Impostor Syndrome: Why You Might Feel Stupid

Do you ever look around at work and wonder “why am I here?”. No, not “why didn’t I play hookie to eat ice cream and binge watch Daredevil”, but “I don’t belong here with these people who are better than me”. This phenomenon is called impostor syndrome, and you’re not alone. Impostor syndrome can kick in for all kinds of reasons, so let’s go through some of them.


One reason impostor syndrome can kick in is a sense of perfectionism. Often, those of us who expect perfection from ourselves will set a bar far too high for us to actually hit. “WHAT, you ONLY did 150 pushups today??? What a LOSER with no MUSCLE. TOMORROW BETTER BE 1000.” That may sound silly, but it’s also pretty similar to what a lot of us do. We expect ourselves to bring our A-game 24/7 and to make 0 mistakes. We expect every second of our 40 hours of work to be nothing but perfect work and no distractions. We expect to never be confused in a meeting or misunderstand a co-worker. We expect that we will never need help from someone we work with. All of these are just unreasonable. You’re going to have off-days where your concentration isn’t as great as usual. Some people communicate so poorly, they might as well be speaking Russian. And even Tom Brady needed help to effectively deflate his balls.

It’s a great thing to want to reach your highest potential, but it’s also a mistake to set the bar so high that you can’t help but be perpetually disappointed in yourself. It’s ok to enjoy your successes and to be happy about your progress. Joy in the progress is what gives you reason to have confidence. Constantly considering yourself a disappointment is a great way to shoot progress in the foot.

Undervaluing Your Achievements

When you’re recognized for an achievement, do you like to shy away from it? Are you closer to being mortified over your boss rewarding you publicly than you are to being honored? Those going through impostor syndrome will constantly feel like a fraud and, therefore, like any credit given to them is undeserved. Everyone else thinks you crushed it this quarter, but you think “I can do better” or “Honestly, I just was lucky” or even “I didn’t even do that well”. You might even feel the need to give excuses why you don’t deserve the recognition you’re getting. “I mean, I don’t really deserve it, I was just on a really good team”. Maybe it’s time you recognize that maybe, just MAYBE you are slightly above competent at your job. Perhaps you deserve at least a SLIVER of the accolades being thrust upon you. It’s ok to see your value. It’s not wrong to take some ownership and pride over your successes. They key here is to celebrate in everyone’s accomplishments. Obviously no one like the guy who thinks everything he does deserves to be in the Electrical Engineering Hall of Fame and everything everyone else does is hot garbage. But it’s also not particularly likeable to celebrate others’ successes and then tell them they’re full of crap when they try to celebrate yours.

Buying Into the Act

I’m sure you’ve heard or seen this before. You know, by that super insecure person on facebook that posts exclusively fishing for validation.

It’s true though. We are so quick to look at the biggest accomplishments of others and compare that to our every-day. Besides that, we tend to vastly overestimate people around us. We like to think the pilot for our vacation, team’s starting quarterback and bosses are all mistake-free. Obviously the pilot can’t make a mistake, right? He was trained. Trained people are obviously perfect, so this flight is perfectly safe. Pay no mind to the close call on the runway.

I think the longer you spend in the world, the more you realize that the world is basically a chaotic mess of people doing their best but still being much more incompetent than we would like to admit. And yet it somehow works. You might think the person next to you is so much more competent than you, but really you are mistaking their confidence for competence. This is not to say they are necessarily incompetent, but the most overwhelming factor in how others perceive a person is how the person outwardly portrays themselves. And how a person portrays themselves is either what they genuinely feel about themselves or the reason they won an Oscar.

Do you see what’s going on here? You think you’re incompetent because that superstar next to you is seemingly super competent. Most of why they seem super competent to you is their confidence though. And they’re probably confident because they aren’t spending all their energy disproving their greatness they way you are. Really, a large amount of your opinion on their competence might simply be what their opinion of their own competence is.

Letting Others Get You Down

Let’s be honest. Sometimes you’re just underrated and underappreciated. And sometimes you start to believe the intense level of ambivalence directed your way is deserved. It’s easy to say “don’t let others define you”, but a lot harder to not let the words or lack of words get to you. We live in a world where doing well often gets unnoticed, because the attention is on the couple “stars” (quotes very intended) and on all the people who are NOT doing well. Your boss probably doesn’t have time to tell you you’re doing great with all his HR meetings with the dude who thought it was appropriate to hit on the cute girl in the cubicle next door. The unfortunate reality is it’s a lot easier to earn attention for a bad job than a good one. And sometimes it’s going to get to you. The key here? Ask for feedback. When you get some good feedback, don’t just shove it under the rug. Believe people when they tell you the things you do well. And, regardless of whether it seems worth it or not, keep moving forward. The vast majority of the time, the results in life you cannot control. But you can always control your own actions. Will you ever be appreciated where you are? Maybe not, but it is up to you to keep performing well to give yourself the best chance to be. If that day never comes at your current employer, that’s ok. You can move on to another company who appreciates good work and good people.

Hopefully this post made you realize you aren’t alone in your impostor syndrome. And, more importantly, that you aren’t actually incompetent. This week, pick one of these things to work on to combat impostor syndrome! Let us know some other signs of impostor syndrome you’ve experienced and other ways to deal with it @EscapeTheBoxLab or in a comment below! Have something you want one of us to write about? Tweet us or comment that below! As always, thanks so much for reading!


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