Have you ever felt like you’re not pulling your weight at work? Like a colleague or boss might pull you aside and say you’re underperforming? Or that you don’t deserve your recent promotion?
If so, you’re in good company. It’s estimated that 70% of people experience this feeling at some point in their lives, according to a study published in the International Journal of Behavioural Science.
Psychologists have identified these feelings and thoughts as ‘imposter syndrome’ — the belief that you are not as capable or qualified as people perceive you to be. It can affect men and women, from all walks of life and all professions. Psychologist Alexandra Whitehead of Becon Health and Be Psyched, says a common symptom is persistent feelings of self-doubt. “Self-doubt can be a way to regulate and assess our abilities, successes, and competence but when self-doubt is allowed to grow and develop beyond a healthy level, it can be almost impossible to have a realistic self-image, and can cause us distress.”
With one in five Australians (21%) taking time off in 20 14 because they felt stressed, anxious, depressed or mentally unhealthy, it’s worth taking stock on your own wellbeing at work. Do you ever feel 'imposter feelings'? And if so, what can you do to counter them?
Who is most at risk of imposter syndrome?
There’s no clear answer as to why some people experience the syndrome and others don’t. Some researchers have pointed to certain personality traits, like being a perfectionist or neurotic, while others believe it has more to do with a child’s upbringing and the role family can play in shaping personal expectations. According to Alexandra, “People who have perfectionist tendencies are vulnerable to imposter syndrome, due an increased level of self-criticism. For some people, childhood may also play a part in developing imposter syndrome later in life, particularly if parents moved between over-praise and over-criticism. This often creates a focus on achievements and end results. This, mixed with societal expectations [or] standards can increase someone’s chances of developing the syndrome”
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Do I have imposter syndrome?
While it’s not uncommon to worry at work, with a bit of time and perspective, the worries typically pass… the big campaign kicks off, the project wraps up, life goes on. However, for some people these feelings persist, taking a heavier toll on their mental wellbeing and overall enjoyment at work. “Particularly for people experiencing imposter syndrome alongside perfectionist tendencies, there are two common warning signs”, says Alexandra. “Either a person over prepares for everything, constantly worrying they will not do a good enough job the first time. They obsess over something to the point that it’s so built up it will almost always feel like the end result is inadequate. Or, they procrastinate, believing that it wouldn’t be good enough, even with preparation.”
Some practical examples might be taking 10 hours on a task that should only take 5, being scared of being ‘found out’ if you receive an award or praise, or not taking on extra responsibilities because you fear you’ll let someone down.
How to deal with imposter syndrome
So how do you switch off that negative brain chatter? According to Alexandra, the best ways to manage feelings of imposter syndrome are:
- Talk to someone you trust: Talking to someone may help you to look at the situation from another perspective. Despite this, many people avoid talking about their feelings as they fear people will validate their self doubt or tell them to ‘just get over it’.
- Challenge negative thoughts. Thoughts around inadequacy and fraud are exactly that — thoughts, so try and put some space between you and those thoughts. For example, instead of giving into the self-doubt of a thought such as ‘That sale was purely due to luck, there’s no way I could have got it’, challenge it with something more evidenced based, [like] ‘I built really good rapport with the client which lead to the sale’.
- Adjust your perspective. Review and take pride in your recent accomplishments. Often when faced with criticism, especially from your superiors, it’s easy to focus on this rather than what you’re doing right. Everyone’s different, but humans tend to be visual creatures so writing down a list of things you’ve done can be a handy tool.
- Know yourself. Understand potential triggers for you, and plan accordingly. For example, if you know you have a presentation coming up that is going to cause you to feel overly anxious, plan activities that will help counteract this. For example, book yoga classes in advance, talk to your support network about your concerns, or even schedule some sessions with a professional such as a psychologist or coach.
- Train your brain. Don’t focus on failures and setbacks, but do learn from them. Instead of berating yourself and asking ‘Why is this happening?’ ask ‘What is this trying to tell me?’… Try really hard to practice forming new self-beliefs every day for at least 30 days so they start to become more cemented into your usual thinking style. This is similar to implementing a fitness program or sleep schedule.
There’s no simple answer to overcoming imposter syndrome, but according to Alexandra, cultivating greater self-awareness and mindfulness is important. Learn not to fear or deny success and enjoy it, and consider getting help from a mental health professional if it’s affecting your day-to-day life.