Imposter syndrome: feeling out of place at the workplace

Imposter syndrome: feeling out of place at the workplace

Have you ever felt completely lost at work or at school? Feeling like you didn’t belong there and that you were just acting like you knew what to do? Congratulations, you suffer from something called ‘the imposter syndrome’. This ‘syndrome’ is not as bad as it sounds and everybody has experienced this once or twice. Some time ago I finally found out that everyone feels like they are ‘just doing something and hope it works’. Therefore, growing up maybe isn’t about figuring out what to do, it is about accepting you don’t know.

The examples I will give in this article are mainly based on my own experiences, therefore based being a student. However, this is applicable to everyone at some time in their life. For instance, when you are suddenly made ‘an expert’ on something because you worked there the longest, it can creep up as well.

The first few times you have probably realized this, is when your parents started admitting they didn’t knew the answer to your questions. Another lightbulb moment could have been when your teacher had to look the answer up in the book, because they had never thought about it that way. Then, something strange happens: where in high school, the teacher was always right, at university, this is not true anymore. Being critical of other scientist is suddenly seen as something good, even when you are just a student. Realizing this was actually the start of my love for science; in that world, it is applauded not to have all the answers (yet). Not knowing, is actually more exciting than being sure all the time.

And now it all becomes difficult: you are starting at your first real job. You are probably working with people that weren’t schooled in the same area as you were. However, they have been there for much longer. The first few weeks, you are glad you are finally getting by on the systems they use and you are getting to know your colleagues. After that, the real fun starts.

People will start to ask you for input. You might feel like you’re supposed to keep up with the project like you are some kind of expert in a certain field. However, you have no idea what to do. You start researching things like you were used to at uni and reading books to keep up, but it just seems like too much to keep up. The fear sets in: what if everyone realizes that they made a mistake by hiring you? That you don’t know as much as they thought you did? What if they find out you are actually some kind of imposter? What if they see you acting like you know what to do, whilst in reality, you have no clue?

Well, surprise! Everyone feels that way sometimes. Others don’t expect you to know everything! They just hope that you are willing and able to look it up and assess the validity and reliability of the information. Often, work is about background knowledge and a whole lot of searching skills, insights and plain gut feeling. But now you know this, what can you do about this imposter syndrome?

Step 1: Don’t lie about your resume

Of course you are going to highlight the good bits of yourself when you are in a job interview. However, you shouldn’t oversell yourself; it’ll bite you in the ass later on. It is much more damaging to the company when they found out you failed later on! When they did not give you enough help in the beginning, they can guide you a little more. However, if you told them you’re already an expert, they’ll find out you lied. Also, most recruiters will know when you seem ‘too good to be true’, so be realistic in what you can do for them. You way more capable than you know now!

Step 2: Be honest

This sounds terribly cliché, but be honest with the people you work with. When you don’t know something right away, say that you don’t know that out of the top of your head. However, you should add that you will look it up and then come back to them. This way, they know what they can expect from you and they can take that into account, for instance in making their planning. Saying that you are not sure is not a sign of you being dumb. Instead, it communicates that you take your job seriously and that you want to be sure, before you say something that isn’t true.

Step 3: Work hard

You did not learn everything you’ll need at school. However, you did learn how to look up information and how to tackle problems. Of course, this is a lot of work and in the beginning of your career. You’ll probably have to take that extra step to keep up. Although working too hard can be risky as well (you don’t want a burn-out later on), it is good to challenge yourself to be the best you can be. Your colleagues will see this and appreciate all the efforts you are making. This will make them more likely to help you out when you need it.

Step 4: Be curious

Dare to ask questions and dare to ask help from people who know better. First of all, this is a great way to learn. In addition, you’ll also bond with your colleagues and make them feel good. Because be honest; wouldn’t you feel good about yourself if someone is asking you for your expertise? Being curious will also convey your enthusiasm for your work and your great motivation. These are key factors in a good employee, so be brave and just ask! The best way to reduce imposter syndrome is to actually become better at your job.

How did I overcome this imposter syndrome?

When I did my board year, I was, with only 21 years old, suddenly the manager of 33 people. And these people all had questions they needed me for. They wanted to know how to phrase things, how to do things, what the rules were. And I’ll be honest; I had no idea. Of course, I used the bits of science I knew from my bachelor. I Googled even more. And the rest? The rest was all done purely on instinct and logical thinking. This is how I tackled every question one by one. However, it did not seem to fully work.

Then I found my way of working with my employees: by asking and consulting them. Instead of giving an answer I wasn’t sure of, I replied with a question. ‘I think this would be best, because of this and this, but what do you think is the best?’. I also started asking them for input on texts I had to write. Instead of messages where I was sending information, I was now also receiving information. Working together brought me closer to them, but also teached me a lot by their ideas and input. By working with them instead of above them, I started feeling like an equal instead of someone who had to stand above them without any reason to be. Now, I actually know my worth, giving me a big advantage in job interviews and in class, since I am not afraid to ask for help anymore.

I hope this was helpful to battle your imposter syndrome and if you have any experiences with this or if you have any tips, please comment below. Let’s help each other out! And if you liked this, please subscribe to my blog or follow me on InstagramPinterest and Twitter, so you’ll never have to miss a new post!

Lots of love,

Lisa

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Hi there! My name is Lisa and I am the author of Mind and Body Intertwined. I have a bachelor's and a master's degree in psychology. During my study, I found out how much the mind and the body are connected and it fascinated me, which is why I started my blog. Would you like to join me on this little corner of the world?

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2 Comments on “Imposter syndrome: feeling out of place at the workplace

  1. Hi Lisa, thanks for sharing! That’s a very insightful post. I agree that we all need to face the impostor syndrome at one point. I have experienced this several times, and I can relate with what you say about being curious and working hard. When I’m new to a job, I always start with small tasks, listen to and observe my workmates. I believe that being able to recognize what triggers us to feel like we’re not good enough and working on that would be one of the greatest achievements, but that requires a lot of hard work and introspection.

    • I totally agree with you and the introspection is not only the hardest part, but often also the scariest! However, it’s the only way to really grow.

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