In the TV series Industry, a character named Hari Daur is competing with four other graduates for a job at a prestigious investment bank in London. Because he is the son of Pakistani immigrants and didn’t attend an Ivy League school, Hari worries he’s not as good as the other interns.
He compensates for his self-perceived weaknesses by working harder than everybody else. He literally doesn’t leave the office for two days and survives on Modafinil (medication for narcolepsy), energy drinks, and power naps. One day, after printing copies of an important report, he notices a formatting mistake. He spends his last living hours—yes, he literally dies from overwork—freaking out over it.
While few of us would let impostor syndrome kill us, many of us would let it hurt our productivity, ruin our well-being, and keep us stuck in our careers. Here’s what that might look like:
- Feeling stuck and as though lacking what it takes to succeed
- Procrastinating, then feeling guilty for not doing what needs to be done
- Pouring an unnecessary amount of effort and stress into work
- Brushing off compliments or dismissing accomplishments as luck
- Opting for “low-hanging fruit” and avoiding the spotlight at all costs
- Never celebrating achievements or enjoying time off
Impostor syndrome isn’t “fixable”
Although we might be tempted to “solve” our impostor syndrome, it isn’t something we can fix. What we can do is recognize it and keep going in spite of it. Here’s what helps:
1. Recognizing your impostor syndrome
Most of us don’t realize it when we are experiencing impostor syndrome. In fact, a good indicator that we might be dealing with impostor syndrome is being stuck and not knowing why. Part of why we struggle to recognize impostor syndrome is that we normalize behaviors associated with it. For example, we might confuse our tendency to over prepare with rigor, or our inability to accept compliments as modesty. We might think setting unrealistic high standards for ourselves is striving for excellence. Until we see these behaviors for what they are—anxiety rooted in the irrational belief that we are not worthy or capable—we will continue making ourselves miserable and burning out.
2. Talking to someone about it
Once we realize we have impostor syndrome—and that it comes and goes—it helps to talk to someone about it. A coach can help us identify limiting beliefs we have about ourselves. A support group can help us realize that we’re not alone and remind us not to confuse our negative self-talk with the truth. A mentor or manager can help us understand our strengths as well as what’s really expected of us at work.
3. Keeping a record of small wins and successes
Keeping a record of wins—client testimonials, praise from our bosses and teammates, positive results from our work—in a “happy file” that we can access whenever we need reassuring is also helpful. When we’re overwhelmed with limiting beliefs, we can look at evidence of our past good work and remember that we’ve done good things before, difficult things, even, and that we can do them again.
4. Acknowledging accomplishments
Recognizing and celebrating our achievements can have ripple effects in our personal lives and careers. By deciding to no longer brush off compliments or dismiss our successes as luck, we can begin to practice a new way of thinking about ourselves and our work.
Impostor syndrome doesn’t go away
While we might think that other people have it more together than we do, most of us are crippled with self-doubt from time to time. The best thing we can do is be honest with ourselves and with one another about our anxieties. By normalizing self-doubt, we can get better at supporting ourselves and each other.
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