A manager’s journey is filled with twists and turns. Some days, you’ll feel imposter syndrome so strongly that it feels like you’re stuck at bottom of a dark, deep pit. Every manager I know is well acquainted with this place. You feel alone. You second-guess every decision, and you search desperately for something solid to grasp. You just want to restore your faith, but you don’t know how.
I found myself in the Pit when a new colleague and I started working together on an important initiative. Right from the start, we butted heads on product strategy. Both of us were so convinced we were right that every decision felt like a giant wave crashing on the flimsy sandcastle of our working relationship. I remember us sending long emails back and forth about minor product details. Running through it all was an undercurrent of mistrust. Here are some of the things we said to each other: “You aren’t listening,” “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” and “It’s my decision, not yours.”
Looking back on that time now, I can see that my doubts got the better of me. I learned a lot through that tough collaboration and emerged with a better tool kit for escaping the Pit. If you find yourself in that same place, here are some tips on how best to manage your mental state.
Don’t beat yourself up for feeling bad
One of the worst parts of being in the Pit is the double whammy of struggling with something and worrying about the fact that you’re struggling with it. Why is this even hard for me? your internal critic might wail. If I were smarter or braver or more talented, I’d be fine. But when you feel guilty about the way you feel, you’re creating even more stress for yourself.
Recognize that everyone in the world goes through hard times, and give yourself permission to worry. Don’t pay the double tax on your mental load. I’ve found two tactics that help: The first is to think of a public figure you admire, someone who seems to have the perfect life, and Googling “[person’s name] struggle.” There is always a story.
The second tactic is to admit that you’re feeling bad. I usually take out a Post-it note and write, “I am super stressed out about X.” That little act shifts my mind-set from worrying about my worries to simply declaring them. Once I do that, I can start to make progress and address the root cause.
Remember that your your “story” is probably irrational
Remember how we’re all biased? Part of the reason bias exists is that our brains are wired to take shortcuts so we can arrive at faster conclusions. That’s why stereotypes exist. If you see a person wearing thick glasses shuffling along with a stack of textbooks, you might conclude that she’s good at math, even if you have no concrete evidence.
This also happens with how we perceive events. When we gather a few data points, we’ll try to construct a complete narrative around it despite not actually having all the facts. And when we’re in the Pit, our story tends to be the worst-case scenario.
Let’s say you’ve been struggling with imposter syndrome and you discover you were left out of a meeting. You might conclude: I wasn’t invited because my teammates don’t think I’m valuable.
This example is so common that I’ve had at least a dozen people come to me over the years with this concern. “Let’s get to the bottom of this,” I’ll say. So I’ll reach out to the meeting organizers and ask, “Hey, why wasn’t X invited to this meeting?” I usually get one of the following responses:
- I didn’t want to waste X’s time and make him feel obligated to attend.
- I didn’t realize X cared about the meeting topic.
- It was an honest mistake.
Only once has the answer been in the ballpark of, “We didn’t think X would be valuable.” (It was phrased as, “We were worried X’s strong views would steer the conversation off course.”)
The stories we tell ourselves from a few scant pieces of evidence are often flat-out wrong, especially when we’re in the Pit. Nine times out of 10, the other person is not out to get you. Your coworkers don’t think you’re an idiot. And, yes, you deserve this job.
When a negative story takes hold of you, step back and question whether your interpretation is correct. Are there alternative views you’re not considering? What can you do to seek out the truth? Sometimes, just squaring your shoulders and asking, “Why wasn’t I invited to that meeting?” gets you out of speculation and into clarification. Even if you’re afraid of the answer, confronting reality is always better than spinning disaster in your head.
Close your eyes and visualize
Brain imaging studies show that when we picture ourselves doing something, we engage the same parts of our brain as if we were actually doing that activity. Why does this matter? Because we can trick ourselves into getting some of the benefits of an activity simply by closing our eyes and imagining it in our heads.
Australian psychologist Alan Richardson discovered that a group of basketball players who were instructed to visualize themselves making free throws every day but who did not physically practice did almost as well as another group who practiced shooting free throws for 20 minutes a day. Another study compared people who went to the gym every day with people who imagined themselves working out. The group who went to the gym every day increased their muscle strength by 30%; the group who ran through the workout in their heads increased their strength by 13.5%–almost half the benefit!
Not only can visualization improve your outcomes, it can also help you find confidence when you’re in the Pit. Visualization is a powerful tool that doesn’t require much–only a few minutes and a quiet spot to relax. Develop the habit to give yourself a boost of self-assurance for whatever comes your way. You’ll be surprised at the difference it makes.
This article is adapted from The Making of a Manager: What to Do When Everyone Looks to You by Julie Zhuo. It is reprinted with permission from Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright (c) 2019 by Julie Zhuo.
Correction: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of the author’s last name.