The Power of Belonging

Turnaround for Children
4 min readFeb 21, 2023


A Personal Perspective: An antidote to imposter syndrome.

ALL KIDS THRIVING | How learning and development happen.

By Pamela Cantor, M.D.


  • Stress has the power to frighten us, to shut us down, and to induce imposter syndrome.
  • Trust is the antidote to stress.
  • Belonging is the most powerful antidote to imposter syndrome.

There are lots of reasons why a person would want to go to medical school and become a doctor. Mine were really clear. I was going to learn about trauma and how it affects the body and the mind, and then I’d become a doctor and would know how to heal children and help them recover from trauma.

This was because I had known trauma as a child. I was sexually molested by an uncle. My parents couldn’t face it, so there was no help for many years. But I did eventually find a very special psychiatrist. He told me I was “like a pearl in an oyster,” instead of this ugly, dirty thing I believed I was.

So the day I came into his office and said, “I’m going to be a doctor,” he smiled a big smile and said, “Of course you are!” Never mind that I had been an art major in college who had never taken a single math or science course! My doctor had these almost magical powers, and I figured he got them at medical school, so I was going to go there and get them too.

I signed up for two GED classes, one in algebra and one in chemistry, and I figured that if I got A’s, it would be a sign that I could do this. I did. Then I went to Columbia University where I was told they failed 70 percent of their post-baccalaureate pre-med students. I doubled up on organic chemistry, biology, physics, and calculus so I could be under 30 years old when I applied. When I got a 3.9, I thought, this is surely proof I can do this, that I belonged in med school. I was waitlisted at 11 schools and accepted at one, Cornell.

A Rough Start

That July, at 28 years old, I began. The night before, I noticed something happening to my voice, first some crackling as if I were getting a cold, but then, by late evening, my voice was gone. Not laryngitis — gone. I was up the entire night in a panic, “I can’t go. This is impossible and humiliating!”

In the early morning, I grabbed a clipboard and wrote, “I am Pam, and I don’t have a voice today.” My classmates introduced themselves by writing on my clipboard. As I sat down for the first lecture, I looked around and was struck: I was one of just a handful of women in my class and one of the oldest.

That night, I drove to my therapist’s office. “What is this?” I wrote, pointing to my throat. He said it was a severe, stress-induced reaction to the first day of med school. He took a pause and then said, “You still don’t believe you belong there.” He explained the power of stress to frighten, shut us down, and induce imposter syndrome, and how powerful and excruciating it can be when you don’t believe you are worthy of something, and you don’t believe you belong.

When I wrote, “Will I get my voice back? How long will it take?” He replied, “It takes two weeks to get used to anything new like this.” Even though I thought he might be making that up, I trusted him and started counting down the days, going to class with my clipboard, feeling myself settle in, and, yes, my voice came back in just under two weeks.

Here are two big things I learned:

  • Trust is the antidote to stress. It just melts it away.
  • Belonging is the most powerful antidote to imposter syndrome.

Belonging Fuels Curiosity

When we feel like we belong, our minds open to possibility, and creativity can blossom. Fear, including fear of embarrassment, is not an obstacle. We crave new knowledge like food when we are hungry or water when we are thirsty. This is what curiosity is, a state of learning readiness. We’ve all had it — and we want more of it — more learning, more practice, more of what it takes to get better at something we care about and want to get good at.

Not Alone

I would come to learn the biology of all of this in med school, and I also learned that I wasn’t alone in these feelings. Turns out that one of my classmates was Mae Jemison, a woman who forged a path through incredible barriers to get to medical school and went on to become the first Black woman to go to space.

Unlike me, Mae knew in kindergarten that she wanted to be a scientist. And when her teacher said, “Don’t you mean a nurse?” Mae said, “No, I mean a scientist.” Still, even with that confidence and a good foundation in place — including an uncle who explained Einstein’s theory of relativity to her at the age of 6 — there were obstacles to belonging and access to her highest aspirations because of her gender and race.

For me, Mae was a very bright star but also a kindred spirit. We fired each other up and protected each other, and we grew and found our places in science while supporting each other.

Finding Safety and Belonging

My therapist taught me that trauma is not destiny. Mae Jemison had my back and would not let me give up. Our families, friends, communities, schools, and teams can help us find a sense of safety and belonging, and this is what allows us to take risks, to shoot for the stars.

For Mae Jemison, the sky was never the limit. It shouldn’t be for anyone.

This article was originally published on Psychology Today.



Turnaround for Children

Turnaround connects the dots between science, adversity and school performance to catalyze student development and academic achievement.