“Too much”?

I’ve previously written about the impostor syndrome here because of my understanding of the many ways that it wrecks many of us on our journeys to success. One of my biggest incentives to write about it was to help normalize that sense that so many of us have as we advance that maybe we’re not really one of the cool kids, maybe we shouldn’t be at the “grown-ups” table, maybe I’m going to fail my recertification exam because passing the first time was a fluke, maybe I’m going to wake up next Tuesday and this magical ride will be over and it will all be gone.

Because, really, none of those things are true.

But here’s the flipside that has been haunting me a bit more lately, and it’s another of those things that seems to impact the high-achieving women I know more than the men (or at least it gets mentioned more behind closed doors).  When we succeed, when the great things start happening and those things we really, really want start rolling in, we’re afraid to say too much about it.  We definitely hesitate if someone gives us the opportunity to shout from the mountaintops the great things we have happening.  We don’t want to step on toes, don’t want to hear those whispers behind our backs (“Well, what did SHE do to deserve THAT?!?”), we don’t want to manage the faux-well-intentioned questions about how you’ll manage the new responsibility when you already have so many things.  We don’t want to outshine, no matter how excited we are about something.  We feel incredibly vulnerable, and it’s entirely too easy to feel shame for succeeding.

Because, really, haven’t each of us wondered at least once why someone else got something we wanted, be it a job, a leadership position, a promotion, whatever?  And how do we move from comparing ourselves to celebrating each other?  And how do we move to trusting in celebration rather than judgement?

No, I don’t have a brilliant answer to any of this.  They are musings written on a cold, pre-Thanksgiving Monday night when I am pondering how richly blessed my life has been this year, what a HUGE 2015 I am looking forward to, and how I’m trying to enjoy every moment of this ride right now.  They are musings written when I’m playing some cards close with all but a very few people because I fear being criticized for the variety of new things I am taking on right now.

Because, really, I am embarking on some new journeys, all of which are wonderful, and each of which I can manage with the same flexibility and commitment that I’ve managed plenty of things so far.  I’m letting some old things go.  And I definitely intend to shine every day…so get ready. And I hope you’ll join me in shining, that we all lift each other up.




The great pretender

With all of the responses and comments I got about last week’s post on women and the confidence issue, it inspired me to take on a different facet of the same set of issues.

The impostor phenomenon or impostor syndrome.

First described in 1978 by Pauline Rose Clance, the fundamental premise is that despite tremendous professional accomplishment, those who are affected by the impostor phenomenon persist in sincere denial of their capability and believe that they have “fooled” others and the system to achieve their status.  Found disproportionately among high-achieving women, the impostor phenomenon is characterized by minimizing achievement, be it a promotion, a high test score, or a specific achievement that is meaningful in a woman’s professional world.  The fear that underlies this syndrome is that of being “found out”- for example, the anxiety harbored by many young women surgeons that when they take their certifying exam, their examiners will discover that they actually have little to no surgical knowledge.  Admit it, ladies:  at least a couple of you felt this way (and yes, gentlemen, I know that some of you did too).  The impostor phenomenon is likely to also disproportionately impact women in male-dominated fields, meaning that academic surgery…well, let’s just say it might be a set-up.

Several months ago, our WIMS office at the University of Utah hosted a terrific panel in which several very accomplished female faculty members discussed how the impostor syndrome impacted them and their career development.  If I were to use the model they used, my introduction would start something like this:

” It all started when I was admitted to college.  They were going to allow me to start at age 17, the end of my junior year?  My senior year as I applied to graduate school I somehow was mysteriously offered scholarships for my graduate work from all 3 of my top choices.  Then my course correction into medical school- I had the “wrong” academic background coming from the liberal arts, and had bailed on grad school shortly before comps.  Why would medical school want me with that pedigree?  Every day in basic sciences I was certain that a mistake had been made.  For the first time in my life, something academic felt hard to me.  Really hard.  Then I hit my clinical years where I felt insecure but not like a true impostor.  Until I hit internship, that is.

I matched at my first choice program in general surgery with a profile that my Dean had told me was unlikely to result in success in applying for a residency at an academic surgical program (note:  all of my surgical mentors counseled otherwise).  In Fall of my intern year, after participating in the application pre-review process, one of my co-interns and I looked at each other and commented that we both were certain we had been rank list errors; everyone whose applications we were looking at seemed so much more accomplished than we were!”

Here’s the thing:  Impostor syndrome likes dark, quiet places to hang out, where people don’t talk about their fears and insecurities.  It feeds on the shame of inadequacy.  That moment with my classmate was illuminating for me because it was the first time that I had “come clean” about wondering how I got to where I was with someone I really respected.  To find that she had the same fears was a BIG deal and the basis for a lot of sanity-preserving conversations over the next 5 years- with her and with another resident who started the year after us.  We learned from each other to take credit when good things came our way, and we were able to normalize one another’s anxieties as women surgeons.  Most importantly, when one of us needed guidance and constructive criticism, we had a safe community to provide that.

I’ll admit that I still have moments of stopping to look around and be awed by where I am professionally, and humbled by some of the opportunities I receive.  I’ve also learned how to simply say, “Thank you, I appreciate the honor,” rather than bumbling through why it was predicated on luck or timing or who I know.  I have a community with whom I can be honest when I’m feeling overwhelmed and mentors who both nurture and nudge.  I still keep looking for ways to grow, professionally and personally.  Are these things cures for the impostor syndrome?  I’m not sure, but they certainly help keep it at bay.