Beating Imposter Syndrome
September 12, 2016 12:18 PM   Subscribe

I am a woman in my thirties who works in education/non-profits and by all external metrics I have been very successful. My rational mind KNOWS this. But after a recent job change and promotion and I have been struggling with a bad case of imposter syndrome that makes me feel anxious, sad, and fearful at a moment when I want to be feeling proud, competent, and together. I'm looking for what has worked for you-- mantras, therapy, life coach. At this point I'm open to pretty much anything. Some details inside.

As I said, I know, rationally, that I am succeeding. I work closely and successfully with district leaders and superintendents. Last week I ran a workshop for 200 teachers all of whom rated it as excellent on an anonymous survey. I was just promoted to deputy director of my organization. Etc. Etc. Etc.

But here's what the voice in my head keeps saying:
* You're not actually that good at this. You're just a smooth talker. People are impressed now but soon they'll see through you.
* You're not having a real impact. You should have stayed a classroom teacher.
* So and so seems distressed. They're probably angry with me. I probably screwed something up.
* I'm lazy. I goof off to much on the internet. I'm not actually a good employee/person.
(As I type these I hear how silly they sound but they feel so awful rattling around in my head...)

And underneath all that is this terror of making mistakes or making people angry. It is exhausting. If you met me or saw me at work I don't think you would guess that this was my internal experience. I've been professionally successful in my life. People often describe me as warm, calm, and confident. But, boy, that is not the feeling on the inside.

I've always had this issue but have never successfully dealt with it and I'd like my present to myself in my thirties to be developing some better strategies for managing.

Any advice-- particularly from people who have had similar struggles with nasty self-talk and imposter syndrome-- would be very, very appreciated.
posted by jeszac to Work & Money (10 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
It *is* exhausting to battle these voices, and you could be helped a lot by some sort of therapy that helps you gain some distance from these voices. Traditional CBT does this thing of disputing thoughts, where you challenge the thoughts directly - like "What is the actual evidence that you have that I'm not actually good at this?" and see what the voice says. Chances are it'll try to distract you and beat you down, but if you hang in there and genuinely ask for actual evidence to support its position, it'll come out empty, or, come up with examples that are so distorted that you'll see through them (e.g., "That woman in the third row LEFT when you were making your presentation!").

There are many other types of therapies that focus on helping people get out from under abusive thoughts. They are generally grouped under the rubric of 3rd wave behavior therapies, and they typically incorporate mindfulness as part of their practice.

This is one of the areas in which Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) can be very helpful. The philosophy here is that there is no point in battling these voices, or even trying to correct them, because these voices are not convinced by evidence. The key is not to change the thoughts, but to change your *relationship* to the thoughts, so that ultimately, when one of those voices come along, you are able to say, "Oh hi, it's you again. Do you have anything else to add? If not, ok, I get what you're trying to say" and then move on holding it lightly. No battling.

If you're interested in ways of thinking about thoughts, an early episode of the podcast Invisibilia - the Secret History of Thoughts was a really great intro to this kind of thing. If you're interested in trying some self-help approaches to this, you might check out Steven Hayes' book, "Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life" (he's one of the founders of ACT).
posted by jasper411 at 12:44 PM on September 12, 2016 [13 favorites]

Everything that jasper411 said -- I've found that CBT helped me a lot with this (and I could have written your post, down to the recent promotion!), and another thing that I'm doing is to keep a "you are awesome" journal. Basically i've spent so long dismissing any notion that I was any good that my brain just doesn't record them very well, so I now keep a little journal of anything nice that anyone has ever said about me (or that I think about myself) in an effort to actually let that nice feedback sink in. It's really nice to go back and look at it over time when you're feeling particularly imposter-y.
posted by ukdanae at 12:49 PM on September 12, 2016

I started writing and then deleting about 5 answers now.

I tend to believe that Impostor Syndrome is different for men than it is for women. I believe it has something to do with men being told that they're entitled to whatever they see, including accomplishments and praise ("See Simba? Everything the light touches will be yours") and women are held to entirely different standards (see how Hilary is criticized vs. Trump). I think CBT is a great place to start, but I think you're feeling the effects of oppression and patriarchy.

It may not be a popular opinion, but it's mine. And the way I'm trying to fight it (in myself) is to create things and push a feminist agenda forward.

I'm sorry I don't have better advice. Maybe CBT will work too - but I want you to know that there's nothing wrong with you. You are awesome. Your accomplishments are WORTHY. And this probably has less to do with you than with EVERYONE ELSE in the world.

xoxo best.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 12:53 PM on September 12, 2016 [28 favorites]

Starting a new job is hard. I started a new job this year after eleven years with the same company, and even though the job itself is essentially the same stuff and I know, in my heart, I am precisely suited to do this very thing, I still have all these thoughts you are having. I have dealt with it using patience, distraction, and Xanax. More than anything else, I think time is the key. It just takes time to gain back the feeling of trust we take for granted after we've spent a long time doing the same thing. Go easy on yourself - this is a normal thing to feel.
posted by something something at 12:56 PM on September 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

You're just a smooth talker. People are impressed now but soon they'll see through you.

Honestly, I WISH I were this good of a smooth talker. I'm not! If you were, you'd be CEO of Theranos right now.

Everyone dicks around and is secretly afraid they'll get caught, unless they don't care and feel like they've got nothing to lose. I know you already know this, but part of competence is longevity, you might just need time to warm up to the new role and get to know the people like the back of your hand, and you'll be OK again. <3

I work with professors and PhD students in STEM, who are supposed to be some of the smartest people around, right? They still make mistakes. A lot. They have meetings to talk about their mistakes and try to make sure they're not making any more mistakes, to fix their mistakes and learn from mistakes. They make mistakes professionally, as a way to move knowledge forward.

In the workplace, mistakes aren't tolerated in the same way, they're not considered a part of process. But EVERYBODY makes them. They just fix them, or they compensate in some way. They don't stop making mistakes by becoming gods. Everyone has behind-the-scenes coping mechanisms.
posted by stoneandstar at 12:58 PM on September 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

There are two ways to measure "success" or how "good" you are. One is objective and the other is relative.

The Fortune 500 is a relative ranking. It is the 500 companies that are the most (whatever it is they measure). There are 500 slots there and they will have 500 companies listed, whether there are 50 truly awesome companies on the planet or 5000. It is not an objective measure.

When I worked at a Fortune 500 company, we got memos about how we "flew up the ranking" at a time when, in real terms, the company was bleeding financially due to the recession. But we weren't bleeding as badly as other companies. Relative to other companies, we were looking pretty darn good.

If you are a smooth talker and good at what you do, you are probably good at measuring up well in relative terms. This is not something that inspires confidence. What if someone better comes along? What if your awesome skillz aren't good enough because TORNADO or something? So, you are better than other people, but what if that still leads to disaster?

I find it really calming to have some kind of objective measure of success. Being better than people around me does not make me feel okay. When I had that job at a Fortune 500 company, I did not feel okay with being told we "flew up the Fortune 500 ranking." instead, I was having nightmares that I was on a sinking ship because I was well aware that the Recession was taking its toll on the company and sucking less than other large companies was not going to guarantee that the company would not die due to the Recession.

I like tracking two sets of objective numbers: 1) Evidence that I will not "die"/fail catastrophically and 2) Evidence that I am moving towards fulfilling long term goals. I think carefully about what those measurements involve and as long as those numbers are tracking, I can cope with life.
posted by Michele in California at 1:35 PM on September 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

A few realizations that have helped me throughout my career related to this:

1. Sometimes people arne't hired because they are Super Skilled in ways that we think we should be. It's partly about competence, it's partly about likability and an ability to work with others, it's partly about loyalty and being trustworthy in regard to the organization. Some of those latter things can be well discerned by others, even if (and maybe especially if) we are doubting our abilities. If I trust those I work with, I trust their opinion about whether I'm ready for a promotion.

2. The older I get, the more I realize that we're all pretty lucky that society holds together at all, as most of us have less than specialized information in the areas in which we work. Somehow, though, the community effort holds us together in ways that are magical and keep all the duct tape and string from coming undone.

3. Any concerns that I've had about being "found out" have never served me well over the years, as they have never come to fruition. This is true for most people who feel as if they have impostor syndrome. It made me realize that I can chill out a bit. You know that saying that nobody thinks about us nearly as much as we think about ourselves? People do think about us and our work, but they are way more often thinking about their own work, level of competence, what their boss thinks, etc.

4. I decided that one way to battle impostor syndrome was to make it my job to figure out how to do my job. When I started my current job, the person whom I was replacing had health issues, so I received pretty much zero on the job training. So this was a case in which I really didn't quite know what I needed to know yet, but I considered it my job to simply get better at my job. I think that's what a lot of people expect of others when they take a new position, as long as you are minimally competent to do essential tasks.

5. I also remind myself that if I'm not pulling my weight and trouble is coming, it should never be out of the blue, if I'm working at a good place. Good places to work will let you know if things aren't going well and give opportunities for improvement. Additionally, if something is brought to my attention, a good working environment generally wants to see corrections happen, rather than fire people. If you have a desire to always improve and get better, and you don't go rogue on your job and not take feedback and other people into account, this is probably 90% of doing a good job. I find that if I can't get in this frame of mind, it tends to tie into emotional trust issues and feelings about criticism in general, which it did me a lot of good to talk through with a counselor.

Not sure if any of this helps, but perhaps the best thing to know is that you aren't alone!
posted by SpacemanStix at 1:41 PM on September 12, 2016 [5 favorites]

To add to what Dressed to Kill said: You may need to try to come up with meaningful data to measure your performance as a woman. I have had to do that to help me cope with certain things. This absolutely had an aspect of just making me feel crazy until I had some hard data to look at.

If everyone else with your title is male and they all have more income, more responsibility, whatever, try to come up with data on what women are accomplishing. Realizing that no women or very few women are doing what you do and that you basically have no role models (and are, effectively, without peers) can really do a lot to get rid of that sense of "I am not really doing that well and I feel so nuts."

So, this is where a relative measure can be useful: Measuring yourself compared to other women, other people your age, other people your ethnicity (if you are not white), etc. It can help you account for some of the things that are holding you back in real terms and making you look around at all the cishet white males with more money, power, whatever and feeling inferior. If you can come up with some data on other groupings and see how your performance compares in those other groups, you may start feeling less like you just have everyone fooled and are just not All That
posted by Michele in California at 2:37 PM on September 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Nthing everyone who says therapy. It's been really helpful to me in getting my brain to quit it with some really damaging scripts and also giving me the ability to recognise that certain thoughts come from the asshole peanut gallery section of my brain and are not actually worth listening to. (I imagine this asshole peanut gallery looking like a bunch of mediocre white men. Off the wall, but helpful when I want to tell them to fuck off.)

Do you have some kind of community of women (either in your profession, or working professionals at a similar level) you can turn to? I've found having that sort of support to be very helpful, even if it's just the ability to grab drinks and shoot the shit once in a while. I also find the forums at Corporette to be super helpful for this, despite the occasional drama.

Also, having hard data is a good idea. I find that it really helps shut the voices up. Also keep a "brag book" - basically, a list of cool shit you've done that you can look at when imposter syndrome hits. As a bonus, it's a fantastic resource come appraisal/interview time.

Good luck, and if it's any help at all, this internet stranger thinks you're doing great!
posted by Tamanna at 6:34 PM on September 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Woman in my 30s in academia here. I've told myself a lot of what you are telling yourself. Some things that have helped me in response:

You're just a smooth talker.

As I supervise more and more students and see more and more people either fail or succeed in academia, I realise more and more that being a "smooth talker" is a real skill. And not one that covers up "realer" skills, but one that IS ONLY POSSIBLE if you have those real skills. I dunno, maybe academia is different, but the people that I've seen that couldn't communicate their way out of a paper bag? Well, it wasn't a problem with communication skills; it was a problem with thinking and conceptualisation, because they didn't understand what the heck they were talking about. Theranos aside, the acid test of whether you really understand something is if you can talk about it so other people understand. If you can do so while being persuasive and interesting? You are a rare gem, my friend.

You're not having a real impact.

This is literally something you will tell yourself no matter what you do. I was in the Peace Corps and I told myself this. I teach huge classes full of students telling me that they love the class and it has changed their lives, and I tell myself this. I, a teacher, compare myself to someone with your job and tell myself I would have more impact in a job like yours. Probably HILLARY CLINTON tells herself this.

Ask yourself -- and be honest -- what would make you stop telling yourself this? I asked myself this question, and answered "If I got the Nobel Prize". But would it? I pictured what that would be like and my immediate reaction in this hypothetical world was to think "well, I don't deserve the Nobel Prize." If something similar is your reaction then seriously this is a line of thought where literally nothing you do would be enough to signal that you were having a REAL impact.

I'm lazy. I goof off to much on the internet.

So does everybody. I mean, if you goof off too much and you're still so successful, then if anything this suggests that you really do have it together and you really do have what it takes. But really the answer is that we all goof off. Humans are not made to focus for eight hours a day.

I hope that helps. It's hard but it's easier when you recognise that these thoughts are bullshit from top to bottom.
posted by forza at 11:18 PM on September 12, 2016 [6 favorites]

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