osmosis illustration of a medical school counseling session.

I won’t say there aren’t still moments when I feel like I don’t belong. However, when some of the first-years look at me and say, “Wow, you know so much!” I realize things are all about how we look at them. My response is, “I do know so much, but so will you—it takes time. It is slow, difficult and—unfortunately—painful, but it will be so worth it if you just believe in yourself.” 

When I was younger and more naive, I used to use phrases like “steady hand” when talking about surgery. Now I know those things don’t really exist. “Experienced hand” might be more appropriate, I think. No one—and I mean no one—is born a ‘gifted’ doctor. I might venture that “gifted” simply refers to a person who has gifted themselves with acceptance.  The only impostor in any given room is the shadow of self-doubt. Remember that. 

About Sarah

Sarah Patterson is an OMS-II at Idaho College of Osteopathic Medicine, and is currently participating in the Osmosis Medical Education Fellowship program. She enjoys writing, reading and playing piano when she’s not studying. She wants to pursue pediatric cardiothoracic surgery or internal medicine with a cardiology specialty. 

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