As life starts to return to a new version of normal, many of us will reemerge as different people. Fifteen months of isolation and virtual connections can take a toll, especially for those who tend to be more sensitive than others.
Melody Wilding, author of Trust Yourself: Stop Overthinking and Channel Your Emotions for Success at Work, says the group that may be impacted the most are those she calls “sensitive strivers,” empathetic, driven individuals who often put a lot of career pressure on themselves.
“In executive leadership and the C-suite, these qualities are highly an asset,” she says. “Because they’re empathetic and observant, sensitive strivers are great at conflict and crisis communication, problem-solving, and critical thinking skills. But they’re not without their downsides.”
Under normal circumstances, this group is more prone to impostor syndrome, and the pandemic may heighten the response.
“The depth of processing makes these people highly self-aware, and they can become self-conscious thinking through situations so complexly that they overthink them,” says Wilding. “Being sensitive means having a natural bias toward safety, looking for danger. They tend to be more focused on the negative, such as not measuring up or failing. It’s the hallmark of feeling like an impostor.”
Wilding expects an explosion of impostor syndrome for these three reasons:
- Stress: Everyone’s stress has increased. “People were asked to take on more with less resources and they feel burned out,” says Wilding. “Impostor syndrome is more likely when you’re mentally and emotionally depleted.”
- Ambiguity: The pandemic caused us to change suddenly, going from an office to working from home. “Business units shut down and teams were reorged overnight,” says Wilding. “All that uncertainty can amplify a sense of impostor syndrome. You don’t know what you’re doing when you’re presented with new challenges.”
- Isolation: When you’re working from home, you don’t get as many informal nods of approval. “In absence of a lot of those lighter touches of validation, people may become paranoid about their performance,” says Wilding. “They may worry if senior leadership used a period and not an exclamation point in an email, or if someone doesn’t show up on a Zoom call. This can lead to reading more into situations and interpreting them as inadequacy.”
Impostor syndrome usually follows some form of stressor, and a change in environment—such as the pandemic—can catalyze that, causing self-doubt. “People worry, Do I know what I’m doing?” says Wilding. “There’s a perception around change that you won’t be able to handle it.”
Overcoming impostor syndrome requires following a few simple steps.
Know It’s Coming
As we all reemerge, the first step is to expect a big adjustment during the transition period. “People have changed, and there will be a shift all over again as we get used to interacting in person,” says Wilding. “We’re out of practice and some of us may feel anxious about social interactions, worrying about what people will think of you. Self-judgment will come back, but hopefully it will be temporary as we settle into a hybrid and in-person world.”
Name the Voice
Recognizing impostor syndrome is half the battle, says Wilding. One tool she recommends is naming the negative voice inside your head. “Give it an identity separate from yourself,” she says. “Name it. You can call it ‘gremlin’ or ‘Bart.’ This can help change the relationship. When you identify it, you can say, ‘There’s Bart telling me everyone will laugh at me.’ It’s very helpful to separate it from yourself.”
The next step is stepping outside of yourself and imagining the words you use on yourself being directed toward your colleague or friend. “It’s much easier to access empathy and compassion when it’s for someone else,” says Wilding. “Sensitive strivers are everyone else’s cheerleader. You have to practice channeling those emotions back to yourself, being your own coach. Ask yourself, What are the words I would be telling someone else?”
Acknowledge Your Strengths
Create a brag file where you reflect on the wins from the day. This doesn’t have to mean praise, says Wilding. “It can be, but it can also be the moments of strength you created for yourself, such as the times you felt proud and pushed through resistance,” she says. “Reading and reflecting on these times when you’re feeling doubtful is a helpful way to rewire your focus from negative thoughts to the belief that you do have strengths and know what you are doing.”
Thwart impostor syndrome by easing back into an office routine. If possible, adopt a hybrid arrangement, working from home a few days a week. “It can be jarring if you go from being all remote to all in the office, especially if you’re a sensitive striver,” says Wilding. “You need time to process and adjust. Think of it as an on-ramping time.”
Giving yourself time and grace to get used to a new normal will help avoid the negativity that sets the stage for feeling like an impostor. Just like we all had to learn to cope with the pandemic, we will all have to learn how to navigate a post-COVID world, too.