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Imposter Syndrome: How to Survive at Work When You Don’t Know What the *%$# You’re Doing

Candidly sharing your thoughts will make you better equipped to recognize and deal with imposter syndrome.

We’ve all heard the phrase, “fake it ‘till you make it,” but we also know that’s easier said than done. So, to draw on another cliche, we’ll use the metaphor of plants. People judge a plant by how well they “thrive,” hence the phrase, “bloom where you are planted.” However, plants, like any other living thing, need nourishing. Doubt, unfortunately, can be a stealthy but potent carcinogen— deadly because it can form inside the seeds themselves.

Imposter syndrome is a phenomenon that happens when high-achieving individuals internalize a collection of feelings of inadequacy caused by self-doubt, culminating in downplaying or denying any sense of accomplishment.

The following article will detail how to identify and deal with imposter syndrome before it holds you back from truly “thriving.”

imposter syndromWhat are the warning signs of Imposter Syndrome?

Because success is an intangible goal, it’s often reserved for only the best and brightest, with everyone else simply being the frauds who yearn for it, right? Of course not. However, imposter syndrome is more common than you may think. Researchers believe that 70% of people have experienced it at one time or another. Imposter syndrome often manifests in the following ways:

  • avoidance of feedback
  • reluctance to ask for help
  • downplaying achievements
  • attributing success to external factors
  • overworking towards burnout

The desire to do (or seem like we’re doing) well appears to be synonymous with autonomy— we want to do it right the first time, without being told. Therefore, asking for help can feel like an admission of ineptitude. The added pressure from unrealistic portrayals of competence has triggered some fear-based behaviors like the ones mentioned above. These behaviors affect not just the well-being of the employee but can potentially alter the business. Burn-out correlates to a lack of productivity, and a downswing in productivity can cost companies $3,400 per employee each year. Yet, as they say, “work smarter, not harder.”

Learning to accept when you can use the resources around you can stop self-inflected burn-out.

imposter syndromWhat to do when the going gets stressful

Find a mentor

You do not and should not need to suffer in silence. Candidly sharing your thoughts will make you better equipped to recognize and deal with imposter syndrome. Sometimes all it takes to calm down is saying that thought that’s been banging around your skull out loud to someone. The best mentors cultivate trust through empathy and honesty, providing strategic insights and an objective point of view from their own well of experiences.

Most of the time, your questions or concerns have been asked and felt before. There will be common ground in many new situations from people who have already trekked through similar problems, and that comradery alone can be reassuring.

Educating yourself and seeking diverse perspectives can also further your confidence. With their knowledge of you and your role, a mentor may also suggest new opportunities where you can shine and gain visibility on your team.

Set reasonable expectations

Contrary to your beliefs, no one expects you to be perfect or jump immediately into the deep end if you’re not already in it. While humility is generally endearing, anticipating yourself drowning will only continue to feed these self-fulfilling prophecies of failure.

If you’re feeling uncomfortable, give yourself attainable goals to start and ease your way towards more complex projects once you’ve gained some confidence. If you’re starting a new role, set 30, 60, and 90-day goals with your direct supervisor. Stop blaming your limitations on mistakes or failures and attributing your success to luck alone. Failures are part of life, and we all deal with them. It’s worth repeating: no one expects you to be perfect, especially when you’re learning something new!

Interrupt the pattern

People who experience imposter syndrome tend to be perfectionists. Don’t worry; this isn’t inherently a flaw. It means that they already care deeply about the quality of work and will put in the time to ensure they check details for validity. However, it does mean it can be tricky to change how much pressure gets placed on that quality. Identify what’s shaking your confidence and interrupt the negativity cycle by actively taking steps to address those issues. It can be as easy as rephrasing your internal monologue— emphasize the processes you took instead of the level of achievement or outcome.

  1. “They’re going to find out I don’t know what I’m doing,” can become “everyone starts somewhere. I may not know the exact answers now, but I’m smart enough to figure them out.”
  2. “Everyone here is so much more talented than I am,” turns into “I can learn a lot from my team. If they hired all these people, they must see something in me too.”
  3. “All I can see are the flaws,” changes to “Now I know what I want to do better next time.”

Learning something you can apply later still counts as a win.

Also, chances are, you have reached your current position because you enjoy taking on challenges, so think of trial and error as a reliable tool. Say yes to opportunities that arise. Put yourself out there by attending events or different types of training. When a higher-up suggests you for a project, remember that while it may be intimidating to do something you’re unsure you’ll excel at, they chose you for a reason. There’s nothing wrong with being up for it and asking questions along the way. Taking on challenges and doing well can open many doors, so you must be willing to say yes, and learn later if necessary.

Track Success

Lastly, reward yourself! It’s important to celebrate not just the validation outside of yourself but also to do so internally. Learn to pat yourself on the back.

Acknowledging incremental progress helps internalize and claim ownership of success. Keep a list of your accomplishments and newly acquired skills— big and small — in a spreadsheet or journal that you can refer back to, allowing for reflection on achievements with a healthy sense of pride, rather than diminishing them as the result of factors like luck or connections. It may feel a little silly at first, but keeping a track record can help focus your ongoing work. This type of cataloging can also more effectively pinpoint and articulate how, why, and what you’ve done deserves a raise or promotion in the future.

imposter syndromIf you can’t erase it, embrace it

Eradicating impostor syndrome is tricky — especially if you’ve dealt with it for a while. Remember that you are not alone in feeling this way, and overcoming this feeling is often a team effort. There is an endless list of big names who feel or have felt as you do, spanning from team leaders and CEOs to athletes like Serena Williams, actors such as David Tennant, and even people like former first lady/author Michelle Obama.

Arguably, the best way to deal with your impostor syndrome isn’t to eradicate it but to stop it from hindering your opportunities. “Thriving,” much like success, is subjective, and it’s often the fruit of a lot of hard work and self-care. So be kind to yourself, nourish your growth, and maybe learn to take a compliment or two (if you feel up to it).


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Sarah Chambers Sarah Chambers

Sarah Chambers is a Customer Support Consultant and Content Creator from Vancouver, Canada. When she’s not arguing about customer service, she’s usually outdoors rock climbing or snowboarding. Follow her on Twitter @sarahleeyoga to keep up with her adventures.

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