When faced with change and unexpected challenges, even the most competent and highly trained professionals can feel out of their depth. When this feeling turns into a paralyzing fear of being found out as a “fraud,” experts call this imposter syndrome.

This phenomenon is more common than you might think, even among physicians. The problem is physicians are unlikely to do the one thing that can make it better – talk about it.

“Physicians usually just share their successes,” Dr. Rachel Salas, associate professor of neurology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, tells Neurology Insights. “You’re not going to be telling people ‘I got rejected on this grant and this paper, and I didn’t get that promotion.’ We’ve just never been in that culture where we share our shame, our worries, or our failures.”

Salas is among an increasing number of physicians sharing their experiences with imposter syndrome in an effort to destigmatize it. She and her colleague, Dr. Charlene Gamaldo, gave a well-received talk on the subject at the 2019 annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology, prompting many shared experiences from audience members.

“It is incredibly common, and it can be a career-long phenomenon. I’ve had multiple episodes of it,” said Salas, who described having a particularly acute case of it after being promoted to clerkship director at Johns Hopkins. “I felt like an imposter. I thought, ‘Do I really belong here?’”

It was an incredible relief when she later learned that her feelings had a name – and that they were very common: “I wish someone had told me that years ago.”

Imposter syndrome, also called imposter phenomenon, can be insidious. According to this 2019 paper published in Neurology: Clinical Practice, it is associated with burnout, exhaustion, cynicism, and depersonalization. Dr. Will Bynum, in a candid account of his own experience with imposter syndrome while taking a trauma course, writes:

Emotionally off-kilter, I made several rookie mistakes when scrubbing for surgery: I forgot to remove my wedding ring; I put on the gown incorrectly; and I slowed the start of the case…

Like many people suffering from imposter syndrome, Bynum’s errors were linked to an extreme emotional reaction triggered by a very minor incident. Imposter syndrome skews the sufferer’s view of reality, often leading people to view their successes as “luck” rather than achievement.

Ultimately, by voicing his feelings Bynum was able to regain his perspective:

  • He wrote down what he was feeling. “Funneling intrusive and emotionally overwhelming ruminations into concrete observations and facts allowed me to analyze the situation more accurately.”
  • He talked to his wife. “She offered love and support and reminded me that my self-worth is dependent on far more than my performance at work.”

Salas too says that sharing her story has helped her move past her self-doubt. The energy she has saved has allowed her to double down on doing the best possible work she can – she’s even earned a master’s degree in education in the process.

“Imposter syndrome can definitely be a negative, but it can also provoke you to do better,” she adds.