Imposter syndrome
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Imposter syndrome: How to deal with feeling like a failure at work

28 Aug 2017

Hands up if you’ve ever felt like you’re really not good at your job any more?

Whether it’s a new promotion, your first job or simply a bad week in work, nerves can often get to the better of us in our professional lives.

A little bit of nervousness is not a bad thing. However, it can sometimes turn into self-doubt, and that can become crippling if we let it happen.

Let us paint a picture. You’re in your job, you’re doing it well, you’re happy and secure. Then, out of the blue, your performance takes a knock.

Suddenly, your confidence starts to plummet. You make mistake after mistake. You really start feeling the stress of it all. You doubt yourself and your abilities at every turn.

The next thing you know, your mental health is in a downward spiral, where you’re almost dreading going into the job you once loved because you’ve come to the undeniable conclusion that you must not be as good as you thought you were.

You’re not cut out for this job. You’re not good enough.

Sound familiar?

The truth is, almost everyone has gone through this process at some point. That level of self-doubt comes from what is known as imposter syndrome.

‘Sometimes, a challenge that we’re more than capable of facing up to seems bigger than it is’

Sports psychologist Gerry Hussey said imposter syndrome is where you feel dislocated in time and place.

“It’s where you don’t feel at home, and that could be because you’ve outgrown this place.

“So, there’s no longer that fluid connection between where you are in yourself and where you are in your work.” But how does that disconnection suddenly lead to self-doubt?

“What happens then is, we underestimate what we can bring to it and we overestimate the challenge ahead of us,” said Hussey.

“Sometimes, a challenge that we’re more than capable of facing up to seems bigger than it is, because we’re anxious and we’re tired.”

Hussey said this happens because we’re operating from the limbic brain, which is the primary area that deals with stress. “When we can’t see the solution immediately in front of us, we start to panic,” he explained.

“The quicker we put ourselves under pressure, the more dislocated we’re going to get. We become more anxious in ourselves, we become more fearful and we’re filled with self-doubt.”

As a sports psychologist, Hussey sees this happen to players at the top of their game. They play badly once, then the next game doesn’t go well. Suddenly, that player is doubting themselves and their abilities.

Look outside of work

Feeling inferior at work can have a detrimental effect on your health, but it’s often your health outside of work that can cause the hiccup in performance.

From friends and relationships, to diet and sleep, all of these external factors will affect your performance in work. If some of those boxes are not being sufficiently ticked, even your best skills won’t save your performance.

“In childhood, we learn to walk very fast, we learn new languages very quickly. We’re funny, we’re confident. It’s the time of our greatest physical, mental and emotional growth,” said Hussey.

So, what is it that fuels a baby? It sleeps a lot, it eats wholesome food, it plays all the time, it feels deeply loved and it laughs all the time – about 300 times a day, in fact.

This releases a chemical that enables growth. “Without laughter, our growth is stunted,” said Hussey.

“Right now, ask yourself: am I getting eight to 10 hours of sleep every night? Am I eating healthy, wholesome food? Am I playing regularly? Am I laughing lots? And do I feel deeply loved? If the answer is no to even two of those five, it’s no wonder you’re not performing.”

How to know you’re not terrible at your job

When you’re feeling a bout of severe self-doubt about your abilities in work, Hussey said one of the first things you must do is ask yourself why you were hired for the job.

“If you’ve got to a stage where everything seems dark and you think, ‘I’m crap at my job and this isn’t working out’, just stop and ask yourself: why were you hired in the first place?

“Either your organisation has the worst recruitment in the world, where they deliberately recruited crap people with no talent, or you showed them something.

‘We doubt ourselves far too fast, we criticise ourselves far too harshly’

“Challenge yourself and write down five things that you believe they hired you for. What did they see? You showed something, you said something, there was some spark that they saw.”

The next thing Hussey suggested is to think back to a particular week, month or quarter where things were really clicking, and ask yourself what else was going on in your life at the time.

Were you eating well? Exercising regularly? Were you socialising more? Are there stressful things going on outside of work at the moment, or are you looking after yourself a little bit less? Now is the time to think again about those five things that fuel a baby.

Check yourself

Hussey advised to create a checklist by which you can measure yourself, one that comes down to more than a single thing that you can judge yourself on.

“We doubt ourselves far too fast, we criticise ourselves far too harshly,” he said.

While the most obvious metric in work tends to be hard or technical skills, Hussey said it’s important to remember that those skills must always be evolving, so you’ll never be perfect.

“No matter how technically excellent you are right now, it probably won’t be good enough in a year’s time.

“You have to accept that you’re going to have to engage in technical development all the time and that you’ll probably never be world-class, I’ll never be excellent, I’ll always be learning – so accept, and adapt.”

Hussey said that after the hard skills, you should measure your character. Are you loyal? Honest? Hardworking? Who are you as a person?

“You have to know who you are and not only measure yourself on the job you can do, but how the job is done when you do it.

“Even when you have a day when you make mistakes, or maybe your technical talent is exposed, where you’re found lacking in ability, that’s OK. Because you haven’t been found lacking in honesty or integrity.”

The final thing you have to measure yourself by is your soft skills. Are you coachable? Can you take constructive criticism? Can you be given instruction?

Now, you’re measuring your performance on a number of things that aren’t simply your ability to do your job. This allows you to focus on a lot of controllable factors.

‘Stop talking nonsense. Stop filling your head with words that create stress’

Hussey said that if you’re having a bad day or week in work, take a step back and decide what you were unhappy with, and resolve to improve on that. However, it’s also important to rate yourself on other skills.

“It comes back to knowing yourself,” he said. “If you know what you’re about and you know the values that you bring, then, if an organisation can harness and respect those, you’ll be OK. If they can’t, then you’re probably in the wrong place anyway.”

As a final pushback against the negativity that can be the root cause of imposter syndrome and self-doubt, Hussey said to listen to the amount of times you speak negatively about other people and talk about how stressful the world is.

“Stop talking nonsense. Stop filling your head with words that create stress. Stop talking about things you can’t control. Stop being critical of people,” he said.

“Instead, see the world as one big learning opportunity, where you’re going to fail, but you’re going to get back up.”

Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the editor of Silicon Republic in 2023, having worked as the deputy editor since February 2020. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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