We all feel unsure of ourselves at work now and again — doubtful that we can handle a large project or meet a deadline. But if you’re someone who regularly feels as though clients have more confidence in your abilities than you deserve (despite all the successful events already under your belt) or that you’re not as skilled as your peers, you might suffer from a phenomenon called “imposter syndrome” — the inability to own your success.
In her new book Pushing the Envelope: How Smart People Defeat Self-Doubt and Live with Bold Enthusiasm, Maureen Zappala, a former NASA propulsion engineer turned coach and speaker, outlines six “symptoms” of imposter syndrome. Do any of the following sound familiar?
1. The imposter cycle When you are given a new assignment, you either overprepare to eliminate room for failure or procrastinate until the last second because you’re unsure of how to tackle it. You get praised for a job well done once you’re finished on the project, but “you’re not relieved, because you think, ‘Whew! That was close! They almost figured out I didn’t know what I was doing!’” Zappala writes. You chalk your success up to your overpreparation or last-minute adrenaline rush, and never truly enjoy your moment in the spotlight.
2. The need to be special or the best You are a perfectionist who ties your self-worth to your work performance, and seek to find ways to make yourself stand out from your colleagues. When annual review time comes around and you’re not rated a perfect 10, you’re hard on yourself despite the fact that no one is perfect.
3. Superman/Superwoman complex You don’t delegate well because you feel as though you must do all the heavy lifting at work on your own, and feel others will not do as good of a job as you will. “You feel the pressure to do it all, and to do it all perfectly,” Zappala writes. “The dirty little secret is: While you are spinning all these plates and keeping the earth on its axis, your real (often unconscious) motive is to look as busy as possible so as to give the appearance of being effective. Ironically, you are effective, and don’t realize that asking for help can make you look even more effective.”
4. Use of charm/insight/humor You use charm and humor to win over folks at work — especially superiors — to make your way into conversations you might not be completely familiar with, because in your mind, “being silent equals being stupid,” Zappala writes.
5. Fear of failure No one likes to fail and will try to draw attention away from flaws or mistakes. But the “fear of failure” symptom is different, writes Zappala. “When it gets so intense that it causes you to consistently aim lower than you’re capable of, everyone loses.”
6. Fear of success If you feel as though past successes happened because of luck or circumstance, you feel a constant pressure to continue “faking it” through future projects — and you’re not sure if you can sustain it. “Closely tied to this fear of success is a perceived ‘deserve level,’” Zappala explains. “Some people feel they don’t deserve success. Life has been, and should be, hard. Earning any type of reward intensifies some weird guilt.”