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2020 Has Made Imposter Syndrome Better For Some – & Worse For Others
Jasmin, 26, is a teacher in Cambridgeshire. She’s relatively new to the profession (last year was her first year) but felt happy and secure in how she was doing. That changed when the pandemic hit.
“I worry all the time [now]! I feel like I can never do well enough and all the positive things I managed to build and get people to recognise last year are worthless.” She is currently in a probationary period at her new workplace and says that she spends the night before every review or observation worrying that “they will discover I shouldn’t really be a teacher”. On top of this, the struggle to keep up with the regularly shifting coronavirus restrictions which educators have to follow has left her feeling out of step and prone to comparison. “Other teachers seem to have adapted well to our new working situation and I feel like I haven’t and can’t!”
Fears of being ‘found out’, comparison-fuelled doubts and a sense that ‘luck’ – rather than merit – landed you in your position are all manifestations of what is known as imposter syndrome, a much-discussed mentality which is thought to affect at least half of men (56%) and over two thirds of women (66%). The likelihood of reckoning with it only increases when you are not white.
Imposter syndrome is a form of self-doubt which is particularly pernicious if you have experienced a history of exclusion, be it because of class, education, race, age, gender, ability or any combination of the above. If you make it to the table, it’s understandable that you might feel as if you don’t deserve to be there. And as there is no guarantee that you won’t be discriminated against in the future, you may ready yourself for what you fear is inevitable. “I think imposter syndrome is your inner critic raging, but it’s also trying in its maladaptive way to anchor you so that you’re not shocked when things go wrong,” says Charlotte Weber, a psychotherapist at UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP).
Already a big problem before the pandemic, 2020 has led to a dramatic shift in the number of people who experience imposter syndrome in the world of work, in particular the fear of being ‘caught out’.
According to a recent study by Totaljobs, the pandemic has actually alleviated work-based anxieties for many. In a report published at the end of September, the “shifts to remote working sees a dramatic fall in UK workers experiencing Imposter Phenomenon, with a 57% decrease in rates compared with 2019.”
This was the case for Niamh, 32, who has worked as a consultant in Belfast for 10 years. While she has previously experienced imposter syndrome, attributing much of her success to luck, the ‘fear of being found out’ shifted in recent months.
“My husband works in healthcare and had to go into work for the first lockdown so I was WFH with our 9-month-old baby, which was extremely hard to manage!” After working on autopilot for the first few weeks she began to realise that management was expecting everything to return to normal which, she says, she found “borderline offensive”.
“The attitude was kind of ‘aren’t we lucky, we still have jobs so don’t complain that it’s tough’. It gave me some much-needed perspective that your employers don’t actually care about your life – which made me care way less about whether I was good enough or deserving enough to be there.” Instead of feeling guilt about disengaging from the less important aspects of work, she would focus on taking care of her baby and doing what she could.
“For the first time in my life I was honest when my manager asked how I was in my 1:1s – I just explained that I had a set number of things I could achieve and that was it. I got comfortable saying no for the first time ever, and I did not get fired!”
[The pandemic] gave me some much-needed perspective that your employers don’t actually care about your life – which made me care way less about whether I was good enough or deserving enough to be there.Niamh, 32
While this is far from a universal experience, Niamh says the perspective the global situation has given her is welcome. Now, she celebrates just being able to get by. “My baby is thriving and I’ve delivered solid results at work. Honestly just doing okay under the current conditions feels like a bigger achievement than anything I had done before.”
Sarah, a 24 year-old participation and policy officer in London, echoes this. Prior to the pandemic, she felt continually unworthy in her first post-university job, but that’s all changed. “Being isolated from others, I’ve been away from the negativity of comparison and have been able to develop my personal worth both in and outside of work, something I don’t think would have happened in other conditions.”
For people in far more insecure working positions (freelancers or those who have been furloughed or made redundant) and many of the younger generations, the sense of being an imposter has increased. The same Totaljobs study cited above found that “(71%) of those workers who have found themselves furloughed, laid off or made redundant continue to experience the Imposter Phenomenon.” Likewise it found that older workers experience imposter phenomenon at much lower rates than younger generations. “Just 21% of Baby Boomers feel like ‘imposters’, less than half the numbers seen amongst Generation X (48%).”
For account director Eilish, 26, in London, the job insecurity that everyone is facing right now has invoked strong feelings of guilt for surviving rounds of redundancies and furloughing. While she already reckoned with imposter syndrome due to being relatively young in her company, she says that seeing colleagues and friends lose their jobs has made her feel worse. “In my last agency, lots of people who in my opinion were much more valuable than me lost their jobs and I felt incredibly guilty for still being employed. Added to that is a fear that with thinner margins, companies will be paying more attention to individual performance, which makes me worry that I’ll be ‘found out’ even quicker!”
The kind of surveillance that Eilish is referring to – a feeling of being watched and as though you must prove yourself – has emerged as one of the many somewhat unique aspects of working at home in a global pandemic. Reports that bosses are monitoring their workers through spyware or are deliberately or constantly checking workers are delivering on goals are creating a culture of distrust. “The hypersurveillance is really infantilising and it makes us feel nannied,” says Charlotte. “And when you feel nannied you feel like you’re not trusted, and then you can’t trust yourself. So you feel defensive and insecure. To feel like you’re not trusted makes you just feel very unsafe in yourself.”
For those of us who are now working from home, being entirely removed from our work environment, friends and family has broken the professional and personal support networks that we rely on to defend ourselves against imposter syndrome. Tessa Armstrong is a member of the Life Coach Directory and specialises in career coaching. She says: “Remote working may have knocked your confidence because with that isolation and only having online communication, you were not able to build that rapport or just speak to the boss quickly about the question, and you can end up questioning yourself.” There’s also the impact of not seeing friends or family. “That sort of reassurance from those relationships has diminished, which would normally have probably boosted self-esteem or provided conversations about it.”
Charlotte echoes this, pointing to a loss of indirect feedback as a major factor in increasing imposter syndrome. “You speak into Zoom and you can’t read the room in the same way. There’s the lack of immediate feedback, where you have certain cues with body language, you lose the sense that you get from being in a space with people.” Crucially though, we have also lost any opportunity for commiseration, camaraderie or just casual social interaction. “You don’t have any incidental chatter and we know that this is leading to isolation and feelings of paranoia and rumination. Basically, you can’t have banter and camaraderie with your colleagues and peers, which often normalises struggles and makes you feel that you belong. So instead, you’re just in this kind of ‘feeler zone’ where even if you can check in for meetings, you’re not having the extra incidental chat that is actually enormously valuable emotionally.”
A lot of places, Charlotte says, are trying to make up for this lack of water cooler chat by coming up with buddy check-in systems. But this just becomes another obligation. “The whole thing with banter is that you happened to stumble into a conversation or meander off in a creative direction but it hasn’t been overly structured.”
If you realise that we’re all imposters, then you would accept that as part of the human condition and you can proceed.Charlotte Weber
So what, if anything, can be done to combat such a far-reaching issue?
Tessa says that awareness of how imposter syndrome is affecting you is absolutely key. “Be really aware of when perfectionist thoughts are occurring and what they’re making you feel. It’s only then that you can work out what triggers them and do something about them.” She suggests asking for continual feedback within your work situation around concrete tasks “so you constantly know where you’re at and whether you’re meeting expectations, and whether there are areas you need to develop. Often that feedback is actually more positive than you expect.”
If you’re not working, whether because of furlough or redundancy, she advises taking care of your wellbeing before re-establishing what you want and being creative about how you approach the next step in your career path.
“There’s an element of creativity that’s needed around the job search at the moment. Often in the way that we’ve been educated we are pinpointed certain professions or job titles but there are thousands of jobs and titles available that perhaps do similar things but are called something different.” Tessa says it’s better to build a profile of the job you want, then take a look at different job descriptions to see how it matches up.
Most importantly, we all need to realise that these doubts and fears are genuinely just part of life. “If you realise that we’re all imposters, then you would accept that as part of the human condition and you can proceed,” says Charlotte. “It doesn’t have to block you or prevent you from living fully.” She adds: “Doubt is okay, it doesn’t have to preclude full engagement. It can just be a voice, it doesn’t have to be the dominant voice.”
When the pandemic started there was a concerted effort from many people to be compassionate and reach out but this empathy has fallen prey to compassion fatigue. “In therapy I’m hearing a lot about the managers and the bosses who were checking in, that there’s kind of irritation now because that’s how any real crisis works. It gets boring and annoying and repetitive,” says Charlotte. “The novelty has worn off. People are tired of having to check in and they have their own struggles to deal with too.” We have to keep reminding ourselves to engage and ask people how they genuinely are, she continues. “Just because it’s tedious doesn’t mean it’s no longer important.”
The kind of 100% failsafe emotional support and job security that is needed to combat insecurity properly during the pandemic is not available but real transparency and honesty can go a long way to paper over the gaps while we continue to reckon with the global crisis. If workplaces and colleagues can push for digital environments where you can answer the question ‘how are you?’ honestly, then we might all feel far more able to cope.
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