I stared at the painted face looking back at me in the mirror. After many applications, I still did not recognize myself with makeup on. Red lips. Fake eyelashes. Pink blush. My nerves were setting in and I thought maybe this wasn’t me — but it was the part I was supposed to play.
On cue, I emerged from backstage and bright lights flooded my view. My eyes adjusted and I could make out the smiling faces of the judges. Like clockwork, my mouth smiled wide; I started my speech. Even as the words left my mouth, self-doubt crept in.
I carried the Miss Teen title in my city and with it, endured hours of poses and plastered smiles, captured in photoshoots, over-rehearsed speeches, and the sound of not-yet-broken-in heels clicking on the garage floor. I knew I had adequately prepared for this moment, yet I felt a sinking in my stomach that it was not enough. Perhaps the judges would see that I was not actually qualified for the Miss Teenage California title.
Fast-forward to medical school: I donned my short white coat for the first time on my very first clinical rotation in ob/gyn. I was assigned to a patient on the obstetrics floor, and when I entered the dimly lit room and peeked behind the curtain, I saw a very pregnant woman and her husband. I introduced myself as a medical student. I was self-conscious of how white and newly-pressed my coat looked, as if it might indicate to patients that I had no prior clinical experience, which was true. I remembered the HPI questions I had memorized and practiced on standardized patients, and began running through them with the woman. I was asking all the right questions, and the patient and her husband were very receptive, but I still felt it: imposter syndrome.
I didn’t identify my feelings as imposter syndrome when I competing in pageants, and I certainly didn’t identify when I was actually making my way through school as a medical student — but it’s undeniable that then, I was looking for external sources for validation. But something shifted in my clinical rotations. I continued to put forth my best effort. I learned to listen with a keen ear to patients’ histories of presenting illnesses. I practiced and tried to perfect physical exam maneuvers, palpating for the liver edge or auscultating for heart sounds.
When I started residency, self-doubt still crept in now and then. The first attending I worked with pulled me aside for feedback. While she praised me for my efforts, she also gave me a piece of advice: “You’re the doctor. You have years of training that others don’t have. Don’t sell yourself short.” Her words echoed in my mind like a self-realization. Over time, the rewards of narrowing down a diagnosis, combined with positive feedback from attendings and thank you’s from patients, paved the way for me to step comfortably into my role as a budding physician.
As a resident physician in psychiatry, I am learning that my efforts have great impact for my patients. Every positive impact I make in a patient’s life acquaints me further with my role as a physician. I know that every time I step into a patient’s room and introduce myself as “doctor,” I am essentially bringing with me my ever-growing clinical acumen and knowledge from years of medical training. It is a title that I am proud to carry.
I did not win the pageant that night. Until recently, I hid my sash deep in the closet; I felt like it confirmed my failure to win or even place. Over time, I have gained an appreciation for the uniqueness of my experience, and I feel proud now of how hard I worked to compete. The yellow satin sash that used to lay buried is now draped over the corner of my bedroom shelf, alongside my medical school diploma and wedding photo.
Monique Mun, MD is a PGY-2 psychiatry resident at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, Michigan. She has clinical interests in child and adolescent psychiatry and cultural psychiatry. Dr. Mun has no financial disclosures or conflict of interest.
Illustration by Jennifer Bogartz