Overcoming Impostor Syndrome
September 17, 2014 7:48 PM   Subscribe

I'm self-aware enough to know I am a perfectionist with Impostor Syndrome, but I'm clueless as to how to fix this. I need to kick this before I crash and burn at my new, fabulous job.

I recently began a prestigious job. I'm partially (mostly?) convinced that I'm going to fail at it, that I'm not intelligent enough to do the work properly, that I'm going to disappoint my boss, that everyone will find out I'm neither smart nor capable nor blah blah blah.

I am also aware this line of thinking is a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example: my job involves a lot of reading, and I am retaining very little of what I read. When reading, I'm thinking I NEED TO RETAIN THIS and asking myself questions I think I might later be asked, but I find myself going down rabbit holes before I've grasped the big picture and, at some point, realize I am not absorbing anything. My boss asked me a question today about something that I read (albeit only once) and my mind went blank, I had to grab my notes before I answered, my answer wasn't good, I felt myself flush. Ugh.

Compounding my anxiety is the knowledge that my predecessor was The Smartest and Most Amazing Employee Ever, as multiple people in my office have told me. So, on top of the (unreasonable?) pressure I am placing on myself to perform, I have the added pressure of performing up to my predecessor's level.

Reading over these paragraphs I am rolling my eyes at myself. Why can't I make myself believe I can do this? I've tried to do affirmations and the like, reminding myself that I am intellectually capable - but there's a voice I can't quiet that is laughing at me and telling me nope, you're dumb and bad at this, sorry, you just are.

This is killing what should be my enthusiasm for a dream job. Please, help. Here are my questions:

(1) How do I kick this Impostor Syndrome, once and for all? (2) How do I curb my perfectionistic tendencies while still doing a good job? (3) How can I banish this mind-blanking, paralyzing anxiety that washes over me when I am asked a simple question? (4) And, as a bonus: how can I regain/improve my ability to retain what I read? I don't have the best memory in the world. (Or do I?!)

One last thing: therapy. Therapy isn't exactly smiled upon in my field, which I know is harmful and crummy, because I am a believer in therapy and I've been (for other reasons), and I've had to explain, in a professional context and in great detail, why and for what and for how long. I'd appreciate other-than-therapy suggestions and resources (things to read! ha!).
posted by sevensnowflakes to Human Relations (16 answers total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
Tell people that you are a great researcher and keep detailed notes - Evernote is good for this - and start writing abridged notes or tagging cleverly what you need to have researched. It's really nice to have someone who can instantly give you a detailed answer, but equally as nice is to have someone who can go "Oh here's the overview, and I will send you the specifics shortly" and does that so you feel confident asking them for say "Oh what will happen to Project X when Ms Z leaves?" and know they will get an answer within a quick turn around that's good. Outsourcing your memory.
posted by viggorlijah at 8:11 PM on September 17, 2014

I'm reading The Charisma Myth right now, and there's an exercise about dealing with negative feelings that might be helpful. The first step is destigmatize the feeling - recognizing that what you're experiencing (Impostor Syndrome) is normal and shared by millions of people. Imagine people you admire going through the same feelings, and see yourself as part of a community of people who have experienced this. It helps me see past the idea that I'm inadequate, to a place where I'm one of many people who have experienced feelings of inadequacy. I'm still reading it, but I recommend this book, even though it may sound like it isn't directly applicable. It is really about structuring your mental environment to get in the way of your success as little as possible, and could definitely help with 1-3.

For 4, consider writing a quick summary of things you read. You'll probably have to do a read through, and then review the material to write the summary. That is more work, but if you have to get the things you're reading into your working memory, then you have to do more than just read harder. Summarizing forces you to organize the information, which will help you remember it
posted by jeoc at 8:32 PM on September 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

(3) How can I banish this mind-blanking, paralyzing anxiety that washes over me when I am asked a simple question?

So, sevensnowflakes, let me see if I have understood you correctly, so what you are asking is how you can get rid of the anxiety that makes it difficult to come up with an answer to a question? Do you mean short questions requiring one word answers or longer questions? And just to clarify, is it a question that needs an immediate on the spot answer or could you say you will verify the correct answer and get back to them? (I don't actually need you to answer these)

Come up with some sort of standard boilerplate you can begin answers with. If it's a question you can reasonably say "I don't know the answer on that, but I will check on it and get back to you", that's almost always better than giving the wrong answer.

Things will be different if you are in a situation where you literally have to fire off rapid answers to questions, or where things will go horribly wrong and affect hundreds of people if you can't answer the question immediately. Then, you'll either need to find a way to cope or find a less stressful job.

I have the added pressure of performing up to my predecessor's level

If they really were the most amazing employee ever, it would be completely unreasonable of them to expect anyone else they hired ever to perform up to that level.

Also, your boss has probably dealt with many new hires and expects a new hire to take a while to get up to speed.

Therapy isn't exactly smiled upon in my field

A friend of mine who had spent some time being homeless was once approached in a park by someone who offered to pay him to just sit and listen to her talk for an hour. Sometimes it can help just to have someone to listen to you even if they aren't a therapist.
posted by yohko at 8:54 PM on September 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: (1) How do I kick this Impostor Syndrome, once and for all? (2) How do I curb my perfectionistic tendencies while still doing a good job? (3) How can I banish this mind-blanking, paralyzing anxiety that washes over me when I am asked a simple question? (4) And, as a bonus: how can I regain/improve my ability to retain what I read? I don't have the best memory in the world.

1. You don't. You adapt to work around it.

2. You learn to iterate. Do a passable job. The first thing is to do it. The second thing is to improve it - but do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. The hardest part of any project is knowing when you are done.

3. For me - I got a degree in engineering. Now, when I get that anxiety, the first thing I think is "I've got a fucking degree in engineering. I can figure this out." Try something like that, maybe.

4. It is far more important to remember THAT you read it, and WHERE to find it again. Even the best memory is fallible. Make good notes and documentation and work around human limits to memory. I have done far better at this since I made it a base assumption that I will forget, instead of punishing myself when I do.

5. Learn that failure is not a bad thing. Newt Gingrich is my go to on this - he's a serial philanderer who has been disgraced at several points during his career and is still taken seriously by a large number of people. Why should that fat loser be allowed to succeed by failing and you cannot ? Failures are not, in and of themselves, bad. Accept failure as a consequence and cost of learning.

6. Therapy can help. But, I didn't get any and have been doing amazingly well since I learned those few tricks. Mostly - you have to recognize that you have an anxiety disorder and that your mind is lying to you. Once you have learned that, you can learn to lie back.

Anyway, it is a skill - which means practice. Sometimes that will be easier than others, but you get better by doing it.

At least, that's what I did.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 9:43 PM on September 17, 2014 [23 favorites]

You can't "get rid of" your anxiety. Knowing that is the secret weapon against it. You, like, accept and respect it into peaceful coexistence. So in this case, why is it flaring up? Ask it, and then categorize the responses into "well, can't do anything about that, so it's not really worth worrying about" versus "yeah, good point." The "good point" ones will be the ones you probably want to flee from, but go through them and essentially appreciate your anxious mind for bringing them to your attention, and then think about what you'll do about them. Sometimes merely having a plan is enough.

So, in your case, reason #1 - to some people, your predecessor will always be a godlike hero among men (and women). To me, that goes in the first category, "fuck 'em if they can't take a joke." Reason #2 - you can't focus when you do read so in truth you aren't retaining anything. Well, hmm, good point. No wonder you have some concerns. That'd stress anyone out. So, what can you do to retain more as you read? I suppose "stop putting so much pressure on yourself" could go on this list. Maybe read in the morning before your mind gets jumpy? Maybe commit to writing a short summary of the article after you read it? Okay, boom, now you have a good three part plan. Thank you, anxious mind. Thank you, problem solving mind. Good teamwork. You are super competent. You can figure out how to solve problems as they come along.
posted by salvia at 11:49 PM on September 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'm struck by the fact that you wont say what it is you do. I understand wanting some generic answer but my guess is you're avoiding being specific in a way similar to how you avoid understanding what you're learning. Learning is messy and you want it to be over with already without the feelings of not-knowing (for which you judge yourself). To learn something, you need to be curious about it and participate in the process of engaging with the material as an ignorant person. There's no shortcut for this. But you can make it harder by indulging in self-hate for it taking time.
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:02 AM on September 18, 2014 [5 favorites]

Hahaha, are you a lawyer, too? And me?

Law's not the only profession with an unspoken taboo on therapy. Unspoken taboos on therapy in all professions are stupid. Go to therapy anyway. In this context, now that you're a professional, you really don't owe a detailed explanation to anybody. Find someone with after-business hours or go to HR to work out arrangements to leave early one day a week. It's an investment in your professional performance. Anyone who "needs" to know actually doesn't; it can be described as a medical appointment and that's enough to keep people's noses out of your business at work.
posted by mibo at 4:12 AM on September 18, 2014 [4 favorites]

Might be a helpful exercise to make a list of things that you consider goals - your own personal view of how to measure success. Test yourself against your standards every week.

It sounds like you confuse doing a good job with impressing people. If that's the case, you are at the mercy of everyone all the time.

You need to develop an internal compass. That is a key element of mastery.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 7:19 AM on September 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

I was also going to ask if you were a lawyer. Have you gotten your bar results yet? You'll probably feel much better when you have that piece of paper declaring you to be "minimally competent".

I know you're not exactly looking for more reading, but I think that The Feeling Good Handbook might work for you. It's basically self-directed cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). It's hard work though. You need to get over the smug face of the author on the cover. And then, you will read the chapters and need to get over the hard truths that you aren't actually that special (in this case, that's a good thing). And finally, you'll need to get over the fact that the exercises seem silly and unnecessary because you actually do need to do them to get the most out of the book.

The book is thick, but from what you've described, the chapters on anxiety and procrastination would probably be helpful.

Good luck. You sound awesome. The fact that they hired you to replace "The Best Employee Ever" speaks to your awesomeness.
posted by sparklemotion at 8:03 AM on September 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

My boss asked me a question today about something that I read (albeit only once) and my mind went blank, I had to grab my notes before I answered, my answer wasn't good, I felt myself flush. Ugh.

This incident may have absolutely nothing to do with impostor syndrome or anxiety or perfectionism. This may have to do with how memories are formed and how the mind accesses memories. Among other things, memory access is state-dependent.

One example of state dependent memory is that my first pregnancy was horrible and miserable and giving birth to that child was horrible and miserable. For many years, I had trouble remembering the details of those events. Then, when I was extremely ill for a few years and every minute of every day was horrible and miserable, I could clearly remember the birth of my first child in a way I had never been able to do before. (Now, I am less miserable and I again remember it less well. It's kind of hard to remember the details of things that occurred while in excruciating pain if you aren't currently in excruciating pain.)

So when you learn materials by, say, reading them at home in the bathtub (naked and wet and all), you may have trouble accessing that information at the office all dressed up in a business suit. Also, it can be hard to translate text to talk. Those involve different parts of the brain. So if it is fairly normal for you to need to verbally answer questions about the material, you might consider reading key parts out loud, writing a summary and then reading it out loud, getting someone to discuss the material with you as part of your process of learning it, etc. instead of just reading in silence and taking written notes. Those are fine if you only need to write about what you have read. But if you need to also talk about what you have read, yeah, you can wind up drawing a blank. And it's horrible.

I have been through periods where I could read stuff and then write about it but couldn't pull off talking about it. Much of that time, that didn't matter because I was taking classes online. But when I did run into situations where I needed to talk about things I knew but couldn't quite manage to articulate it, it was extremely frustrating and, yes, made me feel stupid. But I also understood that it was partly just that certain pathways were easier than others.

So it might help you perform better, and also feel less like an impostor, if you learn a bit about memory formation and memory access and think about the circumstances and situations you will be in when you need to access the information and try to, as much as possible, match up when, where and how you learn the info to the mental pathways which will most readily connect that learning to remembering the information and articulating it at the times and places and in the ways that needs to happen.
posted by Michele in California at 10:11 AM on September 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

A tip I found helpful when studying for my PhD qualifying exam: you don't need to remember everything you read - being able to articulate where to find the answer is typically good enough. So if you get asked in a meeting "how many [foo] did we sell last year to China?", a perfectly fine answer is "well, that information is in the appendix of the [bar] report, so let me check that and get back to you".

When I have to do technical reading and comprehension is important, I will read each section/chapter twice. I read it the first time, straight through, without taking notes. I then ask myself "what is the main point here?". With that main point in mind, I go back and read it a second time, taking notes on things I deem important. Despite having to read everything twice, this actually saves me time because knowing the central point of a passage allows me to take smarter notes instead of having to write down everything that seems like it might be significant later.
posted by zug at 11:00 AM on September 18, 2014 [6 favorites]

(sent too soon) this also makes my retention way, way higher, as an added bonus.
posted by zug at 11:03 AM on September 18, 2014

I'm in the new job situation, but I'm totally embracing "I'm new, bear with me, can you explain this again," and it is WAYYYY better than trying to fake it until I make it. My boss hired me to train me, not because he thought I would magically know how to do every aspect of my job right away. Sometimes making that explicit (even as the person who needs help with something) makes you seem MORE competent, not less.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 11:35 AM on September 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

If therapy is frowned on, how about coaching? My workplace is happy to pay for professional coaching and I've found coaching to be just as helpful as therapy and in some ways more so because I like being told "how" to do things.

I've also found that grasping the context around why facts might be important can sometimes be more useful (and impressive) than retaining the actual facts themselves. So it can be less important to tell someone how many widgets you sold last year to the last decimal place, and more important to be able to explain the factors affecting sales in the market you operate in.
posted by girlgenius at 4:30 PM on September 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm a lawyer too, and I spent about a thousand years in therapy working on this very issue (and frankly, in BigLaw and corporate in-house practice, never felt hampered in pursuing therapy with those excellent health benefits). Ultimately I concluded that law and my perfectionist, anxious, impostor tendencies were a terrible brew for me. I was very good at it, but every task felt like a terrible minefield of time bombs ready to go off at some surprise time in the future, revealing all the terrible mistakes I'd made. And sometimes the pressure I felt to be perfect and thorough hampered me from getting started at all.

I ended up deciding to do something else with the rest of my time in the workforce, but a few things that helped:

1. Play out worst case scenario if you really did make an error -- would you get frowned at? Yelled at? Fired? Probably nothing as terrible as your anxiety has you fretting about is really all that likely to happen, especially if you handled the aftermath (cop to it, propose a fix, etc.) appropriately.

2. Remember you are human, and everyone is allowed to make mistakes, not know the answer off the top of the head, and so on. Even your Star Predecessor, I bet.

3. Practically every other woman I know in the profession feels this way, and knowing I was part of a sisterhood of high achievers who nonetheless feel incompetent made me feel more like I was handling some obnoxious head game and less like I was alone and damaged. Even Sheryl Sandberg feels like this, for cripes sake. Perspective!

4. Accept help. I managed to make myself feel worse sometimes by consulting with outside counsel on issues I secretly felt I should be able to handle myself. But a gut check is never wrong! And I typically came in under budget for this prudent and effective use of resources.

5. Learn to accept your own process. Do you need to carry notes with you to meetings with your boss? Fine! If it works for you, it works. Nobody notices or cares. They just want you to be the best resource you can be your own way. That's why they hired you. I myself found if I tried to handle so,etching contentious as soon as it landed on my desk it was a hot mess. I did much better to put it aside as time allowed and let my response steep a bit. Then I found all the pieces fell into place. Once I realized this, I was able to let go of the fear of letting it sit a bit.

6. Try a guided relaxation. Kaiser has some very good free podcasts available to all on the internet. Find 10-20 minutes to close your office door or sit in your car and come down off that anxiety ledge.
posted by gateau at 9:44 PM on September 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

This may not answer your question directly but might be worth listening to, for some of the issues related to impostor syndrome, especially if you are a woman. (The second part talks about the issue so painfully prevalent among women, but the interview with Lagarde is fun too!)

posted by xm at 9:53 PM on September 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

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