How to stop feeling like a fraud at work

Don’t let impostor syndrome do damage to your career and your mental wellness

WeWork Gateway 6 in Salt Lake City, UT. Photograph by WeWork

For many employees, the typical workday is filled with hundreds—if not thousands—of pressing thoughts, each taking precedence over the previous one. But if you’re like a lot of hardworking, high-achieving people, some less-productive ideas creep in and you begin to question your ability to do your job or whether you really belong where you are.

Those thoughts are impostor syndrome in action, and they can do serious damage to your career and your mental wellness. Though not an actual disorder, impostor syndrome—coined by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978—affects an estimated 70 percent of the U.S. population, according to a clinical research paper published in the Journal of Behavioral Science. WeWork Labs spoke with three experts about what impostor syndrome is, and how you can combat those naysaying thoughts.

What is impostor syndrome, and how can it affect you?

Impostor syndrome is a pervasive feeling that, despite your qualifications and achievements, you don’t deserve to occupy your role, leading to deep insecurity, self-doubt, and a sense of fraudulence. Though people of every demographic experience impostor feelings, this psychological phenomenon is most pervasive across minorities and women, and is also often accompanied by mood disorders like anxiety or depression.

“It’s generally experienced by very high-achieving individuals,” explains Audrey Ervin, Ph.D., academic director of the graduate program in counseling psychology at Delaware Valley University. “[People experiencing impostor syndrome] can carry around this persistent feeling of being a fraud or a phony.” Good news about your business brings the suspicion that you’re just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Rather than feeling excited about a new challenge, you worry that this will be the project that exposes you.

This may stem from the standards to which people hold themselves, explains Valerie Young, Ed.D, author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It. “They have unrealistic, unsustainable expectations for themselves around competence,” she says. “It’s like a director who expects to win an Academy Award every time they make a movie.”

Continually doubting yourself isn’t exactly a recipe for success, but there are other, more surprising ways that impostor syndrome can affect your work. For one, it makes success a double-edged sword. “Success gets framed as luck,” says Brad Johnson, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the U.S. Naval Academy. “It triggers the thought that people are now expecting even more from you, and you’re not up to the task of producing.”

More crucially for entrepreneurs, it can even make you dread work. “So much of what you’re doing is taking chances and proposing novel things,” says Johnson, “so if you have impostor syndrome, you might be inhibited from doing the very things you need to do.”

Characteristics of impostor syndrome

Impostor syndrome can manifest itself in a variety of ways. Feelings of self doubt can cloud your ability to accurately assess your strengths and skills. This could lead someone experiencing impostor syndrome to hesitate when a new opportunity arises, because they question whether they really have the ability to do it, even when they’ve been successful with similar projects in the past. 

Self-doubt can also cause someone to put off important work because they worry that they don’t have the competency to do the work effectively. This can have a self-fulfilling-prophecy effect as the procrastination and avoidance of tough projects can exacerbate the sense of being incapable. This can also be thought of as self-sabotage when your fear of failure overtakes your ability to succeed. 

Anxiety is a common characteristic of impostor syndrome. It can come from a lot of places, and it’s often your body’s response to a perceived threat, a form of protection. It’s normal to feel nervous about a project or a big presentation. People who feel like a fraud at work are constantly afraid that they’re going to be “found out.” When they turn in work, they clinch, waiting for what they see as inevitable condemnation. Even if their work is praised, they feel that they narrowly averted disaster. 

This anxiety can also have social implications. When someone feels like they don’t belong, it can be harder for them to immerse themselves with their peers and the wider company culture. They can avoid collaborative work, fearing that their lack of ability will drag down the project, or their peers will realize they don’t belong. 

The pervasive anxiety associated with impostor syndrome can lead to depression. When someone feels like their skills aren’t good enough, even when all signs point in the other direction, it’s easy for that sense of hopelessness to spiral. 

Identifying impostor syndrome

Identifying impostor syndrome can be tough, because by its nature, it involves a false self-perception. But there are tell-tale signs that one can look for: Pay attention to how you compare yourself to others, If you find yourself always feeling like everyone else is more talented than you, more accomplished than you, and more deserving than you, you might be experiencing impostor syndrome. 

You can also think about how you react internally to feedback. When it’s positive, do you find yourself feeling as though your accomplishment was some kind of fluke or stroke of luck? Do you dwell on small critiques and see them as a sign of your own inadequacy? That can all be a sign that you’re dismissing your skills and abilities. 

Another sign can be your levels of anxiety. Check in with yourself and try to identify where the anxiety is coming from. Anxiety that springs from impostor syndrome often stems from a fear of being “found out,” or a belief that even the most mundane tasks will lead to some spectacular failure.

And finally, check in with yourself and see if you feel like you belong in the space you work. Impostor syndrome is constantly telling us we don’t belong, that we’re a fraud. If you find yourself doubting your place, feeling like you haven’t earned your accomplishments, or feeling like you shouldn’t be somewhere, you’re probably dealing with some form of impostor syndrome.

How to overcome impostor syndrome

The only way to stop feeling like an impostor, says Young, is to stop thinking like an impostor. The experts have some suggestions:

Name the thoughts and normalize them

Instead of trying to ignore impostor syndrome thoughts, call them what they are. “Once you name it, you can start the process of managing it,” says Ervin. This is also key to the normalization of impostor feelings in the workplace. “Some of the brightest people on the planet have these feelings, and they’re often a normal response to a situation,” says Young. “Anytime you’re doing something for the first time, of course you’re going to feel like an impostor—you’re doing something new! You have to take the shame out of it.”

Rethink your definition of “competence” 

If you experience impostor thoughts, you might expect to be able to figure everything out on your own and feel that the need to ask for help is a sign that you’re not up to the task. “But people who don’t have impostor thoughts realize that the wisest people seek information, advice, help, mentoring, and coaching,” says Young. “They know they’re never going to know everything or be able to figure it all out by themselves; that’s the equivalent of trying to get to the end of the internet.”

Instead, Young defines true competence as being able to identify what you’ll need to get the job done, and then marshaling those resources. Stop expecting yourself to have all the answers, and seek help from those who can fill in the blanks.

Challenge the voice in your head

So your inner critic claims that you’ll never secure any of those investors for funding? Call its bluff. “You can always challenge your thoughts,” says Johnson. “The beliefs we have about being impostors can be fairly irrational, because by any measure, odds are you’re quite accomplished and competent.” When impostor thoughts do crop up, pause your internal dialogue and ask yourself for the evidence.

“You have to push back and get good at countering your own catastrophic thinking,” says Johnson. And when you come to the likely conclusion that your impostor thinking has no basis in reality, push it to the side.

Talk it out

There’s no prize to be won for dealing with impostor syndrome by yourself, so reach out to trusted friends or colleagues. “Many people struggle with impostor syndrome, but it’s usually a big secret,” says Ervin. Use those people in your circle of trust as sounding boards for your own impostor thoughts.

“Instead of having it be this shameful, secret thing, talk about it in a normalizing way,” says Young. “If you gave a big presentation and were feeling like a fraud while giving it, say to the people around you, ‘I had such an impostor moment when I was making that presentation today.’” You can start a conversation that not only helps you but anyone else who may very well be dealing with the same thing.

Move forward, despite what your inner critic says

“People often wait to feel more confident before they move forward or make a decision, but that’s not how it works,” says Young. “Feelings are the last thing to change.” For entrepreneurs especially, it’s crucial to realize that fear goes with the territory; all the “fear symptoms” you’re experiencing—stomach knots, sweaty palms—actually may be just excitement. Lead with action, and the feelings will follow.

Change your space

Remote work offers plenty of benefits, but it can also feel isolating, and that separation can fuel a sense that you don’t belong. A beautiful and inspiring coworking space away from home, where you can meet colleagues and collaborate in person, can help you get out of your head. WeWork All Access and We Work On Demand open hundreds of stunning workspaces all over the world. The community you can find in these spaces can potentially help you feel a greater sense of belonging.

This article was originally published on May 22, 2019, and has been updated throughout by the editors.

This story has been adapted from a piece of exclusive content originally published on WeWork Labs’ members-only platform.

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