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Managing imposter syndrome when returning to work

Updated: May 16, 2023

You’re likely to have heard of imposter syndrome. Given that a study found it affects 70% of people at some point, you may well have experienced it yourself.

It’s common when you’re facing a change that moves you out of your comfort zone. So, it’s no wonder it often comes up when returning to work after a period of absence.

What is Imposter Syndrome? When you experience imposter syndrome, it can make you feel like an imposter in a world where everyone else seems more capable than you.

When returning to work, it can make you may feel you don’t deserve the role you’re going into.

Typical signs of imposter syndrome include a tendency to dismiss or downplay your achievements. You may put them down to good luck, a supportive boss or other external factors.

There can also be a tendency to over-emphasise mistakes, doubt your abilities and focus primarily on shortcomings.

You may well reject praise and think others think you’re better than you are. You might hear yourself thinking “Yes, but…” and inserting why you aren’t as good as people say you are.

Effects of Imposter Syndrome Different people will suffer in different ways and at different times. Yet, there are some common issues associated with imposter syndrome:

  • Stress and anxiety

  • Fear of making mistakes

  • Worry about what other people think about you.

  • Physical health issues

  • Lower self-esteem

  • Loss of productivity

  • Withdraw or isolate yourself from work situations and people - which can affect career progression.

  • Work excessively to prove yourself - causing health issues, relationship issues, no time for self.

Experiencing imposter syndrome is not a surprise when returning to work given that it’s a big adjustment for many people. It often pushes people well out of their comfort zone.

This can trigger the fight and flight response, which is designed to keep you safe. A part of your mind will be telling you that staying in your comfort zone is safe and moving out of it isn’t.

This part of your mind will get you fearing the worst if you let it - some examples when returning to work might be:

  • What if I don’t fit in with my colleagues?

  • What if I’m not as good as I used to be?

  • What if things have moved on since I last worked and I can’t catch up?

  • What if my skills have deteriorated?

  • What if I make a fool of myself?

  • What if my colleagues see me as incompetent?

These doubts and fears can mean you back away from returning to work completely. Or you dial back your ambitions and go for lesser work - you adopt the mindset that you will “take what we can get”.

They can also mean that you don’t sell yourself well when going through the recruitment processes.

What to do about imposter syndrome

Tackling imposter syndrome

The first thing to do is recognise that any feelings of imposter syndrome that are bubbling up are normal. They are understandable given that returning to work is such a big change and will push you out of your comfort zone.

You should also go through a practical exercise of honest self-reflection.

Lacking an accurate understanding of your abilities can fuel feelings of imposter syndrome, so it’s important to work at this.

Spend some time considering and writing down your skills and abilities. Also, capture all your work highlights and achievements to date.

These don’t have to be amazing achievements based on external measures, just your career highlights - we all have these!

Force yourself to get these on paper despite any doubts and resistance you experience as you do this.

In addition, ask friends, family and trusted colleagues for feedback on your skills, strengths and achievements. Accept what they tell you, don’t dismiss it with “yes, but…” thinking.

Create a Feedback Bank and put in the positive feedback from the above and add more as you receive it when you’re back at work. If you find feelings of imposter syndrome coming up review this bank and remember this is a truer reflection of you than you have in your mind at that time.

You also need to remember that the company that offered you your job did its due diligence on you during the recruitment process. They believe you have the right skills and attributes to succeed in the role. And they know what they need! This is the objective proof that you are up to the job.

Remembering to practise self-compassion is important too. Accept that you may be a bit rusty to start with, and that’s ok. You don’t need to be perfect or do perfect work - you will learn and develop over time.

Feel the fear and do it anyway To conclude, it’s critical to remember that imposter syndrome is common when returning to work so be prepared for it.

Go easy on yourself and remember how much you have to offer and that you were hired for good reason.

You may need some time to dust off the rust, but until then you can “fake it until you make it”.

Believe me, this is what the majority of my career coaching clients do when they make a big career change. And they survive and thrive perfectly well!

This post was written by Matt Oliver of Law Career Plus. Matt is a professional career coach who helps lawyers return to work and make other changes to their careers.

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