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career 10 min read

Coping with self-doubt in your new career

By USQ 09 Apr 2019
Woman seated at computer in office with hands on head looking stressed

Have you ever felt as though you’re not as qualified or experienced as your employers think, and that you’re going to be found out?

Have you ever thought that you don’t really deserve your job, even though you went through all the recruitment processes and can do the work? This feeling is what is known as imposter syndrome, and it can make perfectly competent employees feel like frauds, unworthy of their achievements and of praise they may receive for their work. It can influence your actions and decisions, hold you back from applying for a new job, and make you feel unworthy when you get one. Those who experience imposter syndrome frequently attribute their success to external factors, such as luck or someone else’s involvement, and tend to focus on what they haven’t achieved rather than on what they have.

Who is likely to experience imposter syndrome?

People who are most susceptible to imposter syndrome are high achievers, creatives, people who haven’t studied in the industry they work in, and people who are just starting their careers after finishing uni (Warrell, 2017). While research published in the late 1970s claimed women are more likely to experience imposter syndrome, recent research argues that men are just less likely to acknowledge their experience (Anderson, 2016). And yet, when I asked around for volunteers or suggestions of people who may have felt this way and who I could talk to about the topic, it was two males who came forward to share their experience.

Below are two accounts from male alumni who are all too familiar with imposter syndrome; one from someone who struggles to come to terms with the fact that he is now a professional and no longer a student, and one from someone who struggles with self-doubt in a job he is good at, just because he works in an industry unrelated to his degree.

Two accounts of imposter syndrome, from USQ alumni

Icon representing generic alumni

Alumnus story #1: Dane, Psychologist

I experienced a large environmental shift when moving from being a student to being a professional, trained psychologist. At university, we constantly receive feedback. At the end of the four years we spend at university, we have this big celebration that proclaims, ‘YES! You are now knowledgeable! You are now capable to go out into the world and conquer!’ in flashing lights.

Now, the student has become practitioner and reality has hit. Suddenly, I have this person in front of me with incredible emotional pain, crying; and things I learned at university, like Maslow's hierarchy and the difference between correlation and causation, seem so irrelevant. There is no criteria sheet in front of me to guide me in helping this person and I certainly don't get marks back from my clients saying, ‘You were very good in this area, but a little low here’. It almost feels like now I have to start over and learn everything again. Yet, there are these nagging thoughts, feelings of self-doubt and self-expectation that you should know everything and be competent in all you do. Some of my persistent thoughts are:

Word cloud stating I'm not good enough

Word cloud stating I can't do this job

Word cloud stating My managers will find out that I'm incompetent

Word cloud stating It's only a matter of time before someone else figures out I don't know what I am doing

... or, my personal favourite,

Word cloud stating After four years of study you still can't do this!

This can be quite the emotional rollercoaster.

The good news is that university is not just about what we learn, but how we learn it.

But the good news is that university is not just about what we learn, but how we learn it. How many times as students did we wake up in the morning and say, ‘I can’t do this’, or, ‘I am not good enough’, when we receive marks back? If you’re anything like I was, then quite a lot. For me, it is the realisation that university not only taught me the base content to become a good psychologist, but also that I learned strategies on how to cope with my self-doubt. We need to take those skills and apply them when we start working, too.

One of the strategies I use to help me manage feelings of imposter syndrome is to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is about letting both your positive and negative thoughts go, observing them, but not reacting or holding onto them tightly. It is about building your strength to turn down the constant background noise of self-doubt and feelings of being an imposter and re-focusing your attention on the task at hand.

Icon representing generic alumni

Alumnus story #2: Tom, Marketing Professional

Having studied for three years in an arts degree with a clear career goal in sight, I hit a roadblock when employment in my industry didn’t come immediately after graduation. This was despite having worked hard at uni, gaining unpaid experience and being proactive in my approach to seeking out opportunities.

During this slump, I was offered an opportunity for a three-month contract in an industry I knew very little about. By definition, the role matched my skillset; however, there were many elements that made me feel completely out of place.

On my first day, I was laughed out of the room for wearing my staff ID card on a lanyard around my neck. In my first week, I was caught out unknowingly addressing an executive committee member as a customer. After a month, I was attempting to keep a low profile so my manager didn’t ask for a progress report, in case the work I had completed up until this point had been inadequate.

Some of these insecurities have softened over time; however, there is still a feeling of displacement that has lingered for four years now.

Qualification plays a large part in this. While I share some of the same skills as my colleagues, I don’t have a knowledge base or fundamental understanding beyond my experience in this role. Every time I get on Seek to look at roles at my level in other organisations, I am reminded of the gaps in my ability and wonder how I am even able to stay afloat in my current role

Some days, it feels like I’m starting to feel more comfortable, but all it takes is an acronym I don’t know or an industry leader I’ve never heard of to send me spiralling back into uncertainty and doubt.

I actively avoid networking with connections who work in my industry at other companies, for fear of being caught out to the detriment of not only myself, but also the team and company I represent.

A recurring hypothetical scenario I often play out in my head is the introduction of a new manager, who is bewildered by my lack of knowledge and skillset in comparison to their previous workplace and industry standard.

I constantly question whether my contract renewal is a decision based on complacency, rather than my competence. It’s hard to come to work every day, feeling like you are below average.

It’s a crippling lack of self-confidence that has grounded my career physically and mentally. The worst part is that I can’t even talk to my colleagues or boss about it, because that could bring my shortcomings to their attention, especially if it had never occurred to them before. It feels like I might be stuck in career purgatory, too afraid to move for fear of falling down.

Can you relate to either of these experiences?

How to cope with self-doubt and fight back against imposter syndrome at work

It’s important to know that most people will experience imposter syndrome at some point in their career (researchers believe up to 70%), and that even very successful people feel this way at times (Warrell, 2017). So, if you too sometimes feel like a fraud at work, you’re not alone.

Statistic - 70% of people will experience imposter syndrome at some point in their career

For example, Meryl Streep, who holds the record for receiving the most Academy Awards nominations of all time has said, ‘You think, “Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie? And I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?”’ (in Kearns, n.d.).

Similarly, Margaret Chan, former Director General of the World Health Organisation has claimed, ‘There are an awful lot of people out there who think I’m an expert. How do these people believe all this about me? I’m so much [more] aware of all the things I don’t know’ (in Kearns, n.d.).

Use these 12 tips and strategies to overcome imposter syndrome in your career:

  1. Remember that it’s totally normal to feel self-doubt sometimes and to experience self-doubt in a new job, even if it is one you’ve spent years studying for. The transition from study to career can put you outside your comfort zone but try to ‘fake it ‘til you make it’, and you will develop confidence in your ability over time.
  2. When starting a new job, think about a previous time when you started something new and how you managed this transition. For example, when learning something new, is it most helpful to have written instructions to work from, an assigned buddy who can answer your questions, or extra reading material that will help give you a more comprehensive understanding and context?
  3. Talk to your boss. When starting a new role, ask your employer to discuss their expectations with you so you have a clear understanding of your responsibilities.
  4. Feelings are not facts. Try to evaluate your skills and accomplishments from an objective point of view, rather than letting self-doubt and negative self-talk bring you down. If possible, quantify your success. It’s hard to argue with numbers.
  5. Be positive. Focus on your strengths and acknowledge and celebrate your successes.
  6. Don’t create unrealistic standards for yourself. No one is perfect, not even the people you put on a pedestal and try to emulate. You don’t have to attain perfection to be worthy of your job or of achieving career success. Remember that even if you’re not the ‘best’ person for the job you’re in, you were the best fit at the time you were hired.
  7. Try not to compare yourself with others. We often assume success comes easily to others, but this generally isn’t true. No one is perfect and everyone has their own struggles, even if they’re not the same or aren’t publicised.
  8. Don’t sell yourself short. Get out of the habit of downplaying your work and learn when to give yourself credit for your achievements.
  9. Don’t keep your thoughts to yourself, as this will feed your paranoia. When you feel self-doubt starting to creep in, talk to a friend, family member or career mentor about how you’re feeling, and build supportive networks where you can discuss career expectations.
  10. Don’t overcompensate for what you think are your shortcomings at work. For example, by working overtime.
  11. Change the way you think about learning. According to the Foundation of Young Australians (2017), by 2030 it is expected that workers will spend 30% more time each week learning on the job – around one-third of their time at work. This reflects the growing understanding that university degrees are a launch pad for further learning, rather than the end of a person’s learning career. As the world continues to change rapidly, workers will be expected to keep up and on-the-job learning will become the norm.
  12. Don’t let self-doubt hold you back or dictate your decisions. Put yourself out there and try new things.
Statistic - Our thoughts produce the same commands as our actions

Brain studies show our thoughts produce the same commands as our actions (Schilling, 2017). So, it’s important to remember that the way we speak to ourselves matters. By being careful about indulging in negative self-talk and trying to put all of the tips mentioned in this article into practice, you will learn to accept the occasional feelings of self-doubt, but stop them from taking over. That nagging feeling of being an imposter or a fraud at work may always be there, but it’s up to you whether you listen to it and let it control your actions.

Need help developing your self-confidence? Learn how to harness self-belief and achieve professional and study success.

Want more advice to help you overcome self-doubt and build and maintain a successful, fulfilling career?

Learn more about Graduate Employability and what it can mean for your future career.
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Resources:

Anderson, L.V. (2016). Feeling like an imposter is not a syndrome. Slate. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/articles/business/the_ladder/2016/04/is_impostor_syndrome_real_and_does_it_affect_women_more_than_men.html

Kearns, H. (n.d.). Free guide. The imposter syndrome. Retrieved from http://impostersyndrome.com.au/index.php/the-free-guide/

Schilling, M. (2017). The new strategy to beat Imposter Syndrome. Business Chicks. Retrieved from https://businesschicks.com/imposter-syndrome-confidence-tricks/

The Foundation for Young Australians. (2017). The new work smarts: thriving in the new work order. The new work order report series. AlphaBeta, Sydney.

Warrell, M. (2017). Afraid of being ‘found out?’ How to overcome impostor syndrome. Business Chicks. Retrieved from https://businesschicks.com/how-to-overcome-impostor-syndrome/