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Imposter Syndrome In The Workplace, And How To Overcome It

Along the corporate ladder, various positions of varying expertise create a particular industry. Within the rungs, countless individuals perform tasks associated with their particular role, as laid out via concise expectations, contractual obligations, and communication trickled from heads of businesses. For many of these individuals, from hourly entry level employees to the company’s Vice President, […]

Along the corporate ladder, various positions of varying expertise create a particular industry. Within the rungs, countless individuals perform tasks associated with their particular role, as laid out via concise expectations, contractual obligations, and communication trickled from heads of businesses. For many of these individuals, from hourly entry level employees to the company’s Vice President, imposter syndrome can creep in, manifesting itself in manners detrimental to long-term wellness, and potentially sabotaging job success. Below, I explore ways to recognize potential imposter syndrome, and identify various techniques for rewriting this negative narrative.

            What is imposter syndrome?

            While most of us have periodically questioned our worthiness after a surprise promotion, or perhaps even doubted our professional prowess after a particularly scathing review, key indications of imposter syndrome are enrobed in the more permanent nature of these negative feelings surrounding one’s professional scope. Individuals experiencing imposter syndrome may have consistent feelings of professional inadequacy, lack of confidence in their ability to successfully perform essential duties of their jobs, or feelings of being a professional fraud.  These feelings can then physically manifest themselves as anxiety, depression, and feelings of hopelessness directly tied to the workplace. Over time, this negative self-talk, coupled with physical symptomatology, can create a toxic workplace environment, limit productivity, and develop an overall negative work experience.

            According to the International Journal of Behavioral Science, nearly 70% of working professionals have experienced imposter syndrome throughout their professional careers, varying greatly in duration, impact, and resolve. With so many individuals experiencing these overwhelmingly common problems, the stigma, fright, and weakness often associated with imposter syndrome continues to make it difficult to identify, and overcome.

            CEO’s…They’re Just Like You

            As part of gaining productive awareness regarding the prevalence of imposter syndrome within the workplace, it is helpful to consider the notion that people you respect professionally may be experiencing the same negative thought-processes. From the Accounting Supervisor who seems to always anticipate needs before they’re met, to the fearless CEO who commands authority with every step, each seemingly powerful professional may be experiencing perpetual feelings of inadequacy. In fact, odds support this theory overwhelmingly, adding to the rationalization that individuals are not alone in their feelings, and are certainly a part of a large community who would benefit from proactive, honest, and insightful conversation about imposter syndrome.

            Catching Negative Self-Talk

            Often, the full-fledged experience of imposter syndrome can start off as a fleeting negative comment, thought, or perception. By bolstering this thought’s content, giving it life, and rationalizing the validity of this initial thought, the flame of self-doubt is ignited, and can turn into a ravaging fire seemingly overnight. Conversely, for individuals well within the bounds of imposter syndrome, continued negative self-talk further perpetuates the feelings that are so difficult to overcome. Through continued negative self-talk, and the actualization of negative thoughts, individuals can feel helpless, powerless, and unable to change their current situation.

            By working to diligently and thoughtfully identify negative self-talk, individuals can not only recognize the potentially detrimental effects of the specific words utilized, but also create the opportunity to rewrite the narrative. While this may feel unnatural at first, it can become an autonomous practice with some initial consideration. Identifying triggering words starts with paying attention to one’s internal reaction to various thoughts. Thoughts that illicit negative reactions should be considered detrimental, and explored as a continued association of imposter syndrome. For example, after receiving less than stellar feedback from a management team member after a presentation, negative self-talk can include thoughts like; “That presentation was awful, I don’t know why they hired me in the first place.” In this case, not only does the statement suggest that the validity of one’s job lies in only one facet of performance, but casts doubt on exhaustive abilities, rather than a singular incident, creating a much grander failure in the mind of the individual.

            Rewriting Negative Self-Talk

            In the previously mentioned example, attempting to replace the negative self-talk with a kinder, and more accurate accounting of the actual incident, would allow the individual to learn from their mistakes, without losing hope for future gainful experiences. Instead of the previous sentiment, a more productive statement may have been; “I’ve learned exactly what my team prefers through this experimental presentation, and will be prepared to implement these new insights in the future.” By acknowledging the notion that things didn’t go swimmingly, but taking lessons from the perceived mistakes, individuals can develop a deeper meaning or purpose for the perceived misstep, and rectify said mistake by creating a concise plan for the future.

            Write Out New Rules

            While catching oneself in the midst of negative self-talk is a thoughtful approach to changing the narrative, it may not always be possible in the moment. However, by taking the time to proactive dictate new patterns of self-love within internal dialogue, and external communication, individuals can proactively seek to develop patterns that will manifest greater feelings of positivity, and limit the effects of negative self-talk. For example, individuals can create a column of common triggering thoughts, words, and adjectives that are often found within their own perceptions, and speech about themselves. For each of the items in the negative column, then can then write out an alternative word to utilize in lieu of the triggering word or phrase. For example, intentionally swapping out the thought “I’m so dumb” with the notion of “I’m constantly learning” projects a kinder message of acceptance. Self-deprecating conversation is problematic as well, as the words spoken out loud, even in jest, become internal thoughts with real-world manifestations. Thus, this particular exercise is a proactive way to effectively change natural speech patterns over time, and project an increasingly positive outlook.

            Gather Support From The Community

            Within any professional environment, corporate culture plays an integral role in the prevalence of imposter syndrome. Throughout companies that value employee health and wellness, there are various infrastructures put in place to combat self-doubt, and build a communal support system at every level of employment. From staff mentoring, to wellness retreats, and even regularly scheduled check-ins, proactive companies are finding meaningful ways to ensure that employees feel welcomed, valued, and appreciated within their professional scopes. Conversely, there are also entire industries that experience higher rates of burnout, employees quitting, and the toxic experiences associated with imposter syndrome, potentially as a result of limited interest in building a helpful corporate culture.

            Within any professional situation, it is important to understand that imposter syndrome is prevalent, and affects even the most seemingly powerful individuals. By recognizing this notion, individuals can feel less isolated in their feelings. By implementing a few self-talk exercises, and attempting to rewrite their internal dialogue, individuals harness the power to look at every experience from a learning perspective, and quiet the self-doubt proclaimed via imposter syndrome. With a solid workplace support system in place, these feelings can be explored in an industry and company specific manner, with the support and understanding of co-workers, supervisors, and peers who experience similar feelings throughout their own workplace stories.

Follow Vinod on Twitter and Medium.

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