Somehow, I got into my current job. It feels like an accident, and now I have so much responsibility. I don't really know much about these things.
Everyone else knows more and can do more. I'm just guessing all the time. Soon someone will realise that I don't really understand or know anything.
If these thoughts seem familiar, you may be suffering from a phenomenon called impostor syndrome. I can also tell you that you are not alone. Studies show that up to 70% of people at some point in their lives have these kinds of thoughts.
A realistic assessment of one's own skills is necessary
Thoughts about whether you know enough, are good enough, or whether you can cope with a task are in themselves quite understandable and natural. It’s healthy to ask yourself these questions when facing new challenges. A realistic assessment of your own skills is in order – otherwise, anyone could convince themselves and others that they are, for example, a competent pilot or surgeon without real experience.
These assessments become problematic if they repeatedly prevent you from pursuing something that you want to achieve, or turn into constant anxiety and sleepless nights.
The vicious cycle of impostor thoughts leads to anxiety
Despite its name, impostor syndrome is not a psychological diagnosis or disorder, but rather a collection of thoughts and related patterns of action. Therefore, by identifying them, you can also learn to alleviate the impostor experience so that it no longer limits life.
Life gets tough if you live in uncertainty and fear of being exposed all the time. You can never really relax or recover.
The cycle of impostor thinking begins with some new challenge or task ahead. The "I don't know how to do this and soon everyone will notice it" thoughts are funnelled into a general haunting feeling.
The survival tactics of impostor syndrome
To curb anxiety, impostor syndrome offers two main tactics: overachievement or underperformance.
Overachievement means that everything possible is finalised and fine tuned to perfection, without counting the hours and without recognising fatigue. Only perfection will do. Let's check the final result once again, and once again just to be on the safe side. The fear of failure and exposure guides the action.
When things properly get to the finish line, it's easy for someone with impostor syndrome to think that success came only through a huge amount of work. The same must therefore be repeated for the next task. Positive feedback runs like water off a duck’s back, because the success was only due to an insane amount of work.
Underperformance, on the other hand, means that a person suffering from impostor thoughts avoids career advancement. Applying for new positions is avoided due to fear of failure and exposure.
Also, a person with impostor syndrome tends to postpone the mandatory tasks at hand until the last minute, when the tasks are completed with a ferocious effort. The end result is good, but the one who feels like an impostor will not listen to the praise this time, either. After all, it was just a matter of chance and good luck that they got through it. Impostor thoughts outweigh reality, including verifiable experience, competence and knowledge.
How to banish impostor syndrome
These are examples of thoughts and patterns of action that you can begin to recognize in yourself. Only when you recognize something can you start practising doing things differently. If necessary, you can work with a professional to gain additional understanding about the source of your impostor thoughts. Several Auntie packages address impostor syndrome, such as Overachiever and Leading Me.
1. Recognise impostor thoughts and calm yourself down.
For starters, you can just say, "hey, this is where these impostor thoughts come up again". You can take note of the anxiety or fear that your thoughts evoke and then try to calm that feeling. Often the easiest way to calm the body is to breathe deeply with long exhalations. Ground yourself on a physical foundation: plant your feet firmly on the floor, sit upright in your chair – here I am. When the negative feeling subsides, it's time to get on with the task at hand, in peace and quiet.
2. Let go of the requirement of doing it alone.
People who suffer from impostor syndrome often think that they have to deal with everything on their own. They don’t dare to ask anything, nor can they accept help when it’s offered. That is simply silly! Anyone can ask questions, and you are free to ask for help – others do the same. If you have too much on your plate, also ask your manager for support in scheduling and rearranging tasks.
3. Note the good feedback.
Friends and colleagues are needed as a mirror for impostor thoughts. I mean good feedback in particular, which the impostor mind is so happy to ignore. It’s important to literally take note of every little bit of good feedback. Write it down for yourself so that you can come back to it again and again when impostor thoughts arise.
4. Take care of recovery.
To counterbalance stress and anxiety, you also need good recovery skills and relaxation methods. Start consciously doing things that you enjoy and that are in line with your values. Let your attention be drawn to the good at work as well as in everyday life around you.
Impostor thoughts don't have to determine your future or keep you stuck where you are for the rest of your life!
Blog written by Auntie professional Elina Pajunen, who is a solution-focused therapist and work supervisor, and previously also worked as a journalist.