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01/05/2016

Imposter Syndrome

by Keisha Ray, Ph.D.

As a junior scholar, Imposter Syndrome is as a part of my daily life as some people’s morning coffee is a part of their morning routine. Despite considering myself to be a very confident person, Imposter Syndrome is an omnipresent force in my life. Imposter Syndrome is the belief that you are not qualified for a task, job, or promotion despite evidence to the contrary usually in the form of experience, education, degrees, etc. It’s a feeling of phoniness, a feeling that you do not deserve the accolades you have received coupled with the fear that everyone knows you’re a fake. It’s a topic that is frequently written about in popular media such as the New York Times, which leads me to believe that I am not the sole experiencer of Imposter Syndrome. I know that many other people experience Imposter Syndrome. I know that because of various social and cultural reasons some groups of people are more prone to feeling like an imposter, including women, racial minorities, and people new to their chosen profession.

This semester I am scheduled to teach my first bioethics/medical humanities course on African Americans and their relationship with (access to and delivery of) health care. I plan to use non-fictional accounts of African Americans’ interactions with medical practitioners and their stories of illness to discuss issues of race and class. This course, for medical students, was born out of my personal experiences and the experiences of my family and friends with medical racism and dismissive, prejudiced practitioners. I was also inspired by scholarly texts on race and medicine as well as patient narratives of illness, race, and poverty. I strongly believe that this is a topic that future doctors should be discussing. But with the university’s approval of my course came doubts of my qualifications and doubts of the value of the class. In other words, my latest case of Imposter Syndrome made me question “Is my only qualification for teaching this class the fact that I am African American?” “Will my students think that my only qualification for teaching this class is that I am black?”

Imposter Syndrome makes you forget and remember all of the wrong things. It makes you forget all of the ways that your education and work experience has prepared you for new opportunities. Imposter Syndrome makes you forget your past teaching experience and that you have successfully taught this subject many times. It makes you forget the past students who thanked you for your willingness to cover such topics. It makes you forget the students who became interested in the subject after taking your class and read the books on race and medicine that you recommended. It makes you forget what you have learned from your past teaching mistakes. It makes you forget your past writing and research on race and health care. It makes you forget all of the ways that you are qualified to teach this course. Rather Imposter Syndrome isolates the present from past successes and instead highlights it with panic.

Imposter Syndrome also makes you remember that although you’ve read the highly acclaimed scholarly texts on the subject and many of the not highly acclaimed texts there was that one book on the subject that you never got around to reading and maybe there was something in that book that can expose you as a phony. So you do things like buy and read any book you can get your hands on about the relevant topic (and possible semi-related topics because you can never be too sure), putting a serious dent in your credit card bill.

I don’t think that Imposter Syndrome will ever be completely gone from my academic life but I have found ways to quiet that whisper of doubt that pops up every once in a while. First, I remember the value of what I’m doing. It is rare for medical students to take a course about race and class issues that their future profession faces. I remember that it is likely that their time in this course will be the only time they devote to thinking about such important issues. It is likely that this will be the first time that they have thought about how they can contribute to a solution to the problem once they are doctors. Secondly, I remember the possibility of a good course setting off that fire in a student that makes them want to do better and be better for their future patients, which in turn pushes me to give them my best. Lastly, I forget that there will always be more I could know, more books I could read, and more experienced scholars with whom I could discuss these issues. There will always be more that I could do, but I have to be satisfied that I’ve done what I could. I have to remember that Imposter Syndrome will always be the enemy of contentment, but to actively and with purpose choose contentment.

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