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Early in my career, my boss signed me up for a radio interview on live air. I knew this was bad news—just the thought made my stomach churn—but there wasn’t any way to get out of it.
I spent weeks preparing for that 15-minute interview. I lost sleep over it. I was terrified the world would discover how little I knew about my job. The façade I’d cultivated for years would crumble. I’d get fired! I just knew it.
Somehow, I stumbled through the interview. The following day, my coworkers congratulated me—but I still couldn’t shake the anxiety. I thought they were lying to make me feel better. I began to wonder if I should resign, change my name, and start a new life in Jamaica.
My insecurities were getting in the way of work. Finally, my boss pulled me aside and asked what was going on. I tried to explain how ill-equipped I felt, but she interrupted me.
“Ever heard of imposter syndrome?”
Self-Doubt: The Workplace Epidemic
Imposter syndrome is a pattern of behavior and emotion where the sufferer persistently doubts their abilities. Severe cases can be debilitating, causing fear, stress, and even chronic depression. It’s also remarkably common. Research into workplace confidence suggests that close to 70% of people will experience some episode of self-doubt over the course of their career.
Imposter syndrome can affect anyone. Just like in my situation, you can feel confident in your role, valued for your abilities, and surrounded by a team you trust and respect. These assets won’t necessarily prevent you from sudden bouts of low confidence. Some evidence shows imposter syndrome is slightly more prevalent among successful women compared to men, but it affects people of every demographic and personality type.
It’s also not necessarily tied to chronic anxiety or any other long-term condition. Reaching a career milestone or trying something new can make you temporarily doubt your abilities. Perhaps paradoxically, people are more likely to feel inadequate if they’ve recently received recognition or achieved a significant objective. Some researchers even surmise that the most high-achieving professionals are more likely to experience the phenomenon—possibly drawing a correlation between praise and insecurity.
My first bout of imposter syndrome was quite intense, but it also isn’t unusual. My case had all the classic elements.
Warning Signs of Imposter Syndrome
Imposter syndrome can be characterized by low confidence levels, feeling socially isolated, and a compelling sense that you need to compensate for your performance. It might manifest in the following actions:
- Reluctance to go after a raise, even if it’s overdue.
- Tentativeness while contributing ideas in a team environment.
- Negative emotions when managing others, including anxiety and guilt.
- Stepping aside to give opportunities to others instead of seizing them for yourself.
- Aversion to praise.
- Becoming preoccupied with the day-to-day processes of your role, to the exclusion of other opportunities and strategic engagement with colleagues.
- A high and unyielding level of “continuance commitment,” which means you’ll stay in your current job, even if it isn’t good for you.
- Perfectionism, accompanied by guilt or anger when you make mistakes.
- Reluctance to take on new challenges.
- A cycle of setting ambitious goals followed by disappointment if you don’t realize them.
- Failure to ask questions and the persistent fear that someone else will find out if you don’t know how to answer questions.
When someone experiences imposter syndrome, they often also cycle through negative self-talk. These intrusive thoughts can sound like any of the following statements:
- “I was lucky to get this job, and I can’t do any better.”
- “People are going to find out I don’t know what I’m doing.”
- “I shouldn’t have this job, and the only way I can keep it is to work harder and faster than everyone else.”
- “If I fail at this, I’ll lose my job for sure.”
- “I can’t look for a promotion right now. I can barely keep my head above water as it is.”
Nervous about an upcoming presentation? Learn about the four public speaking tips CEOs use before big events.
How to Beat Imposter Syndrome and Get Your Confidence Back
Let’s face it: Imposter syndrome is a gloomy subject, and it’s hard to confront your insecurities. If you feel inadequate, opening up can make you even more emotionally vulnerable. I’m thankful my boss brought up the topic with me—otherwise, I probably never would have addressed my insecurities with her. But the only way to overcome self-doubt is to get a grip on your fear.
On Twitter recently, I stumbled across this nugget of wisdom:
“If you don’t know something and don’t try to find a solution, you’re an imposter. If you don’t know something but go out of your way to learn a solution, you’re an improviser.”
I think there’s a lot of truth to this sentiment. It’s only human to have flaws and make mistakes, but you can recover from anything as long as you’re committed to finding a solution.
1. Ask questions.
Don’t try to repress your emotions. Instead, dig deeper. What exactly makes you feel insecure? If your concerns have substance behind them, it means you have an opportunity. Use this insight to look for training programs, support from your colleagues, or additional resources that will help you improve.
2. Talk about it.
Remember over 70% of people have insecurities about their work performance. You’re in the majority. Talk to someone you trust, like a friend or mentor. Other people can help keep you grounded by providing an objective outside perspective.
3. Practice coping strategies.
You can learn how to build confidence. Take advantage of the resources that are available to you. If you think your low self-esteem affects your day-to-day life, consider talking to an expert about your experiences.
What Can You Do to Help Someone Who’s Struggling With Imposter Syndrome?
One of the most destructive aspects of imposter syndrome is its ability to be self-reinforcing. My experience is a perfect example. I felt sure I would fail. If I bombed the interview, my fears would have felt justified.
However, even when I did well in the interview and people complimented me on my performance, I dismissed their praise. That’s because success doesn’t fix imposter syndrome. In fact, getting recognition for your work can make you feel even more like a fraud. It raises the volume on that little voice that says you don’t deserve to succeed.
To support a colleague who’s going through this experience, create an environment where they can voice their concerns. If you notice your coworker doesn’t give themselves enough credit, reassure them of their accomplishments, but try to keep things in perspective. Sometimes the best way to help someone who’s stuck in this cycle is to share some of your insecurities and make them feel less alone.
Reclaiming Your Confidence
“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.”
Ultimately, imposter syndrome represents a basic human emotion: fear. Fear is etched into our DNA. It’s as natural as the happiness you feel after a groundbreaking success. You don’t need to erase self-doubt completely—you just need to push yourself to keep the fear from controlling your life.
Take control of your career and learn new coping strategies by working with a coach from Ivy Exec.