Positivity throughout challenges

The ironic tango of imposter syndrome and a growth mindset

Imposter syndrome is a lurking discomfort that urges us to question if we are capable or worthy of being here.


I remember my first day of medical school—I stepped out of my air-conditioned car into the 120-degree Fahrenheit summer in Arizona. My educational path had taken me across many states, and I was accustomed to the unknowns surrounding a new home during my first few weeks of school.

As I walked on the pavement toward the building where we were to meet at 10 a.m., I looked around to see unfamiliar faces who looked delighted and blissfully unaware of the density of the curriculum. For a moment, we settled comfortably into time and space.

My interests and passions lie in the mental space, our inner psyche and functionalities of the human mind. Because of this, I take much care in understanding insecurities and the growth mindset, and how they affect our resilience as not only students, but also, more importantly, as people.

Discomfort within success

Imposter syndrome is defined as a psychological condition in which one has persistent doubts about one’s abilities as well as fears of being exposed as a fraud in spite of one’s earned successes and achievements. It is a lurking discomfort that urges us to question if we are capable or worthy of being here.

I’ve pondered this human phenomenon for many years as perhaps I’ve felt imposter syndrome for most of my life. I attempted to demystify the concept by investigating autobiographies, lifestyle podcasters and my own inner world in search of an answer.

I realized that imposter syndrome is typically seen in those willing to seek discomfort or thrust into unfamiliar situations. It unveils itself when we step out of our comfort zone to learn something new. It rarely has to do with one’s capabilities or intelligence, although one could use this as a justification for imposter syndrome.

Furthermore, as I delved into the experiences of others, I understood that this lack of confidence was formed so much by our own perception of ourselves, and less so by numerical value.

Next, I wondered why this was such a prominent topic of discussion in medical school, such that during my time as the mental health and wellness committee chair at A.T. Still University School of Osteopathic Medicine in Arizona, I continued the tradition of dedicating October to normalizing imposter syndrome.

Many resources have stated that imposter syndrome is typically seen in high-achieving personalities, but I questioned whether we grasp on this reason to soften our judgment of ourselves instead of claiming that we indeed experience this because of our past traumas and/or as part of the human experience.

Staying positive through challenges

Although I agree that many high-achieving personalities experience imposter syndrome, I believe the reasons lie deeper. The pressure of being a high-achieving performer may lead one toward a life striving for perfection. However, I believe the root cause of striving for perfection is an underlying feeling of “not being enough” if there is an internal imbalance within.

Furthermore, high achievers may put themselves in situations where, as their ambition carries them to newer responsibilities, they must exercise different roles than they are used to, such as taking on the role of an apprentice instead of a teacher.

This can create feelings of unease in the beginning stages. To broaden this, as people transition through various stages of life as a resident, spouse or parent, a feeling of confusion and incompetency may initially arise.

However, if we use this discomfort to help ourselves learn, we become better students of life to eventually guide others on their path as well. It is a human experience that walks with us through life’s unfolding.

A growth mindset is defined as the belief that one can develop talent and new skills via diligent and robust work and practice. It is the process of seeing the possibilities through challenges. When the limiting mentality tangoes with the growth mentality, the two give each other the opportunity for newer insights.

When one walks with imposter syndrome, there is a trace of a limiting mindset that says, “I’m not good enough,” or, “I could never be this way.” Yet, those words we speak to ourselves subconsciously become wired in our bodies. The body objectively takes those words as truth, and they become our new belief.

I used to speak those very words to myself as a child who struggled tremendously with school. I wondered why it was challenging to grasp various concepts, and would feel frustrated by my results at the end of the semester. However, I saw each obstacle as a moment for growth and practice.

Throughout my many attempts in academia, what manifested was a person who learned how to hope and give hope, someone who did not read about grit, but defined grit. This person lived the meaning of passion as she whispered under her breath, “Every ‘no’ that comes my way will never be stronger than my dreams.” That person is also you as you embark on this medical school journey and beyond.

The power of speaking kindly to ourselves

As these words trickled into my stream of consciousness, I felt a lump in my throat as tears formed in my eyes because even after two decades, the feeling is very raw. It is raw because the feeling had created a home in my subconscious that became a structure for my way of thinking. The power of emotion runs deep in a lived experience and so I empathize with you, fellow reader, if imposter syndrome is something of frequent rendezvous.

The disagreement between the inner imposter syndrome and growth mindset is perhaps one’s greatest lifetime teacher. I urge you not to hide imposter syndrome when it arises, but instead care for it as you wished to be cared for in your younger years. If we push away feelings of imposter syndrome, our inner cry becomes louder as we deny our unmet needs. We must acknowledge it. Nourish it. Speak to it.

I see you and feel you, imposter syndrome.

I belong here.

I have many gifts to offer.

See your thoughts transform as you speak kinder words to yourself. A growth mentality is a muscle that blossoms with repetition and full belief. I share this with you personally, as I’ve taken care to nourish a growth mentality whilst learning the art and practice of medicine and in other arenas of my life. I trust that you will grow it beautifully with time.

To the first-year medical students, I wish you the best of luck with your new chapter in life. In moments of doubt, you are not alone, as many of us experience similar feelings as we transition through different roles in life. You may meet obstacles along the way, but those obstacles are meant to prepare you for the next best thing.

As I’ve looked back on my journey, each and every challenge was a blessing in disguise. Any delay was created as an opening for better opportunities to come. It prepared me to be stronger, more compassionate and patient with myself, and ultimately a better person. The best thing that can come out of this is that you are a more refined version of who you were when you started.

The pages are yet to be written, and you are the co-creator. The future is yours.

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

Related reading:

The complexity of transitioning from medical school to residency

5 must-read books for medical students


  1. Kelli Glaser, DO, MPH, FACOFP, FNAOME

    Very insightful Student Doctor Lee! Thank you for sharing your perspective with everyone in our profession. Congratulations as well on your writing appointment!

    1. Stephanie Lee

      Hello Dr. Glaser,

      So wonderful to hear from you! Thank you for all that you have done supporting medical students on their journey. Those that have had the fortune of knowing you are truly blessed.


  2. Julia

    I appreciate your perspective. A few years ago I moved from a role I thrived in to one I wanted for personal growth. The new team was…and still is filled with kind and brilliant people. Not only was I honored to join such a team, but imposter syndrome has been a constant companion. Mr. Imposter niggles those doubts that I somehow snuck in, that I don’t belong. I will try speaking kindly to that voice and remind it that there really are valid reasons I was selected

    1. Stephanie Lee

      Julie, this is beautiful and I await the day when you can look imposter syndrome in the eyes and see it as a friend instead of an enemy. Imposter syndrome shows you where you want to learn the direction you’d like to grow. I believe if you make it a friend, it becomes a guidepost showing you what you value. I hope that you continue striving for the things you love and never let the feelings of discomfort stop you.

      Best wishes,

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