The corporate ladder is sort of terrifying
December 3, 2012 4:20 PM   Subscribe

Can you help me with my terrible case of imposter syndrome?

I'm a middle-aged professional woman and I went through a career change about three years ago, into a field that I've had a longstanding interest in. The phrase 'dream job' wouldn't be inaccurate.

Since then I've gotten several significant raises and a promotion, and am now facing another de facto promotion. About a year or so in, I was given funding to hire someone to do the job I was initially hired to do so that I could focus on 'higher level' issues. I've now been given funding to add an additional handful of people to my department in newly created positions so that I can lead this part of our organization onward and upward. The jobs I'm hiring for are all salaried and themselves high-profile. Most of these positions were created -- get this -- at my request.

Each time the stakes rise higher, I freak out, my anxiety skyrockets, and I lean heavily on my anti-anxiety meds and use Ambien to help me sleep for six months or so until it plateaus again. I have prescriptions for both of those things and I work with a doctor to determine how much to use them and I don't have any dependency issues, but still, when I find myself dialing 1-800-Xanax on a regular basis, I know I'm not doing terribly well.

I feel like I am just lucky to have been given this job in the first place (I got an interview because I had an 'in' at the organization and I'm certain my resume would otherwise have been quietly tossed in the trash.) I worry that others resent me. I worry that the people who work for me will see that I am secretly unqualified or damaged in some way that I can't really do my job and am just faking it.

I am not depressed and am otherwise healthy and have a nice life. I like my job and the work of the organization.

How can I stop flipping out and feeling like these people don't realize it, but they've hired a dud?

I'd appreciate it if people could try to keep 'seek therapy' dialed down -- I don't have time for it, really, sincerely, and I am skeptical about its effectiveness for good reasons.

Anonymous because people I work with know I hang out here and it wouldn’t be hard to figure out who I am, and not only is this embarrassing but so are lots of things in my Metafilter history and I’m just not that cool with that level of self-disclosure to my co-workers.

Throwaway email:
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (8 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
feel like I am just lucky to have been given this job in the first place (I got an interview because I had an 'in' at the organization

does it help at all to realize that this is how a great percentage of people get jobs? a personal recommendation is often just plain more valuable than a stellar resume. i have absolutely gotten jobs i wasn't qualified for on paper because someone vouched for me. i have also given jobs that people didn't seem initially qualified for because i trusted the recommendation of someone who knew the job requirements. sometimes that's really frustrating when you're looking for a job and don't have connections. that's not a reason to feel unqualified though.

you might find it useful to keep an accomplishments journal. it seems self-centered at first, but it can help when the brain gets all spiral-y and full of doubt. when you complete a project or fix a problem or come up with an idea that won out in the end, write it down. write down compliments you received about whatever it was. don't allow any negativity in the journal. if you feel like you need balance, you can keep another journal where doubts go, but this one is just to keep a record of achievements so you can remind yourself.

finally, unless you think your company is really poorly managed, they aren't going to create entire departments unless they see the value in it, and they aren't going to follow your lead unless they see the value in you. for some of us who struggle with low self esteem we have to learn to listen to the compliments harder and be quicker to discard the critiques.

i know it's all easier said than done and i've never found a magic wand for anxiety, but from your own words it sounds like you are doing really well professionally and have a lot to be proud of. sometimes anxiety is just broken parts of our brains trying to keep us from being happy.
posted by nadawi at 4:32 PM on December 3, 2012 [7 favorites]

Here are some good tips. I have found that finding a mentor for yourself and being one for another person very helpful.
posted by michellenoel at 4:34 PM on December 3, 2012

This is a strategy that's helped my own impostor syndrome: whenever I get an email or memo or anything that says something nice about me, I print it out and put it in a special folder. Then, when I'm in one of those awful "oh god I'm completely incompetent" spirals I take out the folder and read through it. It's especially helpful having documents from multiple people in there, because really, if I truly were incompetent how many people could I fool?
posted by JuliaJellicoe at 4:35 PM on December 3, 2012 [8 favorites]

Maybe it might help to see how Richard Feynman dealt with it (see , starting with "At Cornell, I’d work on preparing my courses"). Or, more generally, to note that even the most accomplished people feel the same way sometimes.

You didn't trick anyone into giving you raises or promotions or subordinates. You've gotten these things because The Powers That Be decided you were so important to your organization that they would rather have you in your current role than in your previous ones. They're not somehow stuck with you when they don't want you; they *do* want you. If they decide you make their lives better in your more important roles, who are you to argue?
posted by The Notorious B.F.G. at 5:40 PM on December 3, 2012

Here's the thing that drives me bonkers: odds are that ever successful person got there through a mix of hard work, being at the right place at the right time and dumb luck. Lots of people work very hard and very diligently and never get anywhere. Some other people hit the dumb luck jackpot and they do great things. Regardless of how you got to where you are - you can do good things. Several people are now employed and will have nice things on their résumé because of your dumb luck. That's a good thing. Right? The folks who hired you? What do they know? Probably dumb lucky too.

Someone I know works in the marketing field as a designer. She once remarked when yet another higher up watered down her good work that it didn't matter -- you could either have an ego or you can make friends. Friends find you that next job. Friends recommend you. Friends make your life easier. It's an interesting perspective.

Lastly, my driving desire for employment as of the last few years: I want to work with good people. Full stop. Anything else is gravy. Because nothing makes me hate a job more than crappy people.

You may be good people.

Good people are hard to find and they ought to be rewarded. What if you went to work tomorrow with the attitude: my job is to do good work with and for good people. Full stop.

And, okay, no therapy. The doctor prescribes at least 1 hour of full body massage every other week until March. You need to release this tension. Go every week if you can. Cheaper or equivalent to therapy and you won't cry as much.
posted by amanda at 9:28 PM on December 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Buddhists would say that impostor syndrome comes from ego asserting itself, and a way to address it would be to cultivate gratitude toward your situation and those that have helped you along the way, and to do your best to give similar opportunities to those similarly deserving.
posted by softlord at 7:00 AM on December 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

I know you're not into therapy. How do you feel about self-help books? I went to an Imposter Syndrome seminar by Dr. Valerie Young that I found extremely useful, and she has now written a book. Her seminar contained some techniques for dealing with imposter-syndrome thoughts that have been useful to me. Presumably her book contains similar information.

The most effective technique for me has been to keep track of my accomplishments as objectively and quantitatively as I can. Whatever kind of measurable outcomes you have in your job, keep track of them for yourself. Seek honest, objective feedback wherever possible, and record it. Doing this helps me get a more realistic sense of my performance. It's easier for me to push back against the imposter-syndrome thoughts if I have data on my side.

I also ask myself questions when I'm having imposter-syndrome thoughts. I ask myself "Why do you think you're actually incompetent? Why do you think so-and-so secretly resents you?" and try to nail it down to some actual evidence. That process helps me ground myself in reality. If there actually is a problem, that process helps me identify it and figure out how to solve it.
posted by snowmentality at 9:39 AM on December 4, 2012

You may be alright.

I read your question twice. It sounds like you work hard and try to get the job done; you didn't lie during your interview and you didn't fake your resume. We'll assume that the previous statements are true. All those meds/therapy help you keep you focused on the goals for the successful completion of your projects/tasks. You may not have Ivy League education but you may have what is needed for the job (I have seen boatloads of Ivy Leaguers who are true slackers). You keep this in mind and implement your ideas. Now, if you have no ideas, then you may have some catching up to do. Good news is that you have people working under you; if you pick the right team, they will contribute to your success. In the meantime, you work as hard as you can to catch up with whatever you think you are lacking in terms of skills etc. Also bear in mind that every level-headed hard worker in fields that require critical thinking suffers from a certain degree of impostor syndrome.

Back to your question of how can you "stop flipping out and feeling like these people don't realize it, but they've hired a dud?" There are things you can control and things you cannot. So, you do your end and make a true and honest effort to do the job to the best of your ability and enjoy the ride.
posted by eebs at 11:57 AM on December 4, 2012

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