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Feeling like an imposter at work

imposter syndrome

I take constructive criticism incredibly personally, whilst still taking it on board and learning from it. Any flaws found in my work, no matter how small, make me shudder with embarrassment. There is a little voice in my head that constantly criticises and second-guesses everything I do, often stopping me from acting on an idea or from doing something I’ve always wanted to do. I often believe that my achievements and successes are down to good timing or luck. Somehow I feel as though I’ve coasted through my life and I have everyone around me convinced that I’m brilliant when in reality it’s just a matter of time before someone finds out I’m an imposter at work.

Does that sound familiar? 

“Imposter Syndrome was first studied by psychologist Pauline Rose Clance in 1978. Despite the name, it isn’t a disease or abnormality, and is not tied to depression, anxiety or self-esteem. It is a feeling, an experience, a belief that can be hard to shake.”

Imposter Syndrome has been experienced by 70% of people at some point in their career. People who have suffered from it report that they feel inadequate and are plagued by persistent self-doubt when it comes to their careers and achievements. Sufferers will often explain away any successes, putting it down to luck, a fluke, or simply being in the right place at the right time. And whilst many people with Imposter Syndrome will continue to better themselves to correct what they think are failings, they will continue to win that new client, secure that promotion and succeed with new projects… whilst continuing to exacerbate the Imposter Syndrome symptoms. A double-edged sword.

So where does it come from?

“There’s no single answer. Some experts believe it has to do with personality traits—like anxiety or neuroticism—while others focus on family or behavioral causes.”

Often when looking into disorders or syndromes, psychologists delve back to childhood experiences and what possible events could have triggered these types of feelings and behaviours in adulthood. Looking at how you were raised is a good place to start in terms of understanding how you operate in adulthood and why you may react to certain things the way you do.

For example, if you had parents or guardians that continuously praised you for things that you didn’t feel you deserved praise for, you might feel as though you’re a fraud for lapping up the unwarranted compliments. If you were championed and applauded for athletic, artistic or academic efforts that you know others succeeded you in, you’ll often feel as though you’re being celebrated when others deserve it more.

Of course, the other side of the coin may be that you received no praise at all. Even when you have exceeded expectations. If you were rarely commended for your wins then it’s likely you would have learned to feel inadequate in adulthood, even when you have accomplished things and been recognised for them – and rightfully so.

If you were a sibling you may have fallen into a natural role within the family unit. You may have been labelled as the ‘sporty’ one, the ‘academic’ one or the ‘emotional’ one. These labels can be dangerous for various reasons, sometimes they become self-fulfilling prophecies and at other times it can be hard for a child to shed themselves of that label by the time they’ve reached adulthood. I was labelled the ‘academic’ one at home meaning that the first time a grade slipped below an A* it was a crisis and a deeply disturbing experience for me. 

But it isn’t just in childhood where our perception of ourselves is deeply ingrained by those around us and our environments, adulthood has a lot of traps to fall into as well. Social media for example brings with it a platform for people to boast of their achievements and list them in all their glory. But how often do people showcase the effort it took, the challenges and tribulations, the failed attempts before the success? It’s a breeding ground for comparison and self-doubt, with extremely high expectations to live up to. 

Another issue of course is the fast-paced and changeable world of business – particularly digital. This means that you’re often faced with challenges that you need to overcome, systems and software you need to learn, there are always bugs to be fixed, research to be done and learning opportunities face you at every corner. Feeling like you’re being put through your paces and constantly being tested can be another Imposter Syndrome trigger.

“Working in STEM can be challenging, regardless of the exact industry you work in, and usually to secure your role you will have studied at university for several years and undergone training. It has been suggested that people working in STEM suffer more from imposter syndrome due to the rapid rate of change and advancement. No human could ever keep up – but we feel we should.”

Something that goes hand in hand with careers in digital includes the culture of overworking. Long hours and burning the candle at both ends can often result in burnout. This can kill productivity and intrinsic motivation, creating a perfect environment for Imposter Syndrome to breed and swell. The competitive industry mounts the pressure of perfection and the fear of failure, contributing to the symptoms of Imposter Syndrome and exacerbating it further for sufferers.

How can you counteract the symptoms of Imposter Syndrome?

There is no one cause of Imposter Syndrome and sufferers can experience it at any point in their working lives and careers. Some people say it comes and goes whereas others say it’s a persistent issue that is never far away. But the good news is that there are coping mechanisms, and there are things you can do to counteract the effects it leaves.

Lower your standards

People who suffer from Imposter Syndrome set such impeccably high standards for themselves, often ones that are impossible to reach. By lowering these standards you allow yourself room for mistakes and learning curves, both of which are important to take the steps toward accepting that you’re not always going to get it right, and that’s okay. It’s all very well being a perfectionist, and it’s a credit to you for wanting to get things done correctly and well, but there is no point beating yourself up when something doesn’t go to plan or as smoothly as you had anticipated.

Learn to accept praise

In the same way that compliments can make me squirm and reduce me to a blushing mess, praise can have the same effect. Instead of questioning whether the praise you’re receiving is warranted, instead, accept it with grace. Don’t question it, don’t analyse it, simply accept it as fact. Just by saying ‘thank you’ and moving on is enough to help you internalise the praise and accept it as truth.

Stop explaining it away

Stop going into various reasons as to why your success or achievement wasn’t that big of a deal or it was so easy that anyone could do it. Explaining your successes away is one of the biggest side effects of Imposter Syndrome, catch yourself doing it and put a stop to it. You may have gotten into the habit of saying ‘If I can do it, anyone can!’ By saying statements like this, you’re constantly belittling your own efforts and achievements. Try to steer away from this type of language.

Remove luck from it

Don’t use the word ‘luck’ or ‘I got lucky’ when explaining your achievements. Accept that you put in time, effort, used your skills and training as well as experience to get to where you are today. Give yourself some credit from time to time. It doesn’t make you arrogant or any less modest.

Try positive affirmations

Some people have added positive affirmations into their morning routine to harness positive thinking and start the day right. Affirmations are positive statements that can help you to challenge and overcome self-sabotage as well as the negative thoughts that Imposter Syndrome brings. When you repeat something often enough you’ll begin to truly believe them.

Whilst Imposter Syndrome is widespread, sufferers are only just beginning to really discuss it openly. The more that it’s talked about, the more people that come forward to speak about their experience with it and the ways in which they handle it. The good news is that Imposter Syndrome is felt and experienced by many, across all careers and backgrounds.

If left unchecked, Imposter Syndrome can allow self-doubt to cause you to sabotage yourself in reality, so that it matches with how you feel. Taking the steps to acknowledge that it is Imposter Syndrome you’re struggling with, and then attempting to quell its side effects are integral when it comes to combating the feelings it generates in day to day life. 

There are plenty of useful resources online with helpful information to read up on if you’re in the throes of Imposter Syndrome. There are plenty of tips and tricks that can be tried out to help you find what works best for you.

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