How to Stop Feeling Like a Fraud at Work

Looking for an actionable way to make your mental wellness a priority every day? We've partnered with Shine to help you do exactly that. Get started here.

On a typical workday, there are probably hundreds (if not thousands!) of thoughts running through your head. I need to send that deck out ASAP.  Oops time to submit my expenses! Who actually needs to be on this email chain anyway? But if you’re like a lot of busy, hard-working, high-achieving people, there are also some less productive thoughts that creep in, especially about your ability to do your job and whether you really belong where you are. Those thoughts are impostor syndrome in action, and they can do serious damage to your career and your mental wellness. WeWork Labs spoke with three experts to help you combat those naysay thoughts.

The basics on impostor syndrome

Impostor syndrome might best be described as that voice in your head telling you that it’s only a matter of time until everyone around you figures out you’re not capable of doing your job, or that you don’t really deserve to be where you are professionally. And the irony is that “it’s generally experienced by very high-achieving individuals,” says Audrey Ervin, PhD, academic director of the graduate program in counseling psychology at Delaware Valley University. “They can carry around this persistent feeling of being a fraud or a phony.”

“The fundamental issue is an abiding sense of anxiety or self-doubt that you got where you are by luck or mistake,” says Brad Johnson, PhD, professor of psychology in the department of leadership, ethics and law at The United States Naval Academy. Good news about your business brings a nagging feeling that you’re just waiting for the other shoe to drop; rather than feeling excited about a new challenge, you worry that this will be the project that exposes you.

Part of that stems from the standards people with impostor syndrome hold themselves to. “They have unrealistic, unsustainable expectations for themselves around competence,” says Valerie Young, Ed.D, author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It. “It’s like a director who expects themselves to win an Academy Award every time they make a movie.” When you inevitably fall short of those expectations at one point or another, the impostor thoughts kick in.

What impostor syndrome can do to your professional goals

It’s not rocket science to assume that continually doubting yourself isn’t exactly a recipe for success, but there are some key ways impostor syndrome affects your work that you should know about. For one, it makes success a double-edged sword because it can make your feelings of phoniness worse. “Success gets framed as luck,” Johnson says. “And it triggers the thought that people are now expecting even more from you, and you’re not up to the task of producing.”

Most crucially, it can make you dread work, “diminish your creativity and ability to produce, and make you risk averse,” Johnson says. “For an entrepreneur, so much of you’re doing is taking chances and proposing novel things, so if you have impostor syndrome, you might be inhibited from doing the very things you need to do.” In other words, you end up playing it safe.

How to combat it

“The only way to stop feeling like an impostor is to stop thinking like an impostor,” Young says.   And there are quite a few ways to do that.

Name the thoughts and normalize them

Instead of trying to ignore impostor syndrome thoughts, call them what they are. “Once you name it, you can start the process of managing it,” Ervin says. It’s also key to the process of normalizing impostor feelings. “We need to recognize that some of the brightest people on the planet have these feelings and that they’re often a normal response to a situation,” Young says. “Anytime you’re doing something for the first time, of course you’re going to feel like an impostor. You’re doing something new! You have to take the shame out of it.”

“Normalizing it also helps you de-catastrophize it,” Johnson says. Instead of worrying that there’s something wrong with you for having the impostor thoughts, or worse, worrying that they’re true, you can see them for what they are—a very normal response to tackling a new challenge.

Rethink your definition of “competence”

If you deal with impostor thoughts, your version of competence probably involves being able to figure everything out on our own. Needing to ask for help is a sign that you’re not up to the task. “But people who don’t have impostor thoughts realize that the wisest people seek information, advice, help, mentoring, and coaching,” Young says. “They know that they’re never going to know everything or be able to figure it all out by themselves; that it’s the equivalent of trying to get to the end of the internet.”

True competence is “being able to identify what you’ll need to get the job done and then marshaling those resources,” Young says. So stop expecting yourself to have all the answers and instead, seek help from those who do.

Challenge the voice in your head  

So your inner critic is telling you that you’re going to bomb on that big marketing project you’re working on or that you’ll never secure any of the investors you’re reaching out to for funding. Call it’s bluff. “You can always challenge your thoughts,” Johnson says. “The beliefs we have about being impostors can be fairly irrational, because by any measure, odds are you’re quite accomplished and competent. So when you have those thoughts, put a pause in your internal dialogue and ask yourself for the evidence that the thoughts are true or not true.”

That can mean evidence that you gather for yourself (like equally challenging projects you’ve successfully completed before) or from others (like positive feedback you’ve gotten from any investors you’ve spoken with). “You have to push back and get good at countering your own catastrophic thinking,” Johnson says. And when you come to the likely conclusion that your impostor thought has no basis in reality, push it to the side.

Talk it out

There’s no prize to be won for dealing with impostor syndrome by yourself. “Talk to trusted friends or colleagues,” says Ervin. “Many people struggle with impostor syndrome but it’s usually a big secret. Talking about it can help you feel not so alone.”

Use those people in your circle of trust as sounding boards for your impost0r thoughts. “Tell them about the thoughts and feelings you’re having,” Johnson says, “and if this person knows that you tend to doubt yourself and they’re really an ally, they’ll be able to tell you that it’s nonsense.” You can also lead the charge for more openness around impostor syndrome in your company or your network. “Instead of having it be this shameful, secret thing, talk about it in a normalizing way,” Young says. “If you gave a big presentation and you were feeling like a fraud about giving it, say to the people around you, ‘I had such an impostor moment when I was making that presentation today.” You can start a conversation that not only helps you but anyone around you who might be dealing with the same thing.

Move forward despite what your inner critic says

“People often wait to feel more confident before they move forward or make a decision, but that’s not how it works,” Young says. “Feelings are the last thing to change. So for entrepreneurs especially, it’s important to realize that fear goes with the territory and you need to tell yourself that all of the fear symptoms you’re experiences—nervous stomach, sweaty palms—are actually just excitement.” In other words, lead with action and the feelings will follow suit.

Learn more about how to stay mentally and physically well as an entrepreneur.

You've successfully subscribed to WeWork Labs Insider
Great! Next, complete checkout for full access to WeWork Labs Insider
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content. Check your email If you are not already signed in.