The impostor phenomenon, also known as impostor syndrome, has been generating buzz in psychology and business circles 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 you and everyone in your network considers you high-performing, you live with a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud.
And when you’re working remotely—usually alone in your home office or at a cafe with headphones in—it’s easy to fall into a downward spiral of self-doubt.
There are a few aspects specific to the remote work lifestyle that can make anyone’s impostor feelings flare up. Understanding the reason you’re feeling increased self-doubt, then waking up everyday with a plan to overcome those feelings, can get you back to thinking, “I got this.” Let’s explore some common remote impostor challenges and how you can overcome them while working from home.
(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 these workers are genuinely qualified for their jobs; they just have trouble believing it!)
Dealing With Major Digital Communication Doubts
Communication in a remote workforce 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 (especially if you’re a woman) can cause the recipient to think you are less competent. 😲
Since it’s difficult to decipher tone in email, impostors struggle to internalize good feedback and dwell on perceived critiques. They may interpret the sender’s tone as terse, even if that wasn’t the intention.
Even in chat tools like Stride and Slack where emoticons prevail, tone and nuance can be lost. When a colleague gives feedback on a project via chat, their tone may come off completely different than if they were seen and heard through a video call. What may be perceived as “harsh” was intended to be more like a quick, casual suggestion. Big difference!
“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
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.
Meetings are a great way to connect more directly. You’ll be able to better gauge positive feedback for a stellar project, or take a low-key read of your peers’ facial expressions. Who would have guessed you’d feel nostalgic for the conference room?
Solution: Video meetings are invaluable to the remote experience. 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 they are giving you 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 a supervisor when something’s wrong. These consistent low-pressure meetings can also help you feel valued and a part of the team.
Never Clocking Out of Work
Remote work environments may hire employees all over the globe, resulting 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 work environment, over-preparers risk becoming email addicts, or might spend downtime opening tab after tab of unnecessary research on their browser. Not only that, phone notification alerts can be incredibly disruptive during much-needed off-work hours.
So when a project succeeds, instead of basking in the glow of a job well done, 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 to signal the end of allotted time for one project to remind you 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 work document from the beginning so they can give real-time feedback or say, “That’s enough—we’re good to go on this.”
Parking Your Workday At Procrastination Station
Another common work pattern for impostors is procrastination, or avoidance due to anxiety, which can culminate in a frenzied burst of activity to get the job done in time. Working remotely can separate you from feeling connected and accountable to your co-workers. Being surrounded by distractions at home doesn’t help with your delay tactics, either.
To a certain extent those distractions may be unavoidable, or even part of the reason you work a remote gig in the first place. Your time zone might put you on a different schedule from team, or you might work a non-traditional schedule to balance work and family obligations.
Practicing a work-life balance is harder in a remote job, since you don’t have the physical separation between realms of your life. 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. At the same time, you don’t want to rake yourself over the coals for throwing a load of laundry in the machine or (gasp) spending 20 minutes outside on a beautiful day before 5 p.m. As long as you have a balance between work and downtime, say goodbye to that guilt. Here are some other ways to get your tasks done under deadline:
- If there’s a block of time that falls within working hours for most teammates, committing to be available consistently at that time can add needed structure to a remote workday.
- Get your working mojo back by breaking down tasks into intermediate stages. For example, submitting an outline can feel less threatening than a full article.
- Setting internal deadlines can prevent you from leaving the majority of the work until the last minute.
- Sharing work-in-progress with a co-worker can also be a good opportunity to get validation that you’re on the right track.
Finally, Beware The Remote Rut
The cliché perk of the remote life is that no one can stop you from working on the couch, indulging in snacks all day, or wearing that same pair of yoga pants day in and day out (without a single sun salutation).
Real talk: Pretty much all remote workers indulge in the comfy life at least occasionally. The problem is when sticking to what’s comfortable pulls you into a rut without a way out.
Solution: Wake up every morning as if you were going to the office. Establish a productive morning routine that motivates you. The couch or dinner table can become a unproductive place to work so if you have the space and budget, consider purchasing a desk or creating a home office to separate your work and personal life in your house or apartment.
Ideally, supervisors will take the lead in establishing regular meetings to keep abreast of everyone’s progress. If not, you need to take the initiative yourself. Schedule dedicated time to read industry publications or listen to podcasts that could inspire new ideas. Ask to be included in strategic planning and brainstorming sessions with your manager and team.
And seriously, get out of the house! Look up local networking opportunities in your industry and city. Meeting inspiring people and describing your job to strangers can be a great, low-stakes practice for communicating your achievements.
Have you ever felt like a fraud at work? How has remote working helped or hurt your professional confidence? Share your experiences in the comments!