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Forget perfection: how to unmask your inner imposter

Ever felt like you weren’t good enough, like you were an imposter in your own job? Us, too. So let’s talk about it—along with ways to overcome those fraudulent feelings.

Behind the scenes

Last updated

24 Sep 2022

Imagine this: you give a presentation at work, and everyone claps. A couple of people even DM you to say you did a great job. You smile, relieved that you didn’t totally bomb it. But inside you feel like you barely pulled it off and fear that everyone could tell how little you actually knew. 

Or this: you get your performance reviews back and see that your manager and colleagues evaluate you very highly, again. But you also know that you’re a nice person and fear that your positive reviews are due to your kindness, not your competence.

Or maybe this: the product feature you’ve been pushing was a hit, or the campaign concept that you came up with helped smash your targets. And you’ve been tapped to lead the next project. People think you know what you’re doing, but you feel that you just got lucky.

These feelings of inadequacy, incompetence, and self-doubt are common in the workplace. And in many cases, these feelings are healthy. They can keep overconfidence in check and motivate us to improve. 

But if you constantly reinterpret positive feedback and successful results as flukes, strokes of good luck, and feelings of being a fraud, it can take a toll on your mental health and self-worth. 

It’s particularly prevalent in high-achievers. And it often goes by the name “imposter syndrome.”

Feel familiar? You’re not alone. 

It’s common among some people you may have heard of—like Sheryl Sandberg, Serena Williams, Sonia Sotomayor, and David Bowie. It’s also common among people you might not know—like some of us here at Hotjar.  

So we want to talk about it.

Masks off: who feels like an imposter?

Unless you’re Kanye West, you’ve probably doubted yourself at least once in your life. 

For most of us, confidence is a wobbly thing. But for many—up to 82% of people on some accounts—feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt persist, despite repeated signs of skill and success. This includes many of us at Hotjar. 

When we asked around the company, people were open about their own experiences of inadequacy (probably because mental health is something the company really prioritizes, but we’ll get to that below). Here are some things people shared:

“When I first joined Hotjar, I was asked to share my opinion or POV in meetings, but my knowledge of the product was still very poor. Inside of me, I knew I couldn’t possibly be ready. But I saw other new-joiners appearing quite confident with their opinions. So I felt like an imposter and doubted my potential.” —Emma, Product Marketer

“I continuously compared myself with every top designer on the internet. I felt overwhelmed, constantly behind, clueless, and stressed. But everyone else seemed very capable and confident, and it felt like they expected a similar attitude from me, which made it even harder.” —Denis, Designer

“When I joined Hotjar, I couldn’t quite understand why they made me an offer. Everyone was congratulating me and I was like ’congratulate me if I manage to not get fired in the next three months.” —Katerina, Senior Frontend Software Engineer

“For the first few months, I felt I was slowing the team down and making everyone angry. At one point, I was certain I’d get kicked out of the company. And every time I got a message from the team lead that they wanted to talk, I had a mini heart attack.” —Radoslaw, Full-stack Developer

Radoslaw is not alone on that last one, as workchronicles.com captures so clearly:

workchronicles.com

Now, of course, when starting a new position, you’ll be more prone to feelings of fraud or insecurity. If you don’t have at least some doubts, you might need a check for overconfidence.

But often, these feelings don’t diminish with time and experience. In fact, the experience of being an imposter can increase with success. It’s actually more common with high-achievers.  

That’s why someone like Adam Grant—the top-rated professor at Wharton and multiple bestselling author—can still experience feelings of fear and fraud. Not to mention stars like Natalie Portman, Tom Hanks, and Lady Gaga. 

So, imposter syndrome is all relative. But do some people feel it more than others?

Many studies have reported this phenomenon to be particularly prevalent in women. Other reports have shown that it’s more common in underrepresented identities, like minorities and non-binary genders. But this feeling of self-doubt cuts across all categorical lines. Men might be less likely to label their feelings of inadequacy as ‘imposter syndrome,’ but they feel it too. 

But none of that’s to say that everyone feels it in the same way. 

What kind of imposter are you?

Dr. Valerie Young has been studying imposter syndrome for 40 years. That pretty much qualifies her as an expert on the topic (though she herself sometimes feels like an imposter). 

Her research has teased apart five different flavors of fraud. Do any of these feel familiar to you?

1. The Perfectionist. You set ridiculously high standards for yourself and then compare your progress to those unrealistic expectations. Even the smallest mistakes feel like crushing failures.

2.The Superhero. You demonstrate your worth by doing more and more. Everyone’s gone home for the evening, but you’re still in the office. It’s Sunday, and you’re firing off Slack messages. While everyone rests, you must prove you can do it all.

3.The Natural Genius. You need to get things right—the first time. Because putting in a lot of effort indicates that you must not be naturally good enough. 

4. The Soloist. You resist asking for help because this would indicate that you can’t do things on your own. There’s no team in I, after all. 

5. The Expert. You measure competence by what and how much you know. You never feel qualified, so you maneuver out of new challenges. Because “I don’t know” is the most frightening phrase you could mutter.

These aren’t either-or subtypes. So our colleague, Scott, would fall into the Expert category, mixed with a little bit of Soloist when he shared with us that:

“Early on in my Hotjar career, I felt nervous reaching out to people because I was afraid folks would think I was asking a dumb question or failing to do the right background research. I had a big fear of failure and embarrassment.” —Scott, Customer Experience

And when asked what causes these feelings, here’s what Scott suggested:

“I think it’s a self-reinforcing issue—people develop coping strategies to avoid feeling imposter syndrome, which leads to feeling more like an imposter. It is also very easy for humans to focus on the negatives or things we need to improve.” —Scott, Customer Experience

That’s surely one reason. Along with other factors like your personality and family upbringing. Then there’s your work culture and environment, and the support versus the systemic racism and bias you encounter on the job.

Regardless of the cause or manifestation, feeling like an imposter can lead to problems at work. Even worse, it can eat away at your confidence and self-esteem.

So what can you do about it?

Unmask your imposter with these 10 tips from our team

Are you working later than everyone else? Avoiding new projects? Feeling that you might not deserve that title on LinkedIn?

From our talks with the team and other experts, we have some suggestions for dealing with your inner imposter.

1. Forget perfect

Being good at something doesn’t mean you always get it right, or that you have every answer, or that you don’t have bad days. Your team isn’t expecting you to be infallible—they’re expecting you to be positive, open, and ready to learn. Here’s a thought from Clint, our Director of Engineering:

“Don’t seek experience as the source of confidence. Instead, seek confidence from knowing that you’re trying your best and that every mistake will make you a better version of yourself.” —Clint, Director of Engineering

Or, as stated in our Hotjar values: we choose progress over perfection.

2. Be aware of your own mind

Many of us don’t even realize the constant chatter going on in our heads. “You’re not good enough.” “You don’t belong here.” “She only said ‘nice job’ because she felt sorry for you.” Are you aware of the stories you tell yourself? Does your internal dialog match the external cues? Noticing your negative self-talk is a first step toward calming it.

3. Don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides

You’ve got that feeling inside that says you aren’t cutting it. And your coworkers all look so confident. That is, from the outside. But you never know how they really feel. And guess what? Their insides likely don’t match their external façade. Stop comparing how you feel with how they look.

4. Look at objective data

How many interviews did you go through to get this job? How many other people applied? There’s a reason they picked you. Clearly, people think you're competent and want you on their team.

5. Start documenting

We tend to remember our critiques much more than our praises. To counterbalance this, create a doc where you screenshot and keep positive feedback. Having documented praise can help counter fraudulent feelings with concrete proof. Here’s how it helps Katerina and Scott:

“I have a ‘Success Inventory’ folder on my desktop where I keep screenshots of positive feedback; but I also try to remind myself that even when feedback isn’t positive it has nothing to do with my self-worth or what I can achieve.” —Katerina, Senior Frontend Software Engineer

“Creating positive affirmations from past performance reviews helps remind me how others see me. The positive qualities highlighted by my peers are often things I never even considered as positive because I was blinding myself with self-imposed negative assumptions.” —Scott, Customer Experience

6. Talk about it

Sometimes just sharing your feelings is enough to shed light on a solution. So talk to a trusted manager, mentor, friend, or colleague—someone who will listen to you non-judgmentally. It’s okay to ask for help.  

Radoslaw shared a way his team does it:

“In our team, we do a ‘share an anxiety’ exercise, where people share something they're anxious about ("I feel this week I f–d up with X", "I couldn't focus and didn't deliver Y"). Then everyone has a chance to reflect on the anxiety and share observations or words of encouragement. It shows that most of the time, our anxiety is unfounded. And when it is, people are there to help.” —Radoslaw, Full-stack Developer

7. Surround yourself with good, caring people

Are you in a work environment where people respect and support each other? You deserve to be. Make sure your employer nurtures a culture where mental health matters—not just with words but with actions in practice. 

Hotjar founder David Darmanin recently reminded us of where this starts:

“To make mental health a priority for your team, you have to think holistically about the work environment and any cultural pressures within your organization. This starts with your leadership team.” —David Darmanin, Founder

8. Mentor junior colleagues

Many high-achievers constantly compare up, judging their success against peers a step above them. This can motivate you to keep pushing, and it can also leave you in a constant state of ‘not good enough.’ But don’t overlook how far you’ve come. Sharing your expertise with those less experienced can help remind you of what you do know.

9. Get additional training

Maybe you actually do need more training. That's great! Even in your own areas of expertise, there is always something new to learn. Realizing that, and working to fill those gaps is a big step that will take you far.

10. Get professional help

If you’re crippled by anxiety and fear over a long period of time, you may need to look for outside help. 

One of our very competent colleagues acknowledged that “when first starting at Hotjar, I had CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) for imposter syndrome because it completely floored me.” And fortunately, they're part of a culture that supports this with a €2,400/year well-being budget.

Hopefully, you’re in a culture that supports this, too.

You’re not an imposter. You’re a work in progress.

“Let’s stop calling natural, human tendencies of self-doubt, hesitation, and lack of confidence ‘imposter syndrome.’” Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey

It’s a totally natural human tendency to doubt yourself and your abilities. It can be a great motivator to work hard and keep learning. That desire to push for better is what makes the greats great. 

Take Roger Federer. He’s been one of the best tennis players in the world for over a decade—and he has a full-time coach. Even the best know that they are still works in progress. 

So let those feelings of doubt and inadequacy motivate you. And if imposter sensations start to overwhelm you, we hope some of the suggestions above can help.

Oh, and one last thing. When was the last time you told your colleagues that they're doing a good job? Or that you like working with them? 

You’ve heard that up to 82% of workers may have experienced imposter syndrome. And you’ve been reminded that a person’s outside doesn’t always reflect their inside. 

That means that someone you know—one of your coworker’s faces boxed into that Zoom screen—likely suffers from imposter feelings too. You’re not alone. 

So be aware that others may feel this way, and be there when they need to talk too. Wherever you work, you form part of the culture, so you can be part of the solution.

And when those fraudulent feelings appear, remember: You’re not an imposter. You’re a work in progress.

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