Last year I wrote a column that asked, “Is There a Fix for Impostor Syndrome?” .
Since it was published in May 2018, I have received many emails and had many conversations about impostor syndrome—about the conditions in which it develops and thrives, about ways one can recognize it in oneself and in others, and about the steps one can take to mitigate it. Discussions have also addressed the relationship between impostor syndrome, burnout , and other serious mental health issues like anxiety and depression. In this column, I’d like to share some observations from these conversations.
Observation 1. Feeling like an impostor is often described as feeling outside the dominant group. That outsiderness is not always a bad thing. Many people have expressed that feeling like an outsider can be a good motivator and driver; it can be the very thing that pushes one to challenge oneself to think differently and learn valuable skills that enable one to “fit in.” Being an outsider also offers an alternative perspective that may be beneficial for teams and organizations, as outsiders can subtly or directly challenge unproductive groupthink.
Observation 2. If you feel like an outsider, you may not be alone. My conversations suggest that more people feel like outsiders than do not. While the word impostor clearly involves a feeling of being an outsider, it may behoove you to question the idea that there is an inside.
Observation 3. Although many people feel like outsiders, for a small percentage of people, feeling like an outsider over a long period of time really can create the conditions for serious emotional difficulties and burnout. Burnout is characterized by an inability to focus, a constant feeling of being under pressure, and, for many, an oscillation between anxiety and depression. Steps along the way to burnout are isolation, overwork, and insufficient self-care.
It is critical to recognize the key factors, endogenous and exogenous, that can create a progression from feeling like an outsider, to chronic “impostoritis,” to burnout. Endogenous factors include a strong focus on success, perfectionism with a highly honed aptitude for self-criticism, an orientation toward overly focusing on others’ opinions, a propensity to compare oneself to others, and an unfulfilled desire to be recognized by others as successful. Exogenous factors include stressful workplace conditions that emphasize assessment and self-evaluation, that amplify competition with colleagues, that apply constant pressure to perform coupled with sustained and substantial workload, that involve continual deadlines from multiple sources, and that afford little to no supportive teamwork and/or support from colleagues. A few people thrive in such environments. Some people survive but always feel like they have too much in common with Sisyphus—like they are pushing heavy rocks up hills, only to have them roll back down, again and again. Many are miserable but continue out of perceived necessity. Some suffer from serious emotional difficulties.
Given these observations, I have been reflecting on what actions are available. Here are some thoughts:
Reflect, talk, listen. Identify if you are suffering from impostoritis and/or are at risk of burnout. Invest time in self-reflection, and perhaps keep a diary of your work setting, noting the quality of your working relationships and opportunities for getting support, your workload and work habits, and how your moods vary. Consider: Do you feel isolated at work? Are you dogged with feelings that your work is not good enough, despite having no concrete negative feedback? Do you feel that you have no agency or control over your working life? Do you have the feeling that your perspective is ignored, or is regularly dismissed? Do you feel shut out of critical decision-making forums? Do you constantly feel guilty about not working enough? If you answered yes to any of these questions and you’ve been experiencing these feelings for weeks or months, talk to others about how you feel and listen to their perspectives.
Evaluate your workload and work habits. Take a look at your workday. Are there no breaks? Do you feel the need to do catch-up work in the evenings and on weekends? Research has looked at work contexts, charting the pressures of sustained cognitive load without a break, the costs of interruption , and of overly packed work calendars. Work out a way to scope your tasks and activities, and then do a serious work-task audit and look at how many projects or activities you have in flight. If you never have moments to celebrate even small successes with colleagues, make note of that as a factor that suggests your work context needs to be reconfigured—not that you are failing.
Try safe-to-fail experiments. Get your friends and confidants to help you in trying safe-to-fail experiments. Try saying no when people ask you to take on new tasks before you’ve finished the ones you’re working on; practice letting one go before letting another one in. Approach your boss or supervisor to discuss reducing your workload. Ask clarifying questions when you feel unclear about the scope of work tasks. Enlist friends and confidants in celebrating achievements such as completing a task that has been worrying you, no matter how small. In each of these, create the circumstances where the consequences of the test are not critical, and then discuss and review with your confidants. Make some of these safe-to-fail experiments about identifying pressure points in your workplace and about reconfiguring your work habits and workload, hopefully with the help of your managers and peers.
Practice rebalancing. From your diary notes, consider if you may be experiencing sustained anxiety and/or depression. In his book Anxiety Rebalance, Carl Vernon describes seven levels of anxiety and depression (see sidebar). Vernon makes a point that balancing between mild forms of anxiety (which motivate us) and mildly depressed states (when we step back to regenerate) is a normal part of being human. However, if you find yourself seesawing between the extremes (exhaustion/depression and panic attacks) or residing primarily at one end or the other, that is a key indicator that professional help is needed. Assessing where you are and learning the skills to stay in balance as much as possible is the goal (which Vernon would rate as spending time in Level 4 through active rebalancing).
Finally, if your diary reflects sustained negative feelings, if safe-to-fail experiments leave you feeling worse, and if you’ve been struggling to find balance for a while, oscillating between anxiety and depression, I recommend you talk to a career counselor or a therapist. Also, try to avoid self-blame and further self-criticism. Remember that it is usually the best, the brightest, the most dedicated, and the most driven to succeed who push themselves… sometimes too hard.
1. Churchill, E. Is there a fix for impostor syndrome? Interactions 25, 3 (May–June 2018), 22—24; http://interactions.acm.org/archive/view/may-june-2018/is-there-a-fix-for-impostor-syndrome
2. Merriam-Webster defines burnout to be “exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration”; https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/burnout.
3. Check out excellent work by Gloria Mark and her colleagues on interruption, cognitive overload, and work stress. See, for example, Mark, G., Gudith, D., and Klocke, U. The cost of interrupted work: more speed and stress. Proc. of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2008, 107–110; https://doi.org/10.1145/1357054.1357072
Originally from the U.K., Elizabeth Churchill has been leading corporate research at top U.S. companies for the past 18 years. Her research interests include social media, distributed collaboration, mediated communication, and ubiquitous and embedded computing applications. firstname.lastname@example.org
(from Carl Vernon’s Anxiety Rebalance: All the Answers You Need to Overcome Anxiety and Depression).
These are the levels that Vernon lays out in his book. He recommends thinking about whether one identifies with any of these levels, and taking steps to move toward spending most of one’s time in Level 4. Keeping a diary can help with monitoring how much time one passes in any of these levels.
- Level 7: Panic. This is the fight-or-flight feeling at its height.
- Level 6: High anxiety. Vernon uses the analogy of the swimming duck; everything looks calm on the surface, but underneath you feel like you are paddling frantically. You have constant anxious thoughts and ruminations, and constantly question yourself. You have chronic feelings of not belonging, and are constantly vigilant.
- Level 5: Above-normal anxiety. You are easily aggravated and feel irritated all the time. You take all your job stress home. Apparent criticism leads to rumination. You are indecisive and don’t like to commit to things, fearing that things will go wrong. It is hard to concentrate and you jump between tasks. Your sleep patterns are affected by worry, or you simply can’t sleep.
- Level 4: Balance. This is the optimal place to be. You may feel twinges of anxiety and/or depression, but neither rule your life. You don’t feel tired or drained, and you take on life’s daily challenges. You look forward to going out with friends. Simple tasks are easy to do without thought. You don’t spend time thinking “what if” thoughts. Bad days are chalked up to external circumstances, and you feel tomorrow is another day. You don’t obsess. Problems can be broken down and dealt with. Sleep refreshes you.
- Level 3: Below-normal energy. You feel lethargic and more tired than usual. You feel you are less happy than others around you. You are cynical and you find fault with people. You think about how bad your life is, and you blame yourself for things out of your control, believing others don’t value you.
- Level 2: Low energy. Deeper anxiety-induced depression. You lack motivation and energy to do any tasks. You feel detached. You’d rather stay at home than go to work. Restlessness and agitation are part of your everyday life. You are easily tearful and have low self-esteem and confidence. When you look in the mirror, you feel unattractive and dislike what you see.
- Level 1: Depression. You feel like you need to shut down, for example by sleeping, to escape anxiety. Mental and physical exhaustion is constant.
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