The Real Solution to Impostor Syndrome

A therapist explains why it’s not just about finding confidence

Photo: chee gin tan/Getty Images

One thing I can say with confidence about remote work: It does absolutely nothing to ease impostor syndrome. Over the past year, even as the world turned upside down, many of my therapy clients have continued to battle work-related worries: They don’t deserve a recent promotion; they aren’t qualified to give that upcoming Zoom presentation; they find it hard to feel professional and accomplished when the sink is full of dishes and they haven’t worn real pants in weeks.

People who struggle with imposter syndrome often think the solution is to build up more confidence — psyching themselves up in the mirror, or trying out a couple power poses, or maybe texting a friend or colleague for some moral support. But these strategies are only a temporary fix.

That’s because objectivity, not confidence, is the solution to imposter syndrome. The people who tend to be the least anxious about a big meeting or a new promotion are those who can evaluate themselves realistically, without relying too much on praise or criticism from others.

But it’s difficult to be clear-eyed about your own performance if you don’t have your own definition of what you’re trying to do or who you’re trying to be. Without this thinking, you’re likely to use people’s reactions as the barometer for success. And with remote work, where you’re often cut off from others’ facial expressions and tone of voice, it’s easier to falsely assume that you’re annoying your colleagues or disappointing your boss.

To stay objective about work, ask yourself:

  • How would I define what good work looks like today?
  • What do I think I did well today?
  • What still needs attention and improvement?
  • From whom, if anyone, do I need feedback?

Instead of focusing solely on the reactions of others, lean on your own thinking about the work you’re doing. The more objective you become, the less likely it is that you’ll be thrown off your game when your boss sends an email that could be read as passive-aggressive or when you hear that a colleague has gotten a promotion you were gunning for. Imposters are people who are more focused on appearances than the work itself. If you’re curious and committed to doing good work, you won’t have to worry about whether you belong in your role. You’ll know.

Kathleen Smith is a therapist and author of the book Everything Isn’t Terrible: Conquer Your Insecurities, Interrupt Your Anxiety, and Finally Calm Down.

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