Richard Zhang

Richard Zhang

It was the final day of my time with the drugs and alcohol unit as part of my psychiatry rotation. I had taken a thorough history and had relayed it to the resident, who did his thing and then took off in a caffeine-addled flurry. As I was wrapping up and was about to leave the room, the patient said “Thanks doctor, you’re so helpful!” I smiled politely, and explained to her again that I was just a medical student. She looked at me confused, and said “But you seem to know just as much as all the other doctors here.” Her confused expression turned into a grin – “I know you’ll make the most wonderful and intelligent doctor.” It was the kind of interaction that should leave you feeling incredibly happy – after all, I was getting praise and validation. But as I left the room, all I could think about was how wrong she was. My mind kept replaying every time I mispronounced a medication to my resident in my summary, and as I looked around at the nurses and doctors seemingly saving lives on a whim, I had never felt more inadequate. Impostor syndrome is something almost every medical student deals with at least once throughout their careers. I’ve dealt with it on more than one occasion. Thankfully though, I’ve been lucky enough to have ultra-supportive friends and family to remind me of all the reasons I should be more confident in myself. Here are just a few of the things they’ve said that have helped me get over my anxieties about med school.

  • Impostor syndrome isn’t just common, it’s normal

The thought of having patients’ lives in your hands at some point in the future should scare you.You might wonder if you’re up for such a task, and you might think about how far away you are from the interns and residents who seem to rap faster than Eminem when giving patient presentations. I’m here to remind you that that’s completely normal. It is a central tenet of medicine that you simply cannot know everything. But as long as you keep practicing, you will improve. That’s true for everything, from procedural skills to history taking. Keep working away to the best of your ability, and the impostor syndrome should subside. 

  • Reflect on your past achievements

You’ve made it this far in medicine. That means something. It wasn’t luck that got you into med school, and the reason you passed all of your barrier exams certainly wasn’t because they were easy. No matter where you’re currently at in medical school, simply being there means you worked harder than most people have ever worked in their lives on a daily basis, and it means you deserve to be in the situation you’re in.

  • Size up your current situation

Don’t worry about the future. Yes, you will feel inadequate if you compare yourself to the assistant professor attending who seems to know every single minute detail of every single obscure disease. But keep in mind, as a medical student, the only thing you’re expected to do is to be keen to learn, and maybe be able to do a couple of sutures. So yes, while the expectations of you when you become a resident can be intimidating, right now, all you need to worry about is satisfying the (much lower) expectations of you as a medical student. 

  • Make a plan

If you’re constantly on edge that the attending might grill you on your (lack of) knowledge until you’re on the verge of crying, then maybe you can make a plan. Most of my peers who aren’t confident in their abilities only think that because of one particular attending who’s particularly rough on them. If that’s the case for you, make a plan to minimize situations like that. Study before you know you have rounds with them. Find out which patients that attending will be seeing today, and learn everything there is to know about their pathologies. Preparing for the situations that undermine and lower your self-esteem can help you avoid losing confidence in your own abilities.

  • Think about the most average medical school friend you have

We all have that one friend that just seems so mediocre at all things med school. Sometimes it’s simply baffling that they’re in med school at all. And yet, they don’t seem to be affected by the things that they don’t know or the procedures they can’t do. So if they can pull that off, why can’t you?

  • Rest and relaxation

I’ve long been a big proponent of proper rest and relaxation. It has seemingly unlimited benefits. It helps you destress and add some balance to your life that seems to otherwise revolve around medicine and medical school. It can help prevent burnout and can optimize your mental health. It can also help restore your confidence in yourself. The times that we are relaxed and unstressed are the times we are most at peace, with not just the world around us, but also with ourselves. Even making a small effort can go a long way in helping you rebuild your self-confidence and prevent the onset of impostor syndrome. Check out my other blog here on my favorite relaxation techniques.

  • Recognize when your abilities are actually lacking

Yes, most of the strategies above are focused on you learning how to accept that your skills are proficient enough for the tasks that you are expected to carry out as a medical student. That’s because most of the time, they are enough, and your feelings of inadequacy are just a manifestation of your overachieving nature. But every so often, a lack of self-confidence can be a sign that your abilities actually are lacking. Learn to recognize when this is the case, and formulate plans to help develop your skills in that particular area of weakness.

  • Develop a healthy response to failure

Failure is inevitable. Planning to avoid failure isn’t enough to get you through med school and the rest of your medical career. Learning to cope with failure is just as important. Rather than focusing on the negatives of your performance, instead take a close look at the areas you can improve on. Brush up on the skills or areas of knowledge you need, and make sure you learn from your mistakes and never make them again. Developing this healthy response to failure will help you avoid the dreaded impostor syndrome. 

There is no objectively right way to deal with impostor syndrome – but having a list of different approaches you can take to help overcome it (like the list above) can really help minimize the anxiety you feel and help make you more confident in your own abilities. In fact, impostor syndrome is such a pervasive inevitability that even those of you who haven’t experienced it yet should keep a list like this handy, for when the overwhelming pressure of med school finally catches up with you.

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