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Imposter syndrome at work

How to Deal With Imposter Syndrome at Work

Sadly, those nervous nagging thoughts telling you you aren’t good enough are pretty normal. They can flash like fireworks. Suddenly we have a hard time thinking about anything else. They distract us from our work while minimizing our achievements. All we hear is a singular voice declaring how inadequate we are –– that we aren’t smart enough and don’t deserve the jobs we have. What it is really saying –– often on repeat like a scratched record –– is that we don’t belong. Imposter syndrome at work is extremely unhealthy and counterproductive. So what is it and what are some good coping strategies?


Feeling Fraudulent


The term “impostor syndrome” first appeared in a 1978 research article when psychologists Suzanna Imes and Pauline Rose Clance used it to describe “an internal experience of intellectual phoniness that appears to be particularly prevalent and intense among a select sample of high achieving women… Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the impostor phenomenon persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.” Of course, high-achieving women aren’t the only victims of the syndrome. If you consistently feel inadequate no matter how much you have accomplished, then you too may have fallen prey.


No, you won’t find “imposter syndrome” on the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) 2.  A form of social anxiety disorder, it is often first nourished by parental behavior. If your achievements were minimized by perfectionist parentals who set unobtainable goals while making you feel their love was conditional, then chances are you’re an adult with imposter syndrome. Constant criticism is often the fuel for this but sometimes non-specific praise is the culprit. Either way, it manifests as a type of perfectionism. Although some perfectionists seek less challenging jobs that they can perform perfectly, high-achievers take on more demanding roles. 


At work, we are often triggered by bosses who mimic our parent’s behavior. If you’ve casually considered how much your supervisor resembles mom or dad, there’s probably a good reason. Chances are your manager is equally hypercritical and consistently dissatisfied. 


However, having a supportive boss and a fulfilling career doesn’t make you immune to the imposter syndrome. So if you’re wondering if you are a victim of the imposter syndrome at work, it usually appears as the unshakable feeling that you are a fraud –– and at any moment your ruse will be revealed and you’ll be dragged out of the office without enough time to throw your personal items in a cardboard box. Like most anxieties, it’s based on a hyperreality rather than a realistic one. Even board-certified cardiac-thoracic surgeons have moments of inadequacy when they hold a beating heart. So do yourself a favor and develop some coping strategies.

Taking Control


The younger you are, the greater your risk of anxiety. Recently, a study examining anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic discovered that the highest rate of anxiety was among millennials –– with 36.0% reporting clinical significant anxiety with nearly 16% experiencing severe anxiety.  Anxiety is often ignored but untreated it can lead to full-blown depression along with a host of other mental and physical issues. If you are coping with anxiety, speaking to a qualified therapist can really help. Plus one benefit to last year’s lockdowns is that many are still taking clients remotely –– reducing your excuses for not getting an appointment.  


I am a huge believer in journaling. Taking the time to write down what you are feeling is a proven strategy for not only managing negative emotions but for improving your overall mental health. Besides honestly detailing how you feel along with your suspected triggers or even anger at your parents, one helpful thing to do is to write down your good qualities. I’m confident you have accomplished more than you give yourself credit for and that you are better at your job than you believe. Writing down all the good things you have done can go a long way toward accepting that you really do belong.  Make a list of your strengths. You can also list areas that need improvement. One reason people suffer from imposter syndrome is they believe their achievements are due to luck. The cliche about the harder I work, the luckier I get applies here. Begin replacing your feelings of being lucky with feelings of gratitude. 


Taking control of that mean inner-voice means training yourself with an immediate rebuttal. If you think that you don’t deserve a promotion, immediately remind yourself of the project you just completed or the team you led. Sometimes we casually say, “I’m so tired” or “Today is horrible” when it isn’t even true. We just get used to a certain mindset. Getting rid of the imposter syndrome means eliminating the mindset and providing the positive, supportive praise you may have lacked growing up. After all, you wouldn’t let someone say cruel, vicious things to your best friend, would you? 


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