You’re Not the Only Imposter at the Office: 6 Strategies for Dealing with Imposter Syndrome at Work

Do you ever get the feeling that you don’t have any business doing the job that you do? That everyone else knows exactly what to say, while you trip over your words like a toddler in clown shoes? Yeah. Me too.

I work at one of the most prestigious software consultancies in Michigan, building multi-platform applications that are in active use by people who seem pretty happy. We have a rigorous interview process. But most days, I feel like the hiring team must’ve been asleep on the job when they let me in.

A few months ago, I started talking to some friends at Atomic about how I was feeling. Nothing too direct at first, just vague comments here and there during pair lunches.

We value transparency, but come on. I’m not gonna let on that I feel like an imposter every day when I sit down at my desk. That’s how people get fired. Right?

As I opened up, I found something surprising. When I told my peers how I was feeling, their reactions weren’t the awkward, “Oh…uh…that sucks,” that I expected. Instead, these brilliant people who had it all together started throwing out tentative comments of their own. Nothing too direct. We value transparency, but come on. That’s how people get fired. Right?

As I prodded a bit further, I started to feel pretty sure that at least a few other Atoms felt the way I did. I floated the idea of holding a lunchtime discussion about the feeling to a couple of people. Both of them said to go for it. So I gathered up my courage (it took a few weeks) and wrote my name on the brownbag signup sheet. Imposter Syndrome: Joe. There, in black and white, on the side of the fridge.

Almost half the company showed up.

These are people who’ve designed and developed apps for Fortune 500 companies and spoken at conferences all over the country. Yet, they all showed up to talk about how they felt like fakers.

So we talked. For almost an hour, we told stories about feeling stupid. Again, these people make apps that thousands of people use happily on a daily basis. But everyone had a story to share about feeling like a fraud.

Staying Productive As an Imposter

Together, we put together a pretty extensive list of coping techniques and ways to deal. In no particular order, here are a few things that we do to stave off the feeling that only other people are legitimately good at what they do. Maybe you’ll find one of them helpful.

Throw out wacky ideas

Even in a friendly, empathic atmosphere, sometimes it can feel a bit risky to throw out an idea. For those times, we have a phrase. If you preface your thought by saying, “Wacky idea,” you’re saying to the group, “This might be crazy, and I might be missing something, but hear me out.”

Everyone else on the team knows that you’re making yourself vulnerable in the hopes of building a better product for your client, and they give you space to explore that idea without heavy criticism. We respect wacky ideas, because it’s the right thing to do, and also because sometimes wacky ideas are the best ideas.

Guard your self-talk

Try to replace negative self-talk with constructive self-talk. When your brain is saying things like, “I don’t know anything,” try to consciously reframe your mindset as, “I’d like to learn about that.” As simple as it sounds, taking conscious control of your background mental chatter can do a world of good if you’re feeling like an imposter.

Find a buddy

Find people with whom you can be vulnerable. This one can feel really tough at first, but with practice, it’s doable. If you can reveal your imposter self to someone at work, you (and they) will feel a whole lot better.

This malady loves solitude. When your job involves lots of risk prediction, you get really good at seeing all the downsides. My brain is fantastic at rationalizing that my uncertainty about how to fix a build error in Visual Studio means I must be teetering on the brink of unemployment.

Talking to someone else is equally valuable whether that person is more or less experienced than you. Those with more experience can share perspective and war stories to help you realize that everyone goes through these kinds of things. Those with less experience can remind you how much you’ve already learned.

Helping Out a Fellow Imposter

If you work with someone who’s feeling like an imposter, or if you’re not sure, there are things that you can do to help. Here are a few things that we try to do as a group to give each other space to do our best work.

Avoid expressing surprise

We avoid expressing surprise when a coworker doesn’t know something that we consider obvious. Software is a huge, if not fractal, field of knowledge. It’s arguably impossible, and definitely improbable, that we’ve stumbled across the exact same set of obvious things.

Instead, we shoot for a more Lucky 10,000 approach to sharing knowledge. We Teach and Learn so that everyone at Atomic rises together.

Level the relationship

We level the relationship between expert and novice. When someone, be it a client or a fellow Atom, comes to us for advice, we do our best to break down any perceived differences in skill. I happen to have spent many, many hours building up a mental model of the DOM, but when somebody comes to me for help with a CSS rule that’s wreaking havoc (I’m looking at you, display: inline-block), I approach the problem as I would one of my own, with the assumption that the other person knows exactly what they’re doing, and just missed a minor detail somewhere.

Throwing in small self-deprecations like, “Oh yeah, this happens to me all the time,” or, “I only know this because I wasted way too much time building websites in college,” can also help even things out. Asking for help is much less stressful when you know that the person you’re asking will treat you as an equal.

Keep your feedback specific

We keep feedback specific. Whenever we give feedback to a fellow Atom or to a client, we try to talk about discrete actions when delivering constructive criticism, and specific wins when delivering adulation.

By limiting the scope of constructive criticism to actions, rather than personalities or character traits, we give each other actionable ways to improve instead of vague, often misinterpreted character judgements that bolster feelings of imposterhood. By focusing positive feedback on specific items, we give each other stickier praise memories that are more likely to jump to mind and counteract imposter feelings as they arise.

Hang in There

If you’re not familiar with imposter syndrome, or you’ve never felt it, this probably sounds crazy. It’s still not entirely clear why this feeling is so prevalent in high-achieving people. There are a lot of theories.

Personally, I think that people who think for a living quickly become really good at seeing just how much they don’t know. They compare that to the small bubble of things that they do know, and it freaks them out. But I don’t know. That’s just one imposter’s opinion.

If you know exactly what I’m talking about, hang in there. You deserve your position just as much as the next person. You’re no more a faker than we are. Keep on building apps that make the world better, and we will too.