Here’s what the extreme of impostor syndrome looks like. 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.
- When we’re given an ambitious project to lead, we get stuck, certain that we don’t have what it takes to succeed.
- We’ll procrastinate, then be consumed with guilt for not doing what we need to do.
- We’ll turn work into torture, pouring an unnecessary amount of effort and stress into it.
- We’ll brush off compliments and dismiss our accomplishments as luck.
- We’ll avoid ambitious projects, opting for “low-hanging fruit” instead and avoiding the spotlight at all costs.
- We won’t celebrate our achievements or enjoy our time off.
Impostor syndrome doesn’t go away
Although we might be tempted to “solve” our impostor syndrome, there is no quick fix. What we can do is learn to recognize it and move forward in spite of it. Here’s what can help.
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 see 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.
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. Accepting and internalizing praise
Accepting compliments is one small action that can have ripple effects in our lives and our careers. By deciding to no longer brush off compliments and dismiss our successes as luck, we can begin to practice a new way of thinking about ourselves and our work.
We’re not impostors, but we will, inevitably, feel like we are
While we might think that other people have it more together than we do, around 70% 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.
Looking to learn more about how to stay sane at work? Check out:
- Employee Burnout: What Employers Can Do To Prevent It
- Sometimes It’s Great To Disconnect From Work. Here’s Why.
- Getting Things Done in a Post-Slack World