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What Is Impostor Syndrome And How Can You Keep It At Bay?

By | Published on (Updated on 02/25/2021) | 7 min read
<span id="hs_cos_wrapper_name" class="hs_cos_wrapper hs_cos_wrapper_meta_field hs_cos_wrapper_type_text" style="" data-hs-cos-general-type="meta_field" data-hs-cos-type="text" >What Is Impostor Syndrome And How Can You Keep It At Bay?</span>

impostor syndrome as a remote worker

Is doubt creeping into your daily routine? Do you often worry that your team members question your abilities—or worse, you're questioning them yourself? If you often feel like a fraud in your role—you're not alone.

The impostor phenomenon, also known as impostor syndrome, has been generating buzz in psychology, business circles, and perfectionists since the 1970s.

Common symptoms of impostor syndrome include feeling under-qualified for (or unworthy of) your job even though success after success proves your abilities. Although your coworkers may consider you to be high-performing, you may suffer from a persistent fear of being exposed as a low-key trickster.

Impostor syndrome doesn't discriminate—members of all types of teams can fall victim to this tricky mindset. Regardless of if you're on a co-located, hybrid, or remote team, it’s easy to fall into a downward spiral of self-doubt. Help!

Understanding the reason behind these feelings of increased self-doubt and developing a plan to overcome those feelings can get you back to your normal “I got this” self.

feeling like an impostor

4 Ways To Banish Impostor Syndrome Forever

Let’s explore some common impostor challenges and how you can overcome them.

(Note: In this article, people experiencing impostor syndrome are occasionally referred to as “impostors” for the sake of brevity. It’s important to remember that the employees in these examples are genuinely qualified for their jobs—they just have trouble believing it!)

1. Manage Digital Communication Doubts

Communication using digital tools already requires specific considerations. Take email, for example: Common email etiquette tips, like keeping emails short and professional, can make a normal email message seem curt. Even including emojis in an email can cause the recipient to think you are less competent. 😲

Since it’s difficult to decipher tone in an email, impostors struggle to internalize good feedback and often dwell on perceived critiques. They may interpret the sender’s tone as terse, even if that wasn’t the intention.

Even in chat tools such as Slack where emojis and GIFs prevail, tone and nuance can be lost. When a coworker gives feedback on a project via chat, their tone may come off completely differently than if they were seen and heard through a video call. What may be perceived as “harsh” was probably intended to be more like a quick, casual suggestion. Big difference!

Perceived negative feedback can be devastating to someone suffering from impostor syndrome. 

“People who feel like impostors have unsustainably high self-expectations around competence. No one likes to fail, but impostors experience shame when they fail,” observes author and expert Dr. Valerie Young.

Solution: If there's something bigger than just the latest discussing the latest Netflix release or a simple question about a project to discuss, opt for a more dynamic way of communicating. Though in-person communication is best, odds are, your team probably uses video for some if not all of your meetings.  Facial expressions and tone of voice can go a long way in assuaging doubts about what your co-worker really means when you are brainstorming together, or when relaying feedback on your latest project.

It can also be helpful to set up a regular check-in meeting with your manager so you don’t only hear from them when something’s wrong. These consistent low-pressure meetings can also help you feel valued and a part of the team.

“People who feel like impostors have unsustainably high self-expectations around competence. No one likes to fail, but impostors experience shame when they fail,” - Dr. Valerie Young, author and expert on impostor syndrome

2. Speaking Words Of Wisdom: Let It Be (Work, That Is)

Many organizations have rightfully taken advantage of the recent remote shift by hiring talent from all over the globe. However, this can result in a workday that sprawls across multiple time zones. Wait for the virtual office to empty, and you may never clock out at all.

If you struggle with impostor syndrome, you typically fall into characteristic work patterns, according to researchers Jaruwan Sakulku and James Alexander. A common pattern is the Impostor Cycle.

The Impostor Cycle pattern begins with a feeling of anxiety when receiving a new task, followed by over-preparation (or even anxious procrastination), and finally a rush to pour way more time and effort into a project than required.

When combined with a distributed or hybrid work environment, over-preparers risk burnout, can become email addicts, or spend downtime endlessly scrolling through social media feeds. Not only that, phone notification alerts can be incredibly disruptive during much-needed off-work hours.

The result? When a project succeeds, instead of basking in the glow of achievement, you falsely convince yourself that you failed because you had to work overtime to complete the project.

But the cycle doesn’t stop there—the thought of the next task or project quickly turns into another round of anxiety.

Solution: Focus on tasks, not time. Try making a daily or weekly task list of projects. You can use an alarm or project management system like Trello to signal the end of the allotted time for a project in order to remind yourself to move on.

Or it might make sense to structure your week so you accomplish one concrete task per day. Either way, when the work’s done, leave it alone.

If you spend way too much on a project and never think it’s perfect enough to submit, link a supervisor to the document from the beginning so they can give real-time feedback or say, “That’s enough—we’re good to go on this."

3. Park Your Workday At Procrastination Station

Another common work pattern for impostors is procrastination, or avoidance of a task or project, which can culminate in a frenzied burst of activity to get the job done in time.

The reason why impostors often procrastinate can vary. The most common reason, though, is because the thought of tackling a daunting task head-on feels way too overwhelming (and probably like someone else could do a better job), so the tendency is to push it until the very last minute. 

Procrastination hardly ever ends in fuzzy warm feelings of accomplishment. Odds are, you either feel a sense of guilt for pushing off the task, anxiety from letting it hang over your head for so long, and then more anxiety as you question the quality of your rushed work.

Plus, procrastinating and then cramming work sessions in (and perhaps even missing a promised family outing to meet a deadline) can leave you feeling pretty crummy and frustrated.

Solution: You don’t want to encourage yourself to goof off or feel unfocused. At the same time, you don’t want to rake yourself over the coals for completing a smaller task first, or *gasp* spending 20 minutes outside on a beautiful day before 5pm.

As long as you have a balance between work and downtime, say goodbye to that fear and guilt. Here are some other ways to get your tasks done under deadline.

  • Get your working mojo back by breaking down tasks into bite-sized pieces. For example, submitting an outline can feel less threatening than a full article.
  • Play a small but helpful trick on yourself by setting your own due date for the task to be earlier than the actual due date. This way, even if you procrastinate on your own deadline, you should still have enough of a time buffer to take a second glance at the task with a calmer approach before actually submitting it.
  • Sharing work-in-progress with a co-worker can also be a good opportunity to get validation that you’re on the right track.
  • Use the 'Eat The Frog' method, where each workday you vow to tackle and complete (or at least make good progress on) your most daunting task first. This way, you'll avoid completing other smaller or lower priority tasks ahead of it, just to feel a little accomplished. Once you complete that big, scary task, you'll feel proud and relieved, and even more ready to tackle your now less-daunting to-do list.

4. Break The Silence

At the end of the day, it's important to remember that impostor syndrome is a set of negative feelings—not facts. One of the best ways to relieve the symptoms of impostor syndrome is to talk it out with your manager or a trusted team member. 

Your manager's main goal is to help you succeed, and they can likely provide you with some encouragement or advice on how to deal with those doubtful feelings. 

Give Yourself Some Grace—And A Pat On The Back! 

In the words of Henry Ford, “Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.” Instead of beating yourself up for falling short, spin the situation into a positive by gaining value from the mistake and bringing that knowledge with you into the future.

On the other hand—there are undoubtedly many things that you're doing right! Don't forget to give yourself credit for your achievements—and make them visible to your team by communicating and showcasing your accomplishments. Slowly by surely, your self-confidence will grow and your feelings of fraud will dissipate. 

And seriously, believe in yourself! Trust your talent, find strategies that work for you, and remind yourself that you’re your own worst critic.

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