Life & Work Skills

How to Combat Imposter Syndrome So It Doesn’t Stunt Your Career Growth

written by SYDNEY COX
Source: @polina-tankilevitch | Pexels
Source: @polina-tankilevitch | Pexels

If you’ve experienced the feelings of imposter syndrome in the workplace, know this: You are absolutely not alone. We’ve all felt it a time or two (or are feeling it now). Imposter syndrome refers to the experience of feeling like a fake or that you might be “found out” despite any success or growth you achieve. So whether you felt it on the first day of a new job, when you landed a big promotion, or when dealing with your first major setback in a project, that feeling of wondering if everyone can see right through you and your self-appointed “lack of experience” is, unfortunately, not uncommon.

I’m no stranger to this experience—I’d even go as far as to consider it my biggest enemy when it comes to my career growth. I always believed that people could tell when I was shooting in the dark, but the truth is that I wasn’t—and they couldn’t. What they did see, however, was a young professional who didn’t believe in herself. So, why should they?

Unlike humility, imposter syndrome can do real harm to your career trajectory and your mental health. According to the American Psychological Association, these feelings can increase anxiety and depression, limit risk-taking in careers, and cause complete career burnout. So, how do we put a stop to it? Well, the answers lie ahead. Here’s how to combat imposter syndrome in the workplace so it doesn’t stunt your career growth.

Focus on the facts

Imposter syndrome can manifest in various ways, including consistently downplaying achievements, comparing yourself to others, and the inability to attribute your achievements to your work. It can make you feel like you’re terrible at your job or not cut out for it, but most of the time, these feelings are based on fear, not the reality of the situation. It can be hard to differentiate the facts (undeniable and observable truths) from the stories (how you interpret these undeniable truths).

As someone who works primarily in a creative field, I’m a masterful storyteller. To be honest, this hurts me just as often as it helps me. When I find the imposter monster creeping up behind me, I’ve learned to whip out my notebook and make a list of what I think happened versus what actually happened. For example, let’s say I present an idea to my team, and it doesn’t get picked up. Bummer, right? Sure. In this scenario, I used to jump straight to the conclusion that I wasn’t ready to lead projects or couldn’t be trusted to cultivate fresh ideas, neither of which is true. But now, instead of getting caught up in my head about it, I make a list.

If you feel as though you said something wrong in a meeting, think about what you said exactly. How did your co-workers respond, word-for-word? Very rarely is it as bad as you remember. And even if so, it’s a learning experience, not a death sentence. If you aren’t careful to separate the anxieties in your head from real-life occurrences, you’ll be less likely to speak up and share innovative ideas with your team, which will hurt your career progression in the long run. You’ve been hired for all you bring to the table, so don’t let insecurity prevent you from showing up. Creating space to check in with reality can help silence the alarm bells when they sound.

You’ve been hired for all you bring to the table, so don’t let insecurity prevent you from showing up.

Create a “Read on Bad Days” folder

Whenever I start a new job or project with a new company, the first thing I do is create a “Read on Bad Days” folder. In addition to my full-time marketing position, I do a lot of contract and freelance work, so I have a lot of these, and they have become my secret weapon. Basically, this is a space to put any emails, screenshots, or projects that validate your achievements. These keepsakes can be as small as a funny Slack message or as large as a full performance review. I have countless kind and affirming emails from colleagues saved in my “Read on Bad Days” folder to turn to when I need a reminder that I’m on the right track. I even open this folder on good days sometimes to look at how far I’ve come.

I’m a big believer in the idea that the energy we put out is the energy we get back. Mindfulness is my bread and butter, so reminding myself that feelings of insecurity are a temporary setback in the middle of a long career journey is imperative to keep moving forward. Consistently adding to a folder like this can combat imposter syndrome and prevent you from falling into negative patterns with your work performance. It’s easy to give up and do a sub-par job when you’re feeling bad about yourself, but that is when it’s most important not to. Lack of self-confidence will impact how you show up for your day, but so will newfound confidence. When it all feels a little overwhelming, open the folder and breathe.

Reframe negative thoughts and situations

Our thoughts do define us. They have real power when it comes to how we perceive ourselves and the world around us, so when you find yourself overthinking a situation, try to reframe your thoughts. It’s normal to make mistakes, have projects that don’t go well, and be in meetings that make you want to hide under a rock, but the little voice in your head telling you that you’re a total failure needs to be monitored. So next time you can’t seem to let go of the mistake you made at work, give yourself the grace to try again. Indifference is not progress, and I’m never advising you to throw your cares to the wind. However, instead of jumping to “I am awful,” replace it with “I know what to do better next time.” Misery loves company, and sitting in feelings of self-loathing shows through in your work.

Although you may think your negativity about your perceived job performance only affects you, it can quickly spread through a team, resulting in lower morale and decreased productivity. It will also impact your personal career growth. Your managers and co-workers may start to see you as someone who can’t quite handle the heat or who moves through the workplace so timidly that they’re afraid to give you additional responsibilities. Making mistakes is normal, but it’s how you handle your mistakes that matters. Eventually, the way you talk about your work becomes the work you do, both positively and negatively. Find affirmations that align with the reminders you need, and repeat them. Live by them. Think of it as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Share how you’re feeling

Don’t try to tackle imposter syndrome alone. As isolating as it can feel, you’re not the only one. Talk to trusted friends or family about how you’re feeling! My fiancee and I have what we call “Pity Sessions” where we vent about work and don’t ask for solutions. The only correct response from the other person is a list of reasons to be proud of the work we’ve done. It goes a long way to know you have people in your corner who are not directly tied to your employment.

In the same way you lean on your support circle, let your manager know if you need a little direction or feel in over your head. They are there to guide you and support your career growth, but they can’t help if you don’t let them. If you don’t share how you’re feeling with your manager or ask the questions you need to know to perform your job responsibilities, they might wonder whether or not you’re capable of doing your job, which could affect upcoming promotions and opportunities headed your way.

The way you talk about your work becomes the work you do, both positively and negatively.

Get comfortable celebrating your accomplishments

Don’t hold back from sharing your accomplishments with your managers and co-workers, either. When it comes time to negotiate a promotion or a pay raise, being able to confidently communicate how you’re actively excelling is just as important as knowing where you need to improve. Whether you checked off almost everything on your to-do list today or won the biggest deal of your career, a win is worth celebrating. Write down when you feel good about your performance. Maybe you led a meeting that went well, or maybe it’s enough that you showed up today.

When you recognize that you’re doing a good job regularly, you are less likely to think you’re not enough. Share these moments with people you trust, and let them celebrate with you. I used to feel like celebrating my little wins made me cocky, but it doesn’t. When I can talk confidently about my accomplishments, no matter how small, others listen. So when it comes time to interview for that amazing promotion, share what you’ve done well. If you don’t, your manager may question your self-awareness or your confidence regarding the role. Don’t let this hold you back from getting what you truly deserve.

Remember that if you weren’t ready, you wouldn’t have the opportunity

You are in your position for a reason. The people who put you there know what they’re doing. It’s taken years for this to click in my head—but by saying I don’t deserve the opportunities I have, I’m directly insulting the directors, managers, and professionals who have given them to me. Nobody hits the mark every time, not even the CEO you admire or your favorite artist. I promise.

Beating imposter syndrome is an uphill battle, and I certainly don’t have it all figured out yet. On the worst days, when even my lists can’t remind me enough, I default to two things: 1. If you weren’t ready, you wouldn’t have been presented with the opportunity, and 2. Would you stand in front of the people who hired you and tell them they made a mistake? No. You wouldn’t. So, start acting like you deserve to be where you are—because you do.