You sent in a resume dripping in accomplishments, rocked the interview and aced the pre-employment test. Yet as soon as you landed the job, self-doubt started to sneak in.
If they really knew me, would they have selected me? What if I misrepresented myself? What if I’m discovered as a fraud?
Take a breath.
Self-doubt, and what is colloquially called imposter syndrome, can pop up just when you’re getting started — or prevent you from taking new opportunities in the first place. It’s also incredibly common.
“You see self-doubt everywhere, from high school all the way up to CEOs,” says Dr. Jennifer Erickson, a board-certified psychiatrist who sees patients at UW Medical Center and UW Neighborhood Clinics.
But why do we experience self-doubt and what can we do to deal with it?
Self-doubt and childhood
Childhood experiences can affect how you view yourself as an adult.
“Our thoughts, especially critical thoughts we have about ourselves, have to do with how we grew up and how we got to where we are,” Erickson says.
She explains that if you grew up in a more critical household, this could prime you to be more critical with yourself as an adult and more likely to minimize your experiences and achievements.
For people with ingrained thought patterns of self-doubt, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) practices can help challenge those thoughts and allow you to celebrate your successes.
“Don’t just let it wash over you in an emotional experience,” Erickson says. “Take note of its shape, how long you think it’s been there and the evidence behind it.”
When you start to feel like you aren’t good enough or don’t belong, take a breath and try to step back from the thought, as if you are observing it rather than experiencing it.
Notice what it is like and try to foster some compassion for the part of you that had the thought (which ultimately was trying to protect you, however misguided the attempt). Imagine the thought passing by, and then let it go.
Self-doubt and comparison
Self-doubt also thrives in competitive environments in which you compare yourself to others.
In work and school settings where promotions, raises and grades are given based on performance criteria, it is easy to focus on perceived errors or flaws. And comparing yourself to peers only adds fuel to the self-doubt fire.
While being self-reflective can help you grow, try to notice when your thoughts tip from constructive to destructive. Constructive feedback is concrete, discrete and actionable; destructive feedback is not actionable and might even be shaming.
For example, constructive feedback might be to improve your reports with a summary section and data. Destructive feedback, on the other hand, would just note that your reports aren’t good enough or even that you aren’t good enough.
“Look at your thoughts and consider the evidence against them, not just how the thought feels,” Erickson says. “It’s OK to challenge your own thoughts.”
One way to do this is to write down the reasons the thought might be true and why it might be false. Once you’ve written out your accomplishments (remember that stellar interview and resume?), it’s easier to see the self-doubt for what it is: a passing thought, not an inherent truth.
Self-doubt and oppression
External factors like sexism, racism and other types of oppression further contribute to feeling like you’re an imposter or you don’t belong.
“One of the biggest issues that comes with self-doubt is looking around and not having mentors or peers who have your same background,” Erickson says.
If you’re experiencing these feelings, start by naming them for what they are: a product of systemic injustice.
“Rather than internalizing that you are the problem, say ‘Yes, this is stacked against me, but it isn’t my fault.’ Name the system as the problem,” Erickson says.
Weathering these systems is hard, and it can help to connect with communities who understand and empathize with your experiences. If you have a mentor, that individual can also champion you and connect you with new opportunities.
Work toward being more kind to yourself when negative thoughts pop up. If you notice yourself slipping into criticism or doubt, think about what you would say to a friend in a similar situation and then extend yourself that same grace.
When to seek help for thoughts of self-doubt
“It’s normal to feel self-doubt; it doesn’t make you weak,” Erickson says.
Feeling like an imposter is sticky because you can end up in circular logic: you experience self-doubt, which makes you feel like a failure, which makes you experience self-doubt.
While there are ways to help yourself deal with these thoughts and emotions on your own, it’s also valid to reach out for help — and important to do so if anxiety or depression are preventing you from doing daily tasks.
Therapeutic interventions, like CBT, that reduce anxious thoughts and self-doubt range three to six months, Erickson says. Through therapy, you can learn ways to move through and cope with feeling like you are an imposter. It can also begin to unravel if those thoughts come from depression, anxiety, or your upbringing which may require longer, specialized interventions.
“Talking to a therapist who can help model healthy self-talk works,” Erickson notes. “You don’t have to white knuckle it.”