Imposter Syndrome, Remote Work & You
Since the pandemic rolled in, as the work environment has shifted more and more towards remote work / work from home, I’m hearing more and more from my clients that they are experiencing “Imposter Syndrome” more often and more intensely, especially people who have started new roles during the pandemic. These trends are not coincidental.
Wired for connection.
We are social, relational, pack animals. We are wired for connection. In the past, when we went to a shared workplace, socialization happened organically and without much forethought. The natural shared interactions with our co-workers were baked into our day. The often taken for granted ‘small talk’ before meetings, in the hallways, at the coffee pot, sharing lunch together, or grabbing a beverage after work created relationships with our coworkers and contributed to a shared sense of purpose and belonging.
With our current work from home / remote work culture, many of us are lacking that person-to-person connection. It doesn’t happen the same way by email or Zoom. Natural and organic connection doesn’t just happen. The void created by our lack of connection is being filled–for many people–by thoughts and feelings of Imposter Syndrome. It’s not just you.
It turns out that human connection in the workplace is potent at preventing and lessening imposter syndrome. But what can be done when workplace connection is getting less automatic and harder to come by?
Offering up context on what Imposter Syndrome really is?
To gain some insight and understanding, let’s have a look at a perspective on what Imposter Syndrome is. I view Imposter Syndrome as a perfect storm of what we call Thinking Traps.
Thinking Traps are habitual thinking traps that we all experience that tend to create the “less than desirable” range of human emotions. Much of our stress, anxiety, anger, fear, resentment can be traced back to Thinking Traps. And often, we can get a bit stuck in those trains of thought (hence the ‘trap’ piece). Think of an unpleasant hamster wheel / broken record kind of thought, where you (and the thought or feeling) are not going anywhere and not exactly enjoying the ride.
While there are a wide variety of common flavors or genres of common thinking traps (for example: mind reading, fortune telling, catastrophic thinking, emotional reasoning, fairness fallacies, either-or thinking, and more. For more info, feel free to check out this LINK). As best I can tell, all the humans I have come in contact with experience Thinking Traps at some point in their day or lives.
Imposter Syndrome is the especially potent and troublesome combination of ‘Mind Reading’ and ‘Fortune Telling’ Thinking Traps typically in the workplace context. What I mean by that is when people bring to conversation the complaint of experiencing a lot of “Imposter Syndrome,” their thinking patterns are often stuck in a combination of what we can call “mind reading” and “fortune telling” Thinking Trap patterns.
The “Mind Reading” aspect is a thought pattern of assumptions of other people’s opinions of us. Typically these assumptions are negative in nature. And we have a tendency to regard these thoughts — based on assumptions — as truth.
“Fortune Telling” regards thoughts of what we assume will happen in the future, typically in these cases, it’s a negative outcome. Sometimes it’s a catastrophic, worst-case-scenario outcome. Again, we tend to over identify with these thoughts and relate to them as if they are true.
Often this looks something like: “my coworkers think I’m not good at my job / my manager regrets hiring me / my team things I’m _____ and I’m going to lose my job / get fired / end up miserable ever after.”
Interestingly, when I ask questions to explore these thoughts and feelings, what conversation consistently reveals is that there is almost always no basis in reality for these thoughts. Clients consistently tell me that they feel they are receiving positive feedback, have good working relationships with their managers and coworkers, and work hard at their jobs.
Yet these thoughts and the resultant anxiety remain.
So, what helps?
First off, normalizing. It can be helpful to know that your experience is extremely common, and well within the range of normal human experience, especially given the context of these very abnormal times. It bears worth mention, I’m having conversations like this week-in and week-out. You are not alone.
Furthermore, context helps. Knowing and recognizing when we’re experiencing unhelpful thought patterns like these Thinking Traps can help us to decouple our experience and identity from these thought patterns and help us move thru the experience, rather than get stuck in that mental-emotional space. The Cognitive-Behavior world calls this “distancing,” creating space between our thoughts and our mental and emotional state. It helps us to realize and remember that: Our thoughts are sometimes just thoughts, and our feelings are sometimes just feelings. They don’t necessarily ‘mean’ anything.
We are not our thoughts and feelings.
Who and what we are is a different question, and perhaps fodder for a different — and perhaps longer — article!
(Another approach–because it helps to have lots of tools in the toolbox–sometimes it can be helpful to “challenge” the thoughts and look for evidence for or against the proposition, although–because our thoughts and feelings aren’t ‘logical,’ this approach can be more or less effective depending on the situation, circumstances, and our default perspectives.)
In choosing to consciously work with our thoughts and feelings, I want to bring into the conversation the concept of Acceptance.
It generally doesn’t work to argue or fight with our thoughts or feelings. Afterall, when we fight with ourself, who wins? Paradoxically, we find Acceptance to be much more effective. Acceptance isn’t about approving of the thought or feeling, it simply amounts to accepting “that’s how things are right now.” It’s coming to terms with the reality of the moment. It’s from that place that we’re best able to shift things in a more desirable direction.
Remember, the problematic Thinking Trap thoughts aren’t based in reality, so coming home to reality helps when non-reality based thinking isn’t working out how we’d like. I know it’s paradoxical: Don’t take my word for it. Try it and see for yourself, and let me know!
Some more “external” strategies that help are having conversations with your manager and teammates, clearly requesting ongoing feedback on your work. This can help create an environment with clear, open communication where you actively receive the feedback you need to thrive in your role, feel confident in the work you’re doing all while having the added benefit of minimizing uncertainty in the workplace. It definitely helps with Imposter Syndrome, and it’s a good way of doing business in general as well.
Intentionally working to create more social connection — both within and outside of the work environment — can go a long way in helping prevent and combat Imposter Syndrome and boost our overall sense of confidence as well. Coming out of the pandemic, this can take a bit more effort than it has in the past, but arguably it’s needed now more than ever.
Lastly, of course, there is coaching. Reading articles (or however you take in information in our modern world) is a great way to learn more about things, but don’t be afraid to reach out for help! Working with a coach is a great way to address the unique challenges of your life and your situation and to find your own equally unique path forwards. Self-help and articles like these are a great resource, but personal growth isn’t one-size-fits-all! If what you’re reading and trying isn’t working to your satisfaction, reach out! There are a lot of great helping professionals happy to be of service.
I hope that gives you a better sense of Imposter Syndrome, what it often looks like in our current remote work reality, some ideas of how to work with those challenging thoughts, and some actionable items to create positive change in your life.
As always, I love to hear your thoughts! What here lands with you? What misses the mark? I’d love to hear about your experience. And as always, if you’re interested in coaching, get in touch. I’m happy to help, and the first one’s on me!