Dear Dr. Ashley,
I left my former role at the start of the pandemic to focus on supporting virtual school for my children and helping my mom who has been sick. I'm feeling ready to get back to work and find a new role, but I'm coming up against my own self-doubt. I've only been out of the workforce for a year, but I feel like it's been much longer and I'm struggling to feel qualified for the opportunities I'm seeing. To be honest, I've always had trouble with my confidence. How do I stop feeling like a fraud in this job search?
~Feeling Like an Imposter
While job searching after some time away from the workforce always feels like a challenge, doing so in our continuously uncertain world and while carrying the grief and strain of the past year and half is new kind of hard. You mentioned supporting school and an ill parent, and so it's clear that while some of the burdens of the past year may be less, you are also still balancing many roles.
I point this out because when we're finding ourselves struggling with confidence, there's often several layers to that feeling. I'm wondering if, beyond the more standard-issue imposter syndrome, your fraud-feelings might also be bubbling up in response to the emotional toll you've been under. I notice that when we have a bunch of these free-floating, anxious feelings that are hard to name, we tend to interpret them as anxiety about ourselves. "Am I qualified for this?" is really, "Do I have the emotional/mental/logistical capacity for this?" "Will I be good enough?" is really, "Can I handle this? I'm tired."
Get curious and open to all the things you might be feeling as your approach this next chapter. It's completely reasonable to feel ready to get back to paid work and ambivalent about what that might mean.
Now, you also mention that you've struggled with confidence for a long time, and so this experience of feeling underqualified or not enough is familiar for you.
Let's break down what we mean by confidence for a moment. Most of us think about confidence as the belief that we are good at something. It's a sense of trust in our own abilities and that we can pull off whatever it is that we are charged with. We tend to believe that to achieve great things, confidence is a necessary feeling.
But the interesting thing about confidence is that it's not actually a pre-requisite for doing hard things. In fact, it's often a result of doing hard things. We build confidence by engaging in the thing that we know is challenging and surviving it.
What this means is that what's required to do the hard thing is simply a desire to do it, which is built on a value that we hold. There is a reason you want to get back to work. Whether it's because your work gives you a sense a purpose, supports your family's financial health, or contributes to the world, your work is tied to a value. Focusing on those values -- the why -- draws our attention out instead of it being stuck in on ourselves and our feelings of inadequacy. So when you are reading a job description or in an interview, stay grounded to the value that is driving your reason for being there.
Once you are grounded in your values, actively seek out others who can relate to your feelings. There is nothing more powerful in undermining imposter syndrome than recognizing that almost all of us have it -- and we can talk about it! Often just naming your fears helps to drain them of their power. Hearing them out loud just sounds different than when they are bouncing around our brains, and having someone validate the feeling (not dismiss it!) and say, "I get that," can be a game-changer.
Last, don't forget what a rockstar you are. You managed to keep your family, yourself, and your mom surviving one of the most challenging times in modern history. That's more valuable than any other bullet on your resume.
After Jodie Foster won an Oscar for her role in The Accused, she acknowledged that felt like a total fraud in a 60 Minutes interview. "I thought it was a fluke," she shared. "I thought everybody would find out, and they’d take it back. They’d come to my house, knocking on the door, “Excuse me, we meant to give that to someone else. That was going to Meryl Streep.”’
Perhaps she just hadn't won enough awards by that point to recognize her true talent? Once she had racked up as many as Meryl, maybe she would finally feel like the Academy got it right?
But wait... While Jodie was imagining Meryl being the one actually deserving of her accolades, Meryl, the most celebrated actress in history based on Oscars and Golden Globes, was telling reporters that even she gets cold feet when she starts a new movie. ‘You think, “Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie? And I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?”’
It's enough to make you wonder... does anyone actually feel good enough? Does imposter syndrome ever go away?
I have some thoughts on that, but let's actually start with the data.
Given that imposter syndrome has been researched since the 1980s when Dr. Pauline Clane noticed it in professional women in her practice, we have a good amount of literature on it. Dr. Clane actually called it the "Imposter Phenomenon," which I think is a better descriptor than "syndrome," given that it's not exactly a diagnosis or clinical problem, per se (though it can lead to anxiety and depression). In fact, data suggests in an incredibly common human experience, without about 70% of us facing it at some point.
The data further tell us that while it is pervasive, it does tend to disproportionately impact women and people from marginalized groups. It's also associated with certain other traits, like perfectionism, difficulty internalizing feedback, and even feeling guilt about success.
But why does it tend to persist for people, even when they are working so hard to accumulate enough acknowledgement, experience, and competence to combat it?
I believe that it continues just as strongly because we've been thinking about imposter syndrome all wrong. We've been treating is as a self-esteem issue, an individual "syndrome" that highlights the apparent discrepancy between someone's achievements and their self-assessment.
It's easy to understand why we've approached it from an individualistic point of view. It's looks like a matter of just not feeling qualified. But from my perspective, imposter syndrome is not about feeling unqualified or even non-deserving. It's about lacking a sense of belonging.
On the surface, those might sound like the same thing. We belong in a place if we are qualified to be there. But they are actually very different concepts. We can't earn our way into belonging, as hard as we may try.
Belonging comes to us through an interplay of an external environment that is designed for us and welcoming and the internal resources to feel safety.
In this model, it's not so much about "overcoming" imposter syndrome, but acknowledging the imposter experience. It's not about getting past it, but transforming it. And it's not about the individual as much as it is about redesigning systems that are inclusive.
Are there going to be experiences and places that are highly welcoming, but where certain people still feel like imposters? Yes. But that doesn't negate the work that's needed to address our environments to make them psychological safe and places of belonging.
While we do the work of confronting and changing systems, you can get started in confronting the imposter experience on your own by checking out these three helpful strategies I recommend.