Workplace: Suffer from imposter syndrome? How to ditch that self-doubt


Photo: dpa

A surprisingly large number of people suffer from imposter syndrome, with a nagging sense of self-doubt that they aren’t any good at what they do and that any success they enjoy is unearned and undeserved.

They feel as though they are constantly pretending and may be unmasked at any moment.

That is a pattern of thinking that can be changed, even in a series of small steps, says career coach Nina Lizon. She spells out ways to help, and even notes that those affected by this kind of thinking can turn this to their own advantage.

How does the impostor syndrome manifest itself?

Lizon: A classic example from my coaching practice is that clients come to me when things are actually going really well. They may have successfully completed a project or the boss has heaped praise upon them or maybe they are about to take a further step in their career.

Then a negative voice in their head intrudes, saying: Stop! I’m not that good, do I even deserve this, it’s just a coincidence that this particular case worked out. Also, some have a pattern of imagining a catastrophe and thinking that tomorrow, everything will be revealed and everyone will know that really, I can’t do anything at all.

The one thing all these people have in common is that they are so plagued by self-doubt that they not only do not believe in their own success, but they also do not believe that they deserve it. And that means they are unable to enjoy it. But I do need to point out that impostor syndrome is not a disease or a psychological disorder.

Can it also affect other parts of your life beyond work?

It is a personality trait that can be stronger or weaker, it can vary in terms of when in your life it appears and it can also be present in one part of your life but not in another.

Impostor syndrome can arise anywhere where there is a gap between someone’s self-image and their external image, and the person thinks, I am not worth this success and recognition.

For example, my partner might assure me how much I am loved but I constantly doubt it, not because I distrust my partner, but because I think I don’t deserve their love. You can have the same situation when it comes to feeling as though you really are a good mother or father or not. Perfectionism plays a big role in impostor syndrome.

Most people experience self-doubt. How is that different to impostor syndrome and how do you know if you are suffering from it?

You mainly notice impostor syndrome over time. When someone starts a new job, it is normal to feel somewhat insecure at first and wonder whether you are capable of doing it. Then you might achieve some initial success and hopefully, that makes you feel a little more relaxed and confident and you lose some of that self-doubt.

But if you have impostor syndrome, you don’t lose that sense of self-doubt, but with every success, you feel more and more pressure and place growing demands on yourself. You don’t feel any relief even as you move further ahead. Instead, everything feels like a burden. And in the background is the constant feeling that all that success is only a coincidence and not your own achievement.

You coach mainly women – are they particularly affected?

That was something people thought for a long time, though now, we know that men and women suffer equally from impostor syndrome. That does not surprise me, as doubting yourself is not something that only men or only women do, it is human. You might say though that the people who are most prone to imposter syndrome are more introverted and tend to be perfectionists.

What’s the best way to handle it and stop feeling that way?

I recommend three very easy, practical steps. Firstly, become aware of these thoughts, as then you can start dealing with them. Secondly, talk about it. That is one of the most important weapons for dealing with self-doubt. If you tell others that you feel inadequate right now and believe you don’t deserve success, you’ll be surprised at the positive feedback you get. That can help you close the gap between how you see yourself and how others see you.

Talking about it will also show you just how many other people are familiar with these thoughts. Surveys show that 70% of people are repeatedly affected by these kinds of doubts in their lives. And the third thing is: Keep a success diary! Record your successes, compliments and feedbacks. Leaf through it every now and then, in order to counteract your self-doubting voice in your head. You’ll have it all written down in black and white.

You said you can even use imposter syndrome to help you – how does that work?

There are two possibilities: Either we are paralysed and blocked by imposter syndrome, or we use it as a motor to push us forward. I always advise a change of perspective: What good has the imposter syndrome done you so far?

When I ask people that during a coaching session, I often hear that those who feel like an imposter do a great job at preparing. They are often more motivated to learn because they are spurred by self-doubt. They are more experienced when it comes to recognising harmful thought patterns, even in others. They are curious, ask questions, and are more open to finding solutions than staying stuck in the familiar ways of doing things.

If I try to use a weakness to help myself instead of to harm myself, it can help me perform better, and it can also help me enjoy my success – in an empathic way, without feeling so competitive. – dpa/Christina Bachmann

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