Why Feeling Like an Imposter at Work Is Your Greatest Asset

Sophie Miura

Imposter syndrome is a term we read about all the time, and usually it gets a pretty negative write-up. That’s understandable: After all, imposter syndrome refers to feeling unwarranted self-doubt at work, a feeling that affects an estimated 70% of Americans. But what if we’ve been looking at it all wrong? Some experts are now suggesting there’s a way to harness self-doubt and channel it to be a positive force. So, if you struggle with feeling like a fraud in the workplace, don’t worry—it could be your greatest asset. Read on to discover how to pivot self-doubt to boost your career. 

There are two ways to respond to feeling like a fraud at work: You can allow the doubt to chip away at your self-esteem, or you can use it as a motivating force. In his book Success Is a Choice, Rick Pinto explains that self-doubt can cause a downward spiral if left unchecked. “These negatives surrounding low self-esteem can sabotage us. If you become a victim of this condition, every other step becomes meaningless,” he says. If you view imposter syndrome as a problem and not a propelling force, it could sabotage your ability to thrive.

It’s also worth noting that if you suffer from severe self-doubt, science suggests you’re probably not an imposter. In fact, imposter syndrome actually correlates with success. People who suffer from it tend to be high achievers. Sheryl Sandberg admits there are days when she wakes up “feeling like a fraud,” and Jodie Foster says in spite of her acting awards, she still feels like an imposter. Chances are, if you struggle with doubt, you’re actually a high achiever—view it as a good sign.

Career coach and author Shannah Kennedy urges women to stop using words that diminish their achievements. “Never use the word lucky,” she says. “It is the years of work and commitment that have got you there, not an overnight lucky break!” People who have imposter syndrome often find it difficult to accept compliments. In a work environment, you might think you’re being modest, but what it really says is that you don’t recognize your own value.

Comparing yourself to others is a common habit of self-professed imposters. They believe that they’re undeserving of their success, because those around them are so much more competent. Yes, comparison can breed dissatisfaction, but if you change your mindset it could help you get ahead. Find someone at work you admire, and focus on what positive traits they have. Rather than comparing why they’re better than you, ask yourself how you could learn from them.

Oh, and don’t just look for the most confident person. New York Times writer Paul Jaskunas says we often mistake confidence for success, but we should actually admire people who grapple with uncertainty and push on. “We take it as a truism that confidence is a prerequisite for success,” he says, pointing out that for many, it’s just a front. Look past confidence and seek out people who aren’t afraid to fail.

Having coached elite athletes and CEOs, Kennedy says the more successful her clients are, the more they doubt themselves. She believes that acknowledging those emotions can be a powerful tool for building resilience. “It is a great reminder to stop, check yourself, and go back to the life skills that fill your confidence tank,” she says. The key is to step outside the office and focus on other areas of your life, like relationships or hobbies. “Self-doubt creeps in if we can’t connect back to ourselves,” she says. Developing your identity beyond a career is a great tool for silencing your inner critic.

Start by unpacking your insecurity and verbalize what’s at the heart of your self-doubt. Jeff Olsen, author of The Slight Edge, says the difference between a mediocre worker and a successful manager is their ability to address the small stuff. “They are things that are so simple to do- yet successful people actually do them, while unsuccessful people only look at them and don’t take action,” he says. By writing down your concerns and rephrasing them into actions, you can use doubt to propel you.

Imposter syndrome reminds us that we’re human. It’s totally normal to worry about your shortcomings. Refocus your attention by allowing it to be a humbling experience. “It is important to remember that even superstars feel vulnerable—it is a human feeling. We are not machines. The higher we climb the more vulnerable we become,” says Kennedy. Use it as an opportunity to talk to friends about how you feel; it’s likely they can relate. Acknowledge your concerns, act on them, and you’ll realize that self-doubt could be your greatest asset.

Feeling inspired to harness self-doubt? Shop the books below for more advice.

How have you overcome feeling like an imposter at work? Share your story in the comments below.

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