I was an imposter for the first 40 years of my life.
That may seem like quite the outlandish statement to make, but hear me out because it’s true.
But first, a definition, thanks to Harvard Business Review.
“Imposter syndrome can be defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. ‘Imposters’ suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence.”
With the definition now behind us, let’s get back to the subject at hand. I struggled with this syndrome for a large chunk of my life. Though we typically think of it as manifesting in adulthood, I stand firm that symptoms began to smolder in my youth, as it does with many of us – the Impending Imposters.
Here’s what I realized, looking back on my own journey through the time-consuming, mentally-challenging, physically-arduous pathways of schooling necessary to become a physician: that I lived through an Imposter Syndrome Paradox. I define it as paradoxical because it defies common sense – the higher we climb up the educational ladder – earning higher degrees – the more we feel like Imposters. Somehow, earning the rights to become an authority ironically makes us feel undeserving of being in that authoritative role in the first place!
It’s one of those modern-day catch-22’s of success.
Allow me to illustrate with an image, below.
The Imposter in Me: My Story.
Elementary school, for me, meant joining the ranks late, a fresh immigrant with a burning desire to make friends. In reality, I was a timid and polite freckle-faced schoolgirl, standing in the corner; on the outside looking in.
At the time, I felt first hand the power that language barriers and cultural differences – the lemons I was handed in life – have, in sparking Imposter Syndrome. Being an implant, however, was merely a risk factor, and not a pre-requisite.
Social awkwardness stayed with me through the span of middle and high school (many of you may be nodding in agreement here), where the combination of academic drive and the natural state of gawky teenagehood turns many of us into introverted extroverts – those who have aptitude for extroversion, but withhold it from the world because of this very syndrome.
I still remember scenes from that time like they were yesterday – every day, at lunchtime, hoping to camouflage myself into whichever group I naturally fused into, giving my all to smoothing down unruly hair and nonchalantly unwrapping (cringe-worthy) paper-towel-lined homemade sandwiches. They won’t notice if I blend in, I hoped.
The syndrome followed me into college, where I struggled, away from the only home I knew. It was of no help that, away from the rules and regulations my parents had set to keep my future on track, I rebelled, only to then naturally fumble from the weight of my rebellion’s consequences. I never wavered this way before – especially in the way of academics – and I tried to recover, but the road ahead of me was steep. It felt like I was drowning; surrounded by a tumultuous sea of talented peers.
Then came medical school, which – surprise! – the Imposter got accepted into.
While this period typically left behind nothing but a hazy fog in the sulci of physician memory banks everywhere, a few vivid images still remained imprinted in my own (highlighted in the same yellow neon used to mark our heavy medical textbooks). Stay tuned for a medical school experience article, for more.
During those days, we existed, but only in the eyes of our peers. Looking back, nothing said Imposter more than our medical student selves, struggling to end the day in a single emotional piece, holding tightly together (with all of our might) the shards of our spiritual well-being.
Already in a brittle state, my Imposter Syndrome naturally worsened.
Next came residency training, where we finally made decisions but were, in reality, horrified to make them. Patient lives were in our hands, and the heavy weight of that statement wasn’t ever lost on anyone.
I remember the first time I was in charge of a ‘code’ – the moment a patient died – realizing that the only potential antidote to this state was.. well, me. The responsibility of that was simply indescribable. To grapple with potential finality – death itself beckoning in its victim – as you thumped on his chest, pleading him to stay, then feeling the lowest of lows as you ‘pronounced’ defeat.
If you weren’t an Imposter before, you were clearly one now. More than ever.
After training, you’re out in the real world, fending for yourself, Imposter Syndrome at an all-time high. You move through the motions, hoping – praying – that no one finds you out. De ja vu – and you’re back in grade school, except the cringe-worthy sandwich and unruly hair are replaced with stethoscope and long, white coat.
Such was my life, summed up in a few thrilling statements, in the years leading up to this moment.
Turning the Corner.
I turned 40 last year.
It seemed to me like I had conquered my own apprehensions, and was now on the road to recovery; clean, I thought, from the heavy burden of this all-encompassing affliction.
That’s what I thought, at least, as I turned the corner, taking on my fifth (and should I call it fabulous?) decade. Until I took a long, hard look around me and realized that Imposter Syndrome never truly goes away. It lives in all of us. Always.
The quintessential catch of this syndrome (and I call it quintessential because the optimist in me finds it inherently necessary to find good in anything we cannot rid ourselves of) is that having it isn’t necessarily all that bad.
The Half-Full Imposter Glass.
Learning how to use my syndrome’s symptoms for my own benefit has, quite frankly, contributed to my path toward success. The affliction propels me forward, while also appropriately holding me back – a delicate balance that plays out constantly and allows me to find triumph somewhere in between. Embracing it has kept me humble, appreciative of the existence of bigger and better things, so that I’m never satiated by the status quo but rather continue to strive for more. Innovation starts there, at this intersection, where we constantly push ourselves onto the tips of our toes, reaching for the better us.
I suddenly understand, a 40-something professional that writes mostly unread articles like this on the side, that the syndrome is a necessary factor in helping us achieve our dreams. We don’t need to beat it at all. We just need to learn how to use it to our advantage – an art I continually try mastering as I grow more seasoned. Learning from it, in my experience, has not only made me a stronger individual, but has opened a world of new possibilities I never knew existed.
In hindsight, being an Imposter has helped me to make lemonade, when life handed me my lemons. It continues forcing me to keep squeezing, so that even when my glass is already half-full, I’ll always have room for more lemonade. In fact, I’ve decided that being an Imposter is something I never want to part with. I hope it continues holding me back, so that I push against its confines, and succeed – one kick-ass lemonade glass at a time.
Originally published at drcorriel.com