How to tackle impostor syndrome while working remotely

Sara Kassabian · Sep 2, 2020 (Why GitLab)

Now that the pandemic has shifted office operations at countless companies across all industries from in-person to online, many workers are witnessing the informal modes of communication and recognition that come with occupying a shared space all fall away. When you’re working remotely, there is simply no opportunity for chance encounters, which means giving and receiving feedback from colleagues and management requires extra effort. It can be easy to feel anxious about whether or not the right people are noticing your hard work, and even when they are, that nagging feeling of doubt, or feeling like an impostor, can derail your efforts before you even begin.

What is impostor syndrome?

Impostor syndrome comes down to feeling inadequate or undeserving of your success despite objective evidence showing you otherwise, explained Taylor McCaslin, Senior Product Manager, Secure:Static Analysis at GitLab, in a presentation on the topic at GitLab Virtual Contribute. Impostor syndrome creates a negative script that can obstruct your progress on meaningful projects, slow your journey to achieving your goals, and suck the energy out of your days.

So how do you slay the vampire that is impostor syndrome?

The growth mindset

Impostor syndrome manifests in different ways for different people, and in this blog post we introduce different strategies for stopping these negative thought patterns. But one universal approach is adopting a growth mindset. On her blog Brain Pickings, Maria Popova summarizes the differences between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset:

“A ‘fixed mindset’ assumes that our character, intelligence, and creative ability are static givens which we can’t change in any meaningful way… A ‘growth mindset,’ on the other hand, thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities.”

There is no turnkey solution for combatting impostor syndrome, but thinking about times of challenge as opportunities for growth is one way to stop being so hard on yourself.

Types of impostor syndrome

Sometimes remote work can leave you feeling isolated, a cognitive space where impostor syndrome thrives. Whether you’ve worked remotely for years, or just recently started working remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, impostor syndrome might be showing up for you a lot more now than before.

Perfectionism

Perfectionism is the ultimate trap and creates a vicious cycle of over-thinking and procrastination. The fear of getting started is often rooted in insecurities about laying bare the imperfections that are guaranteed in first iterations.

Software development seemingly tries to correct for perfectionist tendencies by prioritizing iteration over perfection, speed over polish.

“One thing that I’ll mention about a perfectionist vampire is that this is why agile is structured the way that it is,” said Taylor. “We do these iteration cycles and do innovative work to avoid this build trap where you want something to be so perfect that you never actually ship anything. So it’s interesting to see software development taking some of the cues from the struggles of perfectionism to try to get something out and learn quickly.”

When you’re working remotely, the options for procrastination are about as long as your household chore list. At GitLab, we recognize that friends and family come first, and that sometimes it’s better to step away from your devices and go for a walk or start a load of laundry when your brain can no longer compute.

When it comes time for the perfectionist to buckle down and produce results, the mantra ought to be: “don’t get it perfect – just get it done.” In software development, it’s always better to ship small, unpolished changes rather than pressuring yourself to send a finished product in one working session. Remember, in the impostor syndrome roshambo – iteration beats perfection every time.

The superhero

While the perfectionist is often afraid to get started, the superhero is afraid to stop. The superhero will push themselves harder and further than everyone else to try and prove to themselves and their colleagues that they are not an impostor.

“[Superheroes] feel that they need success in all aspects of their life, at work, as parents, as partners, and they may feel stressed if they don’t get to accomplish something,” Taylor explained. “This is something where you can deal with what’s called Clark syndrome, where you’re trying to be a superhero. At night you’re trying to be a parent, during the day, you’re trying to do all of these different things that split you in lots of different directions.”

Remote work means there is more time in your day to, well, work. While great in theory, for the superhero, remote work means that you can easily reach burn out faster than the speed of light. The pressures of producing results, managing a growing team, and being the most supportive family member can send a high-achiever into overdrive.

If you recognize yourself in this description, it may be time to assess your burnout levels. If you’re in the red zone, it’s time to talk to your manager to see how you can better balance the demands of your work with your health and wellbeing.

A note to managers: It is important to recognize that the responsibility of supporting superheroes doesn’t just lie on the individual. It is incumbent upon managers to recognize when a team is underresourced and overperforming – is it fair to continue demanding more from your superhero just because you’re confident they’ll rise to the occasion?

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