I’ve never truly slotted into the role of ‘doctor’ as seamlessly as I’d have liked. Now in my fourth year as a junior doctor, the feeling that I don’t quite measure up still comes back to bite me every so often.
Commonly referred to as ‘imposter syndrome’, this feeling is not only jarring, but it forces me into black or white thinking. I become either worthy or unworthy, with no room for ambiguity. The problem is compounded by society’s portrayal of doctors as somehow omniscient and even superhuman. Take the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when we were heavily branded as ‘heroes’ by the government. A nice gesture, but also a very tricky ideal to live up to. Much has been said about imposter syndrome. One consistent finding is that it’s much commoner in high-achieving individuals with a fear of failure. I want to explore whether a root cause of this fear might be the fixed mindset, along with whether developing a growth mindset might help to alleviate it. First, I’ll briefly summarise the concepts for those unfamiliar.
Fixed vs Growth Mindset
This distinction was made by the Stanford Psychologist, Carol Dweck, in her seminal book “Mindset”.
In the fixed mindset, we believe that every person has a set dose of each quality, with a corresponding ceiling on how much can be achieved. In this mindset, having to try hard is a sign of inadequacy. After all, those with innate talent need not put in any effort. Criticism becomes a devastating blow to be feared, with the risk of it revealing intrinsic flaws.
In contrast, the growth mindset tells us that the hand we’re dealt is only a starting point for further development. Our true potential is unknown and unknowable. What this means is setbacks become ideal opportunities for growth, with effort being the key ingredient. Regular, constructive criticism is repackaged as a vehicle for growth rather than a hindrance.
The mindset we inhabit varies for each skill and personality trait. I could be fixed mindset about my intelligence and growth mindset about my athletic ability. We tend to absorb one or the other mindset from our family system, school environment and the prevailing culture.
To recap, this quote from Dweck succinctly explains the difference. “Becoming is better than being. The fixed mindset does not allow people the luxury of becoming. They have to already be.”
Can developing a ‘Growth Mindset’ help to tackle Imposter Syndrome?
Recently I was reflecting on how developing a growth mindset has been of some use in lessening my imposter syndrome. For a start, recognising the fixed mindset when it pops up at work has helped. If I feel the need, I can more easily tap into and then challenge this at the end of the day.
I’ve found my own brand of fixed mindset beliefs tend to have a common theme, comparing my level of knowledge and competence to those around me. Sometimes I’ll compare to doctors at my level, sometimes to seniors and sometimes to those right at the start of their career. Either way, I’m on the lookout for some signal that my knowledge is deficient, some undeniable proof of my incompetence. As Theodore Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”
Turning other people into a yardstick for our success is misguided. By using their ability as a barometer for our own position, we rob ourselves not only of sanity but the space to develop. There will always be someone out there who knows more, can do more, and achieves more. Their existence is a blessing, not a curse.
To help with this issue, I’ve found this growth mindset belief to be immensely powerful, ‘Each of us is human, and we’re all on a unique journey of growth and development’. By working to instil this belief, to essentially humanise myself and other people, I’m managing to keep imposter syndrome in check. But it takes constant check-ups on myself to ensure I’m not veering back into a fixed mindset territory.
I’ll give a specific example of what I mean. As someone who is introverted by nature, there have been times when I struggle with handover. A room full of high-powered and acutely intelligent doctors can be intimidating, especially when starting a new role. Handover is a time for sharing. Beyond just the practicality of what jobs need doing, there’s also the sharing of knowledge and learning points. I’ve often felt that if I don’t have all the answers or knowledge, that this reflects badly on me. This is the fixed mindset at play. Everything becomes a trial, where a single blip equals personal incompetence and a symptom of some deep-seated flaw. Ok, so perhaps I couldn’t recall one blood parameter or didn’t get an optimum history. Maybe I’m just too tired to summarise a case in a semi-coherent manner. By developing a growth mindset, I grant myself the space to both ebb and flow. Each day becomes a stepping-stone in my own personal journey. I then have the freedom to learn from mishaps and mistakes rather than letting them define me.
I appreciate a counterargument here, which is that in medicine there is often a much tighter margin for error. I think this misses the point. Firstly, when I have seen imposter syndrome play out, both in myself and others, it has been over the smaller errors which had no negative impact on anyone. Secondly, I can think of no useful purpose for imposter syndrome and self-chastisement when big mistakes do occur. The most ideal outcome is for learning to take place, and the growth mindset strongly facilitates this.
Conclusion and Learning Points
It can only be a good idea to normalise imposter syndrome, so that more discussion takes place around it. From speaking to colleagues there are plenty of people out there feeling the brunt of imposter syndrome. It can turn people towards unhealthy coping techniques, forsaking their own wellbeing. Anticipating the onset of imposter syndrome both in ourselves and those around us can be helpful. Whilst there are certain high-risk periods, such as starting a new role and returning to work, it’s important to recognise that for some it never really goes away.
Developing a growth mindset may be a useful way to reframe imposter syndrome. The key point is that the fixed mindset makes us insecure, with each mistake wreaking havoc on our confidence. We must be the complete, finished, superhuman package. Instead, when you commit to developing a growth mindset you give yourself the space to become rather than be.
Written by Oli Page – a Junior Doctor who writes on how to apply personal development and psychology to achieve health and balance in a hectic world. You can visit his personal blog at https://olipage.com
Photo by Ravi Roshan on Unsplash