How to Deal With Imposter Syndrome at Work

I was 29 when I was promoted to a supervisory position at a marketing firm. One of the first projects my team worked on was planning a regional conference, and all I could think was, “I’m not qualified to do this.” I quickly convinced myself that the promotion had only been due to my being in the right place at the right time, and that I had no business supervising others and overseeing this massive project.

It was my first encounter with imposter syndrome.

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Imposter syndrome is a widespread issue where people feel undeserving, or think that their success is due to luck as opposed to talents. The issue was first identified in 1978, and research has shown that both men and women experience this significant sense of self-doubt.

For me, it was a mixture of the perpetual self-doubt, “middle child syndrome,” and never having held a leadership position before. I was never captain of my basketball team; I never went out for student government in school. Of course, not seeking out leadership positions doesn’t mean that I didn’t have the skills to take charge of situations, I just had trouble recognizing those qualities in myself. 

Imposter syndrome in the workplace

I learned very quickly that imposter syndrome was more than just a “feeling” within myself; it was a behavior I carried into my professional experience that would begin negatively impacting my work if I didn’t take the reigns and learn to manage it. The perfectionism that doubting myself created was debilitating; I rarely felt my work was good enough and  placed increasingly unrealistic demands on myself to be perfect. 

Needless to say, things snowballed from there. 

I agonized over every decision for that regional conference, which in turn slowed my productivity. In the end, everything got done in time, but even long after the event I kept second guessing the choices I’d made and quietly wondered if someone else would have done a better job.   

If you feel that you aren’t qualified for an opportunity at work, it’s far too easy to shy away from it and miss out on a well-deserved professional challenge and the accompanying growth. Self-doubt inevitably affects your ability to be a confident leader and, as I’ve finally come to terms with after months of very honest self-reflection, can even alter your decision-making process. Luckily, there are many ways to overcome this challenge.  

Recognize what you’re feeling

My friends noticed my self-doubt, talked with me, and gave me the wake-up call I needed to help me recognize that I really had imposter syndrome. Many people have experienced this, and I don’t have to be ashamed of these feelings. 

Take some time and observe the feelings and thoughts you’re experiencing. Think about whether this doubt is helping you, or if these thoughts are only getting in the way. Remember that imposter syndrome is a mental game, and the people who experience it are both talented and qualified for the positions that they’re working.   

It’s also important to remember that many other people have faced obstacles in their career, and they’ve been able to overcome those obstacles and go on to achieve great things. For instance, women are overcoming the gender gap in executive positions, taking on leadership roles and holding C-suite positions. I reminded myself that I, too, can work hard to overcome imposter syndrome and have a successful career.  

Remind yourself of your talents

Take a step back and try to remember all of the good qualities and talents that helped you to earn your position. Make a list of these qualities and talents, and include some of your top achievements, too. Keep this list nearby and look at it often to remind yourself of just how qualified you are to be doing your job. It may feel silly or self-aggrandizing at first, but trust me, it’s not. When I put together my list, I found it to be a more honest reflection of myself than any of my negative self-talk. If you’re struggling to come up with talents and qualifications, consider talking with your friends and family about the doubt that you’re feeling. We often tend to believe what others say about us more than we believe ourselves, so hearing friends and family remind you of all of your great skills can leave a lasting impression. My friends did a great job of pumping me up and reminding me what made me the right person for my new position.

You can also talk with a counselor about your feelings and doubts in your career. A counselor can help you to better understand why you’re feeling the way you are and can help you to reframe how you feel about yourself to rebuild your confidence.

Reframe your thinking

By changing the way I thought about and talked to myself, I mentally reinforced the belief that I was qualified and talented. Positive self-talk helped to boost my confidence and improve my emotional health. Rather than dwelling on mistakes I may have made, as with that admittedly less-than-perfect regional conference, I’m now focusing my professional energies on advancement. This kind of focus is allowing me to consider and hone the skills needed to move up the ladder; communication, drive, experience, and leadership are skills I’ve found easy to practice in any role, and they’re the same ones that carry you up to the very top. By identifying the negative thoughts, and changing self-talk to encompass compassion and forgiveness, we can all improve our overall feelings and well-being.

I used all of these techniques in my journey with imposter syndrome, and while I struggled to  identify the skills and accomplishments that earned me that promotion, I wasn’t alone. Friends and a few close coworkers helped to remind me that I do quality work and that my unique skill set makes me difficult to replace.

As for that regional conference my team was planning? Although I can honestly say it wasn’t perfect, for all intents and purposes it went off without a hitch.

Originally published on March 22, 2020.

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