My Biggest Challenge in Physical Therapy School? Imposter Syndrome
Estimated Reading Time: 7 minutes 30 seconds
School had always come easy to Cruz Romero. Then he went to physical therapy school and discovered self-doubt, and something else he’d never heard of: imposter syndrome.
"They are so talented and have accomplished so much, I bet they never...."
Feeling like a fraud. Holding yourself to an unreasonably high standard. Experiencing fear that you'll be "exposed" or "found out" for not being smart or deserving. An overwhelming feeling of anxiety, self-doubt, or inadequacy. Feeling depressed or shame. These are all traits associated with imposter syndrome.
Never heard of it? Neither had I until the stresses of physical therapy school prompted me to do a little digging. What I quickly learned is that imposter syndrome isn't an uncommon experience for graduate students. So while this experience is my own, maybe you’ll find that this story sounds familiar.
For me, college wasn't all that challenging. Until physical therapy school, I never faced an academic situation that made me truly uncomfortable. All the way through my undergraduate program, I always was able to study for a few hours and remember everything. In high school and college, I was jokingly ridiculed for my success. I always seemed to set the curve or get an A, when other people were failing. I was that guy. There were times when I tried even less, and actively tried to stifle my success, just to fit in.
"I'll just let someone else take that hard part."
But when I got to physical therapy school, I didn’t feel so successful anymore; I had never been challenged like that before. I was around the smartest people—fellow students, faculty, and mentors—that I had ever met. From the start, my professors would ask a question and someone was always there with the answer, as I sat next to them feeling clueless.
I'll admit, I was pretty freaked out by this new reality. It caused me to dive deeper and deeper into my coursework. I developed a poor work-life balance. I often skipped out on the gym and made less time for family and friends, just to hit the books. I was determined to succeed, and I wanted to do everything that I could to ensure that I would become a great clinician.
"I owe it to my future patients to do well."
I can remember midterms and finals week of my first semester; all I could think was if I kept my head down and kept working, I would get it done and I would feel better. It wasn't uncommon to feel the work piling on and the daunting wave of defeat that came along with it. There were times when being overwhelmed led to a full-on sense of numbness. But I just told myself that this was part of the process, this was graduate school, and I should be able to handle this.
I was convinced that if I couldn’t manage my course load and didn't succeed, I would be a failure and everyone would know. Deep down, I knew that I was stressed and burned out, but I put on a poker face and never complained. I was calm on the outside and losing it on the inside.
Then came clinicals. When I started my first clinical rotation, I struggled even more. The constant feedback destroyed my morale. I felt like every new piece of advice or comment on how to improve my skills was a big "you suck." I thought to myself, "Why am I doing so poorly? I feel like I should be rocking this clinical, but I feel like a failure." And don’t even get me started on the Clinical Performance Instrument.
"I am the director of communications; I should be able to communicate better than this."
The storm of self-doubt hit again this past November when I was elected director of communications for the APTA Student Assembly Board of Directors. Even though I knew that I had the confidence of my peers, I could not shake the feeling of inadequacy. I felt that I should know more about APTA and that I should never say "um," or "uh," or fumble my words on Facebook Live. I felt that I should be able to interview a guest on the #XchangeSA chats without getting nervous, or be able to write a social media post without reviewing it 20 times for accuracy. I am the director of communications, and I felt like I couldn't communicate.
I was trying to be perfect, and I was exhausted. And that's when I learned about imposter syndrome.
Until now, I have told only a few select people about this experience; I can literally count them on 1 hand. But now you know. I think it is important to share my experience because it has been liberating to learn about myself.
I can't say that learning about imposter syndrome made my feelings of self-doubt vanish. I still have a long way to go to feel more comfortable even acknowledging this about myself and learning from this experience. But now I finally have the tools to help facilitate that.
If you identify with my story, here are 5 ways I've chosen to combat imposter syndrome that you might find helpful.
Are you being overly self-critical? Are you constantly beating yourself up wondering, what was I thinking? Are you attributing your success to external factors rather than internal factors? Are you thinking I got lucky, rather than I studied all night for that exam? Are you underestimating yourself or thinking something is beyond your capabilities?
If you identify with any of these behaviors or internal dialogue, take it upon yourself to follow a more positive way of thinking or behaving. I do this through reflection. If I find myself underestimating myself today, I try to stop and think about what I can do, and what I can contribute. By giving myself credit for my abilities and recognizing the imposter mindset, I can reverse the effects of imposter syndrome.
2. Acknowledging imperfection
No one is exempt from imperfection. These are universal features of human nature that cannot be changed. Even your most trusted mentor has moments when they feel inadequate, unworthy, and unintelligent (or moments when they are imperfect despite complete self-confidence). Even though they may be better than you at a certain skill, they are still experiencing their own moments of growth that require them to step out of their comfort zone. It is all relative. Don't forget that they were in our shoes at one point—I know it's hard to think of some of the greats in our profession struggling in a class or clinical, but it happened—so just remember that the next time you're convinced that you could never accomplish or achieve what they have.
3. Creating S.M.A.R.T. goals
S.M.A.R.T goals are specific, measurable, agreed-upon by everyone, realistic, and time-based. I recommend using this template when creating your personal or professional goals, so you do not leave yourself constantly striving and feeling inadequate. I write all my goals down on a piece of paper with this structure in mind. By using this method, you will accomplish more than you otherwise would have, even if you do not reach your goals.
4. Accepting myself – strengths and weaknesses
Stop comparing yourself to another person or an unrealistic image of yourself that you have created in your mind. Do not compare your perceived weakness to someone's perceived strength. Everyone has faults, and you don't have to be faultless to make a positive impact.
Avoid attributing your success to external factors like luck or a helping hand. Focus on your internal factors that lead to your success, such as grit, talent, and brains. Focus on the things that you can control; for example, your technique, reasoning, and emotions.
Seek out counsel from level-headed people who will be honest with you. Attempt to avoid advice from individuals who can stir up emotional responses. Practice in low-risk environments where you can feel comfortable practicing skills that you are attempting to develop.
5. Adopting a growth mindset
If I can do everything perfectly the first time, I'm not challenging myself. So now whenever I feel vulnerable or inadequate, I remind myself it's a sign of growth.
Dare to put aside your pride and ignore the urge to play it safe. When you write down your long-term goals, they should make you uncomfortable. This way, you know that you are taking yourself out of your circle of comfort and stretching your capabilities.
Avoid paralysis by analysis and take a leap of faith. Shift your focus from avoiding failure to pursuing success. Remember that you can fail 100 times, but all you need is 1 successful effort to make a huge difference in the lives of others.
You can learn more about imposter syndrome at the below listed resources.
Have you battled imposter syndrome? Leave a comment below and share your experience and the steps you use to deal with it.
Cruz Romero, SPT, attends Northern Arizona University and is director of communications for APTA's Student Assembly Board of Directors.
1. Parkman, A. (2016). The imposter phenomenon in higher education: incidence and impact. J Higher Educ Theory Pract. 2016;16(1):51.
2. Impostor syndrome. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impostor_syndrome. Accessed January 5, 2017.