This site is intended for health professionals only

Fighting against imposter syndrome

I was at a conference recently called ‘Inspiring Future Female Leaders’. It seemed that everyone that spoke to us was a president of a royal college, or had been one, or was about to become one. Or a CEO. Or something in that vein. There were more letters after some names than in the names themselves. I was a bit overwhelmed. 

Remember that when people are giving you chances, it’s because they believe in you

At the end of the day, I tentatively raised my hand and asked the panel of college presidents if they’d ever experienced the ‘imposter syndrome’, and how they managed it.

They all laughed.

‘It’s on your second X chromosome,’ Professor Lesley Regan, President of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, informed me wisely.

‘And it’s really just a form of self criticism,’ she went on to explain, ‘as long as it’s not so extreme that it paralyses you, it’s actually a good thing.’

Professor Neena Modi, President of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, asked if we could remember that turning point at school when we’d had the revelation that our teachers didn’t know everything. It’s easier to ward off your imposter syndrome, she explained, when you realise you know just as much as some of those around you.

Ruth Sutherland, now CEO of the Samaritans, told us of her incredible leadership journey, which started out a bit precariously as the daughter of two artists who wasn’t sent to school until the age of seven ‘because they’d forgotten I was meant to’.

‘But even when you’re not feeling brave, you need to pretend to be’, she said, ‘and remember that when people are giving you chances, it’s because they believe in you.’

I came away inspired, but still a bit doubtful. They were all so modest; as Professor Clare Gerada put it: ‘not the kind to be tapped on the shoulder’. But I couldn’t quite believe that the  recipe to their success had been a fortuitous sequence of events, with some hard work and the right connections. Or ‘leaning in’, which seems to be a popular way of putting it at the moment. Whatever that means.

A few days later, I was back at my old school, an all-girls comprehensive. I was giving mock interviews to a group of 17-year-olds applying for medicine. I’d frowned as I read some of their personal statements on the train down, wondering if they really had a grasp of what was to come in the years ahead. Trying to siphon off the usual rhetoric, cliches and quotes to get to the heart of why they really wanted to be doctors was going to be no easy task.

But as I questioned each trembling girl on their commitment to embark on this career, scrutinising their polished CVs and statements (and taking a mental note of the books they had read to add to my own reading list), it hit me. Just over a decade separated them from me. And the rapturous look in their wide eyes mirrored the one I’d had just a few days before. They held me in an uncomfortable kind of reverence, just for introducing myself as a doctor.

I remembered Clare Marx, President of the Royal College of Surgeons, telling us at the conference how she attributed her success to her orthopaedic consultant, who, in her house officer year, had enabled and inspired her to be whatever she wished to be: ‘He was just one of those people’, she’d said.

And I recalled that one day not so long ago, I’d sat just like these girls, staring wistfully at the name badge of the doctor interviewing me. And hoping against hope that I would be able to fight my own imposter syndrome.

It struck me then, that as soon as we reach one rung of the medical training ladder, we look up to the next; forgetting that we once dared to wonder if it might even be possible to become the person we’ve suddenly become. One form of imposter syndrome merges into another. But perhaps we should take more time to reflect on this. Because if we do, we’re much more likely to pay it forward, and to cultivate the next generation. And ‘be one of those people’ Clare Marx had talked about.

At the end, I gave them a chance to ask questions.

‘What’s it really like, being a doctor? Do you think I can do it?’ one shy girl suddenly spurted out, gazing at me, wondrously. 

I looked down at her personal statement. It opened with: ‘For me, medicine is a way to combine the enjoyment of helping people, with the science of exploring solutions that might improve their quality of life.’

After reading this, I’d thought long and hard about all the other things I’d discovered about being a doctor since I’d sat in her shoes. I’d considered telling her about them.

But in the end, it dawned on me that it was actually I who needed reminding of what my 17-year-old self had written at the time. It was easy to lose sight of this, particularly after a year of endless dents to morale and teeth-grinding political turmoil.

I found myself saying: ‘Yes, that’s more or less what I try to do. And you can do it. But I’ll give you the same advice I was given recently: even when you’re not feeling brave, you need to pretend to be. And remember that when people are giving you chances, it’s because they believe in you.’

I don’t know if she believed me.

I went home that day to the exciting news that Dr Helen Stokes-Lampard has been elected as the new chair of RCGP, the third female chair in a row.

The week reminded me that, even if imposter syndromes are being fought under the surface, the number of inspiring female role models in medicine is something I’m proud of. And if those 17-year-old girls are anything to go by, there’ll be plenty more to come.

Dr Nishma Manek is a GP trainee in London. You can follow her on Twitter @nishmanek