Arya: imposter syndrome, life as a surgeon, and modern dating

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Melissa: Hi! Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. Do you mind sharing the name you picked for your interview? I’m choosing to, across the board, change names of all participants. 

Arya: Arya

Melissa: How long have we known each other? 

Arya: 14 years!!!

Melissa: It’s amazing how truly quickly time flies!

Have you had an experience or experiences which lead you to wonder if there were other people “out there” like you? 

Arya: I think I’ve probably had several experiences, both professionally and personally, where I wondered if other people were going through similar experiences. 

Professionally as a female surgeon, I’ve definitely suffered from imposter syndrome.  And as much as you read about it these days, I still find myself wondering if others, especially women, doubt themselves professionally as much as I do.   

Personally, I’ve struggled with dating, likely partly due to my profession and partly due to my expectations in a partner in this new era of dating apps that does not seem to value compassion and thoughtfulness.

Melissa: I think imposter syndrome is very real for everyone, especially for many women. Regardless of how many years we’ve been educated or how much experience we have, self doubt can really creep in and then the “negative self talk” can really kick in. I talk a lot about reframing at work (focusing on facts, not thoughts), and find while it’s straight forward in theory, it’s really hard in practice.

Have you felt isolated at all throughout your training and in your personal life? Or have you had you have a sense someone else might have a similar experience?

Arya: Luckily I have some great professional role models and have been part of some great organizations for women that helps me feel less isolated in my “imposter syndrome” feelings. I probably feel a bit more isolated in my personal life as I get older and more people pair off.  Also, a lot of my friends who married younger don’t seem to understand this current era of dating apps and the struggles that come with it.

Melissa: Modern dating is really, really tough. The apps, in particular, seem to give off a vibe that a human isn’t attached to the other end of communications and interactions. “Ghosting” is particularly upsetting and hurtful, among many other facets of dating these days. 

Can you also give me a sense of what it’s like to date, given how often you work? Particularly, with the crazy hours you work. I guess I should also ask what your general hours are like?

Arya: My hours can be kinda tough, generally working 6 days a week for about 80 hours with 24 hour shifts scattered throughout.  For most of my training it was rare that I had a full weekend off and I could never control my schedule or predict if I’d actually be out of work on time to go on a date. And if I did get out on time, it was hard to muster the energy to change into nice clothes, do my hair and makeup, and have a conversation with a complete stranger. I often felt like I was the one putting in more effort, as well, which got exhausting after many failed dating attempts.

Melissa: It’s hard to keep the optimism going after a lot of “failed” attempts at “getting out there.” I like the idea of cautious optimism, but even that can be really challenging when you feel like it’s just first date after first date, if it even gets to that point. That being said, there’s always that idea of the “open door,” which, to me, means you’re open to the idea of finding someone and there’s some level of hope in there! 

 Is there any other job you could see yourself doing?

Arya: I love food so probably something in the food industry, although not a chef.

Melissa: I could see that! 

What’s it like often being the only female in the room at your job?

Arya: There are a lot of feelings that come with being the only female in the room in surgery.  Luckily, it is becoming less frequent these days but there are still surgical fields that are very male dominated.  It is both intimidating yet empowering. 

I think throughout my whole life I have often put myself in situations where I was the only girl in the room. I was the only girl on several soccer teams growing up and I remember the boys snickering, “Wwwwww they have a girl on their team.” That just made me more determined to win and I may have thrown a few elbows their way too. In school, I was often the lone girl in the more advanced classes with the boys and loved when I outsmarted them in class.

Now I think I look at it more of a collaborative approach.  We need men in the professional setting to be on our side and promote us or else women will not advance.

Melissa: I love that idea of a collaborative approach. 

Do you think your age and stature also make difference? For those that don’t know you, you are young and petite!

Arya: Definitely! Most people in the hospital assume I’m a nurse because I’m female and look young.  It’s a bit discouraging to hear every single day and even more discouraging when people look to my male junior residents and medical students for the plan when I am the one examining them and talking to them.

Melissa: What do you think would move the “cause” forward for female surgeons?

Arya: I think the world of surgery is slowly improving for female surgeons. There have been social media movements like #ILookLikeASurgeon which have brought attention to the matter of female surgeons often not getting recognized as surgeons.  There have been many articles published about female surgeons being underrepresented in surgery leadership.  There has also has been more of an emphasis of “work-life balance/integration” for not only women, but for men too. I think when you make those types of issues important to men, they get in on the cause which can only help.

Melissa: Have you had particularly low points throughout your training?

Arya: There were definitely a few times where there was an intersection between difficult issues personally and professionally which made for some of my lowest points. When you add minimal sleep or free time to that situation, it just makes it harder. Luckily I had some great friends to help me through and time often improves a lot of situations.  We also, in my program, take two years “off” in the middle of our training to do research which is a much nicer schedule and gave me a lot of time to reflect on what was important to me in my surgical career.

Melissa: Have you had particularly high points throughout your training? 

Arya: Definitely or I wouldn’t still be doing it! High points were performing well at a difficult operation, saving a patient’s life, and connecting with my patients.  A lot of people think that surgeons don’t really talk to their patients much but we usually see them twice a day and sometimes my favorite part of the day was the slow afternoons when I got to spend extra time talking to and getting to know my patients.

Melissa: What do you think is the cause for imposter syndrome and what can be done to improve it?

Arya: I think that it is something that is ingrained in our society.  I can’t quite explain how but I think through TV shows, movies, social media, magazines, somehow this notion that we as women aren’t good enough or smart enough gets seared into us. Traditional gender roles are still a large part of our society and biases all of us.  I think we are slowly trying to break the mold but it takes time.

Melissa: Onwards and upwards!

Resources:

You can read more about coping with and tips for managing imposter syndrome here. You can learn more about the amazing ‘I Look Like a Surgeon’ campaign here. Lastly, one of my personal favorite advice columnists Heather Havrilesky, aka Ask Polly, has great feedback in this area, among many other areas.

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