Even the most brilliant developers, the most competent managers, have doubts about their abilities—despite evidence that their performance at work is acceptable, or even laudable. Why do we feel this way…and how can we feel better about our work and ourselves?
"I worry every time I do a review," said Alice, a technical writer from the Pacific Northwest, "I'm afraid someone will say, 'Oh my God, you don't know what you're doing.'"
Bob, an engineer who works at a multinational corporation, said he worried that "Eventually management above me would come to some realization that I wasn't up to the job or of high-enough caliber."
Alice and Bob are considered competent and proficient employees. They have received positive feedback from their peers and managers. But despite respectable track records, both Alice and Bob have experienced sneaking suspicions about their proficiency. This particular work-related bugbear is not a DSM-recognized disorder but known anecdotally as impostor syndrome.
Alice and Bob are far from the only people who doubt their abilities. Three quarters of Harvard Business School students feel that they were admitted to their prestigious school not because of their previous achievements but because of a failure in the admission process.
It's difficult to gauge exactly how many people experience impostor syndrome because so few people are willing to publically admit to it. In fact, all of my interviewees requested a pseudonym.
Charlie, who manages a team of developers, explained why he requested anonymity. "An implication that someone thinks of themself as incompetent or an impostor runs the risk causing other people to believe that as well. Needless to say, this can cause increased attention/lack of trust issues from bosses, increased friction with colleagues at the same level, and potentially morale issues from subordinates."
Alice does not want to admit any kind of vulnerability on the job. "The one time I was emotionally honest, it came back to bite me. Emotional honesty does not always win you points [in the workplace]."
But more than the potential to put yourself in a manager's crosshairs, there's a reason that many of us don't like to admit we feel less-than-stellar employees: It's painful. The idea that we're not as proficient, as intelligent, as good, as the people around us can result in a low self-esteem that bleeds into our everyday lives. Comparing ourselves to others, and never measuring up, is a wound than does not heal.
According to psychologist Shavaun Scott, "Many of us are prone to comparing ourselves to others and feeling 'less than' in so many ways." Feeling inadequate at the office is just one of them. "It's similar to the way that gorgeous models still believe themselves to be fat and ugly," she said.
This has a negative impact on employee's self-image, as well as their career prospects and their financial futures. People who believe they cannot do certain jobs do not easily apply for new jobs or promotions—and the raises that come with it.
Worst of all, impostor syndrome occurs despite evidence that we're actually well regarded by our peers.
Alice's accolades, Bob's success in an insular, competitive field, and Charlie's multiple promotions would seem like proof that they are performing beyond their expectations. But Charlie recognizes that "impostor syndrome is just another description for insecurity."
(The irony of impostor syndrome is that if you're affected by it, you're always afraid of being "found out" as a fraud and challenged, but in practice this rarely happens. However, Charlie was once confronted about his skill level by another employee, one who was "legendarily hostile." Charlie, and everyone else on the job, was able to "shrug off" his complaints.)
Scott said these work-related lacks of confidence develop before we could even have a job. "If we've been raised in families where we were criticized and held to unrealistically high standards, we will have an emotional setting that said, 'This is not good enough.'"
In fact, Scott has experienced impostor syndrome herself. "I can still have a PMS day and be overwhelmed with emotion and think all my work is [expletive]."
So how to overcome these diminishing feelings?
Alice suggested "having a supportive team in a supportive work environment." She finds that she feels less anxious about her performance at the office when she and her team have "espirit de corps."
Focusing on the positive has helped Bob. "One of the big things that helped me overcome impostor syndrome is my continued employment here,” he said. “Eventually I didn't worry so much about being 'discovered' as an impostor because enough time [had gone] by that I really couldn't be much of an impostor anymore. Having work tasks actually complete and come out positively helped a lot, too."
Charlie acknowledged, "Meditation has meant that I have less anxiety about [appearing as an impostor], but the thoughts don't occur any less. Meditation has meant that I'm more able to step back."
One way for people to overcome impostor syndrome, Scott said, is to "Learn to recognize [and acknowledge] that they're feeling inadequate… then look for some objective source of reality checking."
Scott managed to overcome her own impostor syndrome by looking for objective measures. In her case, she looked for feedback. When writing an assessment at a previous job, she asked for a review of her coverage. It is important to "seek information, not approval,” she stressed. “You need a standard with which to measure your competency that is outside yourself.”
In other words, if someone tells you that a person in your job should be doing X, Y, and Z, and you can indeed do X, Y, and Z, you may begin to trust that you're performing well.
Or you could take comfort in knowing other highly successful people, including chemical engineers and neuroscientists, have felt this way. Scott treats people who have felt like an impostor in their jobs "all the time… Most people have it to some degree."
As Alice said, tellingly, "Deep down inside, everyone feels like a kid playing dress up, and that's where impostor syndrome comes from. None of us feel that grown up."