Is doubt creeping into your daily routine? If you’ve been feeling like a fraud more than normal—it could actually be a normal feeling especially if you’ve been working remotely more often than usual.
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 live with a persistent fear of being exposed as a low-key trickster.
And when you’re working remotely—usually alone in a home office—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 cause an impostor flare-up. 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.
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 the employees in these examples are genuinely qualified for their jobs—they just have trouble believing it!)
Dealing With Digital Communication Doubts As A Remote Worker
Communication on a remote team 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: 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 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.
Pro-tip: Use Zoom for free, seamless, and high-quality video conferencing.
“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
Speaking Words Of Wisdom: Let It Be (Work, That Is)
Many remote organizations have rightfully taken advantage of 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 work environment, over-preparers risk burnout, 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.
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 or task tracking system to signal the end of 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.”
Parking 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.
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 the 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 role, 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 5pm.
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 bite-sized pieces. 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 an unproductive place to work so if you have 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, remote leaders will take the lead in establishing regular meetings to keep abreast of everyone’s progress. If not, you should 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.
Don’t Give Into Discouraging Words Or Negative Self-Talk
And seriously, believe in yourself! Trust your talent, find strategies that work for you, and remind yourself that you’re your own worst critic.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published in October 2017 and we've added a whole heap of new ideas and nuggets of information to this post in May 2020.