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Imposter Syndrome & Medical School

The most common description I heard of medical school prior to starting was some variation of “It’s like drinking from a firehose. But also you’re on fire. And everything is on fire.”

If you’re about to start medical school and are anything like I was, you’re having heart palpitations right now after reading that. While medical school has certainly included some of the most difficult parts of my life, it has also prompted the most personal growth, and has been far and away the most fun I’ve ever had. The transition is rough, but my goal here is to at least help somebody else out there starting medical school feel less alone in the struggle, or maybe even help them see a way out.

To go back to that very vivid description of medical school I began this article with, I will give an example of an “everything is on fire” period that I had. My program starts the M1 year with a focused human cadaveric dissection course. I was in way over my head before my anatomy professor clicked to the second slide of back muscles on his powerpoint, and that feeling stuck with me for… truly, most of that first semester Feeling lost, I looked to my peers to try to figure out where I was compared to them.

It became this exhausting combination of imposter syndrome and comparing myself to others. Through medical school I have seen that this is a common experience, though it is well-documented how much more susceptible women are to imposter syndrome.

The thought pattern went like this for me:

  1. I was new to medical school, I wasn’t confident that I belonged here and could do it. All those times people warned me it was like drinking from a firehose had made me concerned.

  2. I was certain I was the only person with these struggles, I compared myself to others who seemed to be managing medical school much more easily than I was.  

  3. I had feelings of inadequacy and continued comparison to others.

Through the lens of imposter syndrome, it looked like everyone else knew perfectly well what they were doing and I was the only one struggling. I was embarrassed and kept these concerns to myself. That was a mistake. When I finally opened up to my classmates about how difficult everything felt, I realized we had all been feeling the same way. I couldn’t keep convincing myself I was somehow the only person who had been let in by mistake, or the only person struggling with course material. Sharing those vulnerabilities helped normalize the struggle, and let me assure you, it is VERY NORMAL, for myself and my peers.  

Medical school, and it seems, any career in healthcare is all about balance and sacrifice. I have always been a perfectionist, and one of the toughest lessons I’ve learned in medical school is how to distribute my time and energy to focus as much as possible on what I value most because I can’t do everything. I am but one 20-something with a consistent need for a full-night’s sleep, three square meals a day, and human contact. For me this takes the form of sometimes choosing to catch up with a friend over getting ahead on my studying, or volunteering at a free clinic instead of going home sooner.

The pressure to “have it all” is immense in medical school. We all want to ace our courses, conquer every board exam, and even—dare I say it?—have a life. At least for me, it hasn’t been possible to maximally succeed in every single area of my life, and it feels just awful when imposter syndrome makes it appear that everyone else around you is succeeding when you aren’t. There’s always somebody else who has more volunteering hours than you, more friends, or is in better shape, or who understands a certain concept better.

I had to learn to loosen the death grip my perfectionism had on me, and to get out from under the weight of imposter syndrome. I am not a perfect student, nor will I be a perfect doctor. But I am always striving to improve, learn, and live according to my values, so I’m making the most of my imperfection and having a blast in medical school. I hope you do too!

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