Embrace Being Perfectly Imperfect: The Challenge of Imposter Syndrome and Medicine-Induced Self-Doubt

25 Dec 2019

By Cheryl Zogg

As the holiday season is upon us and the current year draws to a close, I want to take a moment to reflect on one of the recently-recognized though long-enshrined “traditions” in medical education today: the challenge of accepting oneself in the midst of colleagues and friends we perceive as perfect. It is no secret that medicine attracts a wealth of ambitious, talented, and compassionate minds. In my own medical school class, I had the honor of training amongst some of the most singularly incredible people I have ever met, people I know will be amazing physicians someday. I also know that on more than one occasion sitting alongside them I have wondered what I am doing there:

Did someone make a mistake in the admissions process?

Am I failing to live up to a potential that once existed in me?

Am I just not good enough?

The feeling is normal. It has a name: imposter syndrome. Its increased recognition in recent years has inspired fields of research and a bevy of interventions aimed at helping young physicians, trainees, and medical students alike identify and cope with the challenging realities of what it means to survive and thrive in medicine.

What is less clear, and what I think too often goes unsaid, is just how pervasive the phenomenon can be. Be honest. Take a moment to reflect and ask yourself, “How often have you felt this way?” I suspect that if I were able to garner a show of hands from among the readers of this blog, the majority if not the entirety of you could put your hands up. Therein lies the pervasiveness of the problem. It is also what makes the insidious tradition so alarming, for I know very well from conversations with many of the same classmates and friends I admired that they too look at me the same way. More than one literally laughed at the idea that I experienced moments of doubt, seeing only the “perfect” veneer that I am guilty of striving to craft.

Perfection can be a dangerous word. The dictionary defines it as “the condition, state, or quality of being free or as free as possible from all flaws or defects.” I still remember the first time I heard it directed at me. I was in middle school practicing a solo for an upcoming music competition when a classmate stopped to listen. Enjoying the song, she offhandedly remarked that “you know, you are just so perfect.” To be clear, I am not, but looking back to that moment as I stood there struggling with notes that I was failing to master, I realized that in her eyes I had achieved some sort of ideal. It was, ironically enough, one of the kindest yet potentially most harmful things she could have said. The encounter and others like it have stayed with me, long after that girl has likely forgotten her words. It constantly reminds a nagging part of my brain of the person I am somehow supposed to be able to be.

To that little voice, my own self-doubt, and the self-doubts that I imagine many of you might harbor, here is the hard truth: perfection is never going to happen. Real freedom from flaws or defects comes in embracing the knowledge that our flaws and defects exist. It comes in acknowledging that in my medical school class of 100+ students, 100+ others have felt exactly the way that I feel. So as you set off this Christmas to enjoy the holiday season and make (and inevitably break) your New Year’s resolutions in the days and weeks to come, I encourage you to embrace being perfectly imperfect, cherish the faults that make us human, and enjoy without competition or guilt the moments of brilliance and “strong work” that you and your equally perfectly imperfect colleagues achieve.

Cheryl Zogg, MSPH, MHS, is a fourth-year MD-PhD Candidate at Yale School of Medicine where she is currently working on her PhD in health services research. She is a research fellow with the Solomon Center for Health Law and Policy at Yale Law School and the Center for Surgery and Public Health at Harvard Medical School. She currently serves as the Research Coordinator for the AWS National Medical Student Committee and, once done with her dual degree, intends to pursue a career in academic surgery. Her PhD dissertation research is funded by the National Institute on Aging, and, to date, Cheryl has published more than 100 peer-reviewed papers. In 2018, was recognized in Forbes 30Under30 for her research in healthcare. She is, however, not perfect! You can find her on Twitter @CherylZogg.

Our blog is a forum for our members to speak, and as such, statements made here represent the opinions of the author and are not necessarily the opinion of the Association of Women Surgeons.

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