Work through your impostor syndrome while working from home.

By Stephanie Cornwell
April 20, 2021
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The students at Stanford University use a beautiful analogy to describe impostor syndrome: At face value, students are like ducks, effortlessly gliding on a pond. They float along as the best and brightest future leaders and innovators collecting achievements, internships, and high GPAs. But when you look underneath the water, their little webbed feet are desperately fighting to keep them afloat. They aren’t just working hard to succeed—they’re also terrified of sinking.

Kelifern Pomeranz, PsyD, CST, a California-based clinical psychologist, used to work for Stanford's Mental Health Clinic for students, and believes that this analogy doesn't just apply to students at top-tier universities. She says 70 to 82 percent of people experience impostor syndrome at some point in their career.

What is it?

But impostor syndrome is a bit more than a fear of failure. It’s a psychological phenomenon in which a person believes they’re not as smart or skilled as their peers (or those around them) think they are. People experiencing impostor syndrome feel like frauds, and often attribute their successes to luck rather than real competency, talent, or skill. They often live with a deep and debilitating anxiety that they’ll be “found out” and “exposed” as an undeserving, well, impostor. 

It’s important to note that, despite including the word “syndrome,” impostor syndrome is not recognized by the DSM-5 as an official disorder. The term was coined and defined by two psychologists, Suzanne Imes, PhD, and Pauline Clance, PhD, in the 1970s as the experience of not being able to internalize success. At the time, it was thought to only occur in high-achieving women, however recent research shows that people of all kinds and all walks of life experience it.

High-Stress Situations Tend to Make It Worse

Impostor syndrome is nothing new, but the transition to working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated its effects. And the worst thing you could do, according to Susan David, PhD, a psychologist for Harvard Medical School, is fall under the tyranny of positivity: suppressing these negative and difficult thoughts or judging yourself for feeling them.

Self-doubt is to be expected in times of stress and new situations. Transitioning from busy office life to Zoom meetings in your pajamas with the kids screaming in the background or noisy neighborhood construction has been a stressful shift.

David sees these impostor thoughts as our mind’s way of adapting to situations. For example, if you’re a working mother, you may think: “My mother was a good mother, and she was always around for me. I’m struggling to balance being there for my children and working from home, so I must not be a good enough mom.” There’s often a self-critical, nagging worry that someone else could do it all and do it better than you, and you convince yourself that this is true.

This particular thought loop likely comes from the expectation you have for yourself as a parent. The mind is signaling that you value being present with your family. David urges you to find a solution that aligns with your goals and values, without getting stuck in the impostor syndrome cycle of guilt. It might be as simple as putting your phone away after 5 p.m. to be more present with your family.

If you were raised with certain biases against you, like “people like us don’t go to college” or “you can’t have a family and your career,” then you are likely to weaponize those biases against yourself in stressful situations, buying into the (false) idea that you’re not cut out for college or parenting and working full-time.

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Virtual Work Is Isolating, Which Breeds Anxiety

For some, though, the blurred boundary of work and home might have caused an anxiety of underperforming, which can manifest in overworking. Marie Barnes, PhD, associate teaching professor at Florida International University specializing in industrial organizational psychology, fully believes that the sudden and ambiguous transition into full-time working from home has caused more self-doubt and insecurity over belonging.

Barnes is well versed in impostor syndrome. A student once asked her at what point in her career she felt like a professional, and she responded with, “I’ll tell you when I experience it.” So when the challenge of connecting with her students remotely arose, she went to the experts—those who’ve been working from home all along. She needed to learn for the first time about things like building a remote schedule and how to fight the urge to do laundry when she should be in a video meeting.

For those in an office or school before the world shut down, Zoom was fun at first. In Barnes’s case, her students got to meet her cats, Jester and Ice, and see her Hamilton poster on the wall. Things felt more intimate. But if you graduated into the world of COVID-19, or switched careers during it, you might feel like you missed out. Social cues and nuances are lost when we interact via video camera or Slack. Employees have a harder time gauging how their ideas land with their coworkers. Immediate, natural feedback gets lagged, creating space for doubt.  

We are social creatures, and there is something invaluable to be said about being around other people. Barnes’s field, industrial organizational psychology, focuses on socializing employees into an organization to promote retention, engagement, and overall success for both the employees and their companies. It’s hard to replace live human interaction and onboarding processes fully through a screen.

It Can Affect Anyone—Even Those in Leadership Roles

As a psychologist in Silicon Valley, Pomeranz works with top executives at incredibly successful companies. These people are tech and business geniuses, yet they come to Pomeranz to confess that they have no idea what they’re doing. Of course, they do know what they’re doing, and they’ve worked hard for their jobs, but that’s what impostor syndrome does. It’s that voice that whispers “who are you to be doing this?”

“It’s lovely to know that it doesn’t matter what position you have or whether your company has a billion-dollar valuation, at the end of the day we’re all just human beings,” she says.

For these executives, it’s probably true that the more you learn, the more visible the gaps in your knowledge becomes. And, it goes without saying that the people who come to Pomeranz experience a lot of stress even before the pandemic. But working from home has limited our communication, artificialized our social interactions, and left a lot of us with illusions that we aren’t working as hard as our colleagues.

For executives and leaders, the pandemic created a real need for quick adaptation and public optimism. They had to be the cheerleaders for their companies, and according to Pomeranz, they often felt like they had no right to complain because they still had a job and their health. It’s also been a time where tough decisions have had to be made. These added pressures have led people to doubt if they have the ability to lead.

Strategies for Dealing With Impostor Syndrome

There’s no magic cure-all or quick fix, but there are some everyday strategies for managing impostor syndrome while working remotely. David offers tips for both individuals feeling like a fraud and for organization leaders.

How to quiet your impostor syndrome: 

  1. Stay out of the mental house of mirrors, where you don’t just have these difficult, negative thoughts, but you also judge yourself for having them. They are normal.
  2. Be kind to yourself. This is a crucial time to look inward with self-compassion.
  3. Ask yourself where it’s coming from. Your impostor voice might be trying to tell you something. For example, if you feel you lack value because your opinion is never asked, you’re likely craving to use your voice and be heard, and/or seeking feedback. Step into that: Brainstorm ways to communicate with your boss or manager more effectively.
  4. Use logic to prove yourself wrong. If you constantly think, “I don’t belong here,” question it—is that really true? You landed this role and have garnered these responsibilities fair and square. Why do others belong and deserve their place, but not you? If you constantly think, “I’m going to get fired,” ask yourself why. What fireable offense have you actually committed? Or did you just have a comparatively unproductive week, and need to work on some time management tricks next week? 
  5. Pause and be grateful for these uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. They are alerting you that something doesn’t feel right, and that gives you an opportunity to make a change in your life, whether it’s small, like finding ways to reframe your mindset or a new daily outlet for stress; or larger, like looking into talking to a therapist or seeking a new work environment.

RELATED: The Pandemic Taught Us Empathy, but Will It Last? Psychologists’ Tips for Keeping Compassion Alive Post-COVID

How Companies Can Help Employees

Yes, impostor syndrome is normal in stressful situations, and, yes, individuals can and should work on it themselves—but it’s also the responsibility of the systems in place to make their employees feel included and valued. If you’ve been marginalized or not included within your workplace, then of course you will feel insecure about your value in an organization. “Be careful that in the welcome focus on resilience, that we don’t ignore the systems and processes that contribute to lower levels of wellbeing,” David urges. A healthy company culture, especially while remote, can help dispel natural feelings of impostor syndrome among employees.  

People are struggling. Organizations must understand that how their employees feel impacts how well they do their jobs. Worker wellbeing is no longer only a function of the individual. When companies help people feel good about themselves and their environment, they create a context where the organization is sustainable and prosperous.

Make an audit of the demands and expectations being placed on your employees in this stressful time, and even before. The pandemic has given you an opportunity to restructure, and there’s always room for improvement. Set the tone that allows voices to be heard.

Ask these questions: 

  1. What are some ways you’re giving people space to speak openly? Do they have a safe platform to give honest feedback? How can you show that your employees' voices are valued?
  2. What expectations are you setting for employees? Do you expect them to be “on” at all times, or do you respect boundaries between work and personal life? 
  3. From an organizational perspective, what measures are in place to allow for flexibility? Can people continue to work from home if they prefer to? This allows them agency and autonomy; it demonstrates your trust in employees.

The Stanford Duck analogy conveys how we’re all struggling under the surface. While our respective struggles can manifest in different ways, one of the worst mistakes we can make is to assume that we’re the only ones paddling frantically beneath the water while our peers float elegantly along.

Understanding that we’re all fighting against our own currents, it makes it easier to validate our experiences, trust our place in the world, show ourselves love and kindness, and then give it to others.