You’re Not a Fake: Don’t Let Imposter Syndrome Hold You Back at Work

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One of my earliest memories of “failure” dates back to when I was in fourth grade. We had received our midterm progress reports and I had a B in my reading and language arts class.

I walked up to my teacher’s desk, feeling mostly full of shame –– and partly like I was going to vomit.

“Ms. Vinson,” I stuttered, “is there anything I can do to improve here? I’m struggling.” I circled the 80-something percent with my pencil and waited for her answer.

Ms. Vinson looked straight at me and said, “You are far from struggling. You have a mid-level B. You’re doing great!”

I thought to myself, Mid-level B? Great?

Imposter Syndrome: It Isn’t Just You

To this day, I often feel like I’m struggling –– even when in reality, I’m not.

While I’m writing, I’ll sometimes think to myself, Wow, this is garbage! How do I even have a job as a writer? Am I REALLY a writer or just someone who pretends?  I’ll think these things even when I’m writing something my editors think is fabulous.  

These are textbook thoughts that reflect imposter syndrome. And I’m not the only person on earth who has experienced it.

Summed up, imposter syndrome is when you doubt you’re “good enough” to complete tasks and responsibilities. You worry that people will find out that you have no idea what you’re doing –– even though you clearly do, considering you have a job in the first place.

The phenomenon is characterized by feelings of incompetence, inadequacy or perceived fraudulence, according to Dr. Audrey Ervin, a psychology faculty member at Delaware Valley University. It was first described in the 1970s by psychologists Suzanne Imes, Ph.D., and Pauline Rose Clance, Ph.D.

The feelings of imposter syndrome are usually experienced by high-achieving individuals, Dr. Ervin says in an email. Citing research, Dr. Ervin explains that individuals who experience feeling like a fraud are commonly associated with anxiety, depressive symptoms, lack of self-confidence, worry, introversion and more.

How Feeling Like a Fraud Can Hold You Back At Work –– and in Your Personal Life

The worst part about feeling like a nobody at work? It can hinder your performance –– and that almost always seeps into your personal life.

By feeling unworthy, you can miss out on promotions and pay raises. That little voice in your head will tell you that you aren’t qualified for either of them so you don’t even think about setting them as your goals.

You become your own worst enemy.

Dr. Ervin also writes that people might start to overproduce to prove they are capable; eventually, that can lead to burnout and counterproductivity.

Feeling like a fraud can even push you to become overly involved in your professional development. Dr. Ervin writes that people who prioritize their career success over time with those closest to them can negatively impact their relationships, leaving partners and family members to suffer.  

Versions of Imposter Syndrome

The feeling of being a fake comes in many different ways. In a Fast Company article, Valerie Young, author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer From the Imposter Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It, categorizes imposter syndrome into four major subgroups:  

  1. The Perfectionist This title pretty much speaks for itself, but it boils down to this: Perfectionists set super high goals for themselves, and when they fail to reach them, they start to experience self-doubt.
  2. The Superwoman/man This version of imposter syndrome is characterized by folks who are workaholics. These people work harder to measure up to their colleagues, mainly because they’re convinced they’re frauds. It’s hard for these people to enjoy time away from work.
  3. The Natural Genius Those who were the “smart ones” growing up can fall into this category. When they don’t get something right on the first try, they negatively judge themselves. Their standards are almost impossibly high –– and they feel uncomfortable or lack confidence when they don’t meet them.
  4. The Rugged Individualist People who see asking for help as a sign of weakness tend to fall into this category. These individuals think that asking for help shows that they’re a fake –– they 100% believe that they should accomplish everything on their own or else they are a failure.
  5. The Expert Someone who falls into this type of imposter syndrome thinks they “tricked” their employer into hiring them. They fear of being dubbed “inexperienced” or “unknowledgeable.”

Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

It’s scary to think you can be the biggest obstacle in the way of your own success. It’s easy to overlook that you’re even doing it.

Thankfully, there are professionals out there who can help you identify false feelings of fraud –– and help you overcome them.

Raghav Parkash is a peak performance coach. For the past five years, he has been helping people reach their potential in the workplace and in life.  

Parkash reveals that he sees his clients regularly struggling with being victims of imposter syndrome. And, he says, it’s hard for most people to identify it.

“Denial is one way looking at it,” Parkash says in an email. “But I believe it is fundamentally down to a lack of self-awareness. They are unaware of what their habits or thought patterns are. Once people become aware of their behaviors, they can then start to take action on them such as speaking to a friend, manager, colleague or even hiring a coach.”

Parkash has key steps to overcoming these feelings that will help you become the very best you can be in the workplace.

Here are a few of them:

Recognize and acknowledge your feelings. Self-awareness is the first step toward a breakthrough. Take time to reflect on your thoughts and why you’re thinking them –– and take some time to ponder if they’re true or not.

Challenge the beliefs and thoughts that show up. Parkash asks his clients what advice they would give to a friend who was having similar thoughts –– oftentimes, they answer in a more positive manner than the way they would address it with themselves. This helps them recognize the inherent negativity they have toward themselves.

Focus on how and why you got the job. It isn’t an accident that you are where you are now.  You have the skill set, qualities and caliber to achieve what you have so far –– keep that in mind when you tell yourself you don’t!

Create possibility questions and new beliefs. Asking questions like “Who do I need to become to succeed?” and “What do I need to believe to succeed?” can help you focus on the bigger picture, rather than the false notions you have of yourself. Once you answer them, these will be your new beliefs that’ll keep you on track to success.

Condition the new beliefs. Once you create beliefs that are inspiring, say them to yourself every day for 30 days. Parkash says the repetition is a means to “integrate and rewire them into our thinking.”

Celebrate every movement in the right direction. Most importantly, remember to celebrate your successes! Not every day will be perfect –– and you may still have lingering thoughts of doubt –– but every opportunity you take to actively work through it is a win.

No one deserves to feel like a failure –– especially when it’s self-inflicted sabotage. Keep in mind, you’re always smarter, better and stronger than you may think. 🙂

Kelly Anne Smith is an email content specialist at The Penny Hoarder. Catch her on Twitter at @keywordkelly.