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Is Imposter Syndrome Holding You Back at Work?

We spend most of our lives at work, so the way we feel when we’re there can have a huge impact on our mental health and overall wellbeing. Whatever you do for a living, you probably care about creating the right image. You want to be seen as professional, competent and productive. You might want to get noticed by the right people so you can progress in your career or just fit in and be well-liked by your colleagues. This is all completely normal, but it can also go too far, especially when imposter syndrome is involved.

What is Imposter Syndrome?

Put simply, imposter syndrome is the experience of feeling like a phoney or a fraud. The term was first used by psychologists Suzanna Imes and Pauline Rose Clance in the 1970s. It was originally thought to apply mostly to high-achieving women. Since then, it has been recognised as more widely experienced.

Common signs of imposter syndrome include an inability to accurately assess your own competence or skills, attributing success to external factors, berating your performance, chronic overachieving, self-doubt and self-sabotage.

If you’re struggling with imposter syndrome at work, you might think:

– I’m useless at my job

– I’m going to be found out

– I’m a fraud

– I’m only just getting away with it

– Everybody else is doing well, it’s just me that doesn’t get it

How Imposter Syndrome Could Be Holding You Back

Although it’s normal to put on a social mask and try to present the best version of ourselves, some people put a lot more into this. They create a workplace persona and hold this version of themselves to very high standards that are difficult to meet.

Establishing a work identity that feels very different to who you are is exhausting. Even when you perform well, the cycle of self-doubt and criticism is maintained because you think, ‘if they knew the real me, they wouldn’t have given me that praise’. This prevents you from building any inner confidence. When we lack confidence, it’s harder to take risks, make suggestions and embrace new opportunities – all things that can help you progress at work.

If sustained, this pattern of self-doubt can lead to stress, anxiety and burnout. When we’re stressed, we live in a threatened mindset which dampens our creativity and problem-solving skills. High stress can also impact immune function which means more days off work sick.

And then there’s your colleagues. If you’re not being authentic, people around you may pick up on this and feel uncomfortable. Alternatively, your increased stress levels might be contagious, creating an unpleasant working environment for the whole team.

Even if you manage to avoid or limit stress, struggling with imposter syndrome could mean you’re keeping yourself under the radar for fear of being ‘found out’. This is a form of self-sabotage – you’re essentially standing in the way of your own success.

Don’t Confuse Growth with Failure or Inadequacy

When I first became a manager in the NHS, I remember experiencing imposter syndrome. At the time, someone told me starting a new, more challenging role was like putting on new wellies. It’s going to feel strange for a while because you need to get used to them. Sometimes we feel like a phony because we’re waiting for our new wellies to fit properly. In other words, growth and change can feel uncomfortable, but eventually they’ll take us to a better place.

We all want to grow and develop, so we must all move through periods when things feel tough. Focus on where you’ll be after this period of growth. How can you support yourself on this journey?

How to Move Past Imposter Syndrome

Most mindset changes start with exploring your internal world and developing more self-awareness. If you’re struggling with imposter syndrome, it might be time to have some therapy sessions or start a regular journaling practice. Read my beginners guide to journaling for more help with this.

Grab a notebook and write down one thing you have done well every day. Noticing your wins will help you correct your negative bias and build inner confidence. You could also try the following prompts:

  • List reasons you belong where you are

  • Recall the times you are at your best

  • List your achievements

  • Write out your imposter thinking

  • Write out the alternative to each unhelpful Imposter thought

  • Document your positive feedback

  • Write down all your successes and the reasons you were given the job

Imposter syndrome often develops because you have really high standards for yourself, and you want to do your best. When you fall short of these expectations, your inner dialogue can become very negative. You may find you berate yourself even when you succeed. Being more self-compassionate in how you talk to yourself will help you reach a more contented place. When you feel supported by your own psychology, you begin to develop a more resilient inner confidence.

You Are Your Superpower

Work towards being the most authentic version of yourself you can be. Your colleagues will thank you for it and feel more connected to you as a result. Start building a culture of compliments within your workplace. When we compliment others, it builds our sense of self-authority, nurtures relationships and creates an environment where people can thrive.

Getting feedback from others can help you build a more accurate picture of your performance at work. If you’re feeling brave, you could share your experience of imposter syndrome with a colleague or mentor. When we bring things into the open and shine a light on them, they lose their power.

Useful Links

How to Protect Your Mental Health While Working at Home

5 Tips to Tackle Your Inner Critic

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