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When Imposter Syndrome is the Quickest Way to Experience Severe Burnout

When Imposter Syndrome is the Quickest Way to Experience Severe Burnout

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Top image: Human Resources Online / 123RF

Burnout might be a universal problem, but its impact is intimately felt.

Some people exhibit signs of irritability for months before total indifference takes over. Others snooze their alarm 10 times every morning before dragging themselves out of bed or off the floor, filled with dread for the working day ahead and an exhaustion no holiday can cure. Then there are those who begin to fall behind at work, even missing important events like birthdays and weddings.

But as much as there may be systemic causes for personal issues, such as company (and country) culture that leads to overtime and overwork, our own individual personality and character have a part to play in how we deal with burnout too.

And so, we want to have a conversation about the thing we don’t talk about when we talk about burnout: Imposter Syndrome.

You’re all welcome to our pity party.

Shag. (Image: tirachard/freepik)
Justin: Hey Grace, so here’s something that happened to me last week when I was in reservist.

Upon hearing a sergeant call my name, one of my fellow NSmen approached me later and said he was familiar with my writing, and that he really liked one of my recent pieces.

He went on to specifically explain the parts of my work he found enjoyable, but instead of making me feel good about myself, it actually made me pretty uncomfortable. I felt that I didn’t deserve his credit and could only focus on what he didn’t say—the stuff I assumed he didn’t like.

This isn’t the first time this has happened to me either. In my old jobs, whenever anyone praised me for a job well done, I would always attribute the success to luck or would quickly change the subject.  

It’s been a week since it happened and I still haven’t been able to shake that feeling of uneasiness. In fact, it disturbed me so much that I tried looking for an explanation online and I stumbled upon something called “Imposter Syndrome”.

Since you’ve been part of the workforce for far longer than me, I was wondering: have you ever heard of the term? If you have, do you think that it’s the reason for what I’m experiencing?

Have you ever felt this way? And more importantly, does it ever go away?

Grace: Actually, I have. All the time. But have you considered talking to your friends about this yet? It doesn’t seem like something that you’ve been able to brush aside when it happens.

Justin: Nah, I’ve never actually talked to anyone about this. I guess I just don’t want to appear weak in front of my friends or peers. Also, it might seem like I’m “humblebragging” you know? But it’s gotten to a point where I’m starting to feel like I don’t belong at work. I’m afraid I’ll go crazy!  

Grace: I know exactly what you mean. And even better (or worse?), you’re right about the name for this damn condition. It is Imposter Syndrome.

Apparently, one of the key symptoms for Imposter Syndrome is that you just can’t accept credit or praise for the good things you’ve done. For instance, in my previous job, I handled a typically two-man project by myself, and pulled it off with supposedly great finesse.

Yet I shrugged off praises from my bosses and colleagues; I wasn’t able to internalise my good work even after I got promoted precisely because of it. I told myself the project was successful because I was lucky to have a good team working under me.

And recently, Imposter Syndrome reared its ugly head again when I received an offer to speak at a panel. After discovering the other far more esteemed speakers in the lineup, my confidence took a hit. Some people may see that as a compliment (i.e. that it’s an honour to be among great company), but I saw it as inevitable that I’d eventually be revealed to be a fraud masquerading as someone who knew her shit, simply because I lack the experience they have.

In the end, it took every ounce of courage not to pull out of the lineup because I’d already committed.

My Imposter Syndrome is so bad that every single boss I’ve had has given me identical feedback during my annual reviews or check-ins: that I should cut myself some slack.

So yes, I know why this happens for me, but why do you think you experience Imposter Syndrome?

An actual chart for our worst insecurities. Fuck our lives. (Image: International Journal of Behavioral Science)
Justin: Hmm, if I had to put a finger on it, I would say that it’s because I’ve never had the proper ‘qualifications’ for whatever job I happened to have at the time. Even till today, what I’ve studied or majored in has never been directly (if at all) applicable towards the work I do. It was always a case of let me try this out and see how it goes.

This is not to say that I don’t want the job, treasure the opportunity, or give it my all. It’s just that deep down, I guess I don’t believe that I deserve to be in whatever industry or office I’m in. And that automatically discounts all the success I achieve while being a ‘fraud’.

It’s like there’s an asterisk next to every accolade or promotion: *won solely based on the fact that I happened to be present for consideration rather than on pure merit.

When I was a kid, whenever I got an A for an exam, my mom would always ask how my classmates did to gauge how difficult the test was. Over time, I suppose that need for comparison to justify my own achievements formed.

Also, when you’re a student, you’re told—whether explicitly or implicitly—that hard work and success in school is the first step to guaranteeing success later on in life. So now that I’ve been blessed enough to not have those grades matter much when it comes to finding employment, it feels like the success I have isn’t deserved. More than anything, it feels like I got lucky because I didn’t work hard enough to get where I am.

Grace: That totally makes sense. Even though I have the supposedly necessary qualifications (academic, etc) for all my jobs, I too feel a persistently acute sense of Imposter Syndrome—and my reasons for feeling this way aren’t alleviated by what I have ‘on paper’.

For me, Imposter Syndrome stems from a lifelong sense that I’ve never been good enough, even in school where I’ve gotten great results. Part of the reason is that our Singaporean brand of meritocracy often defines success by our grades and certificates. This inevitably creates an environment that promotes severe competition, where we constantly compare ourselves against someone else better and criticise ourselves when we don’t meet their ‘standards’.

And because I compare myself to the best in my field (as compared to the best in my company, immediate social circle, or even country), it’s a surefire way to be permanently dissatisfied.

For those who aren’t born gifted, we’ve been taught that good results are only derived from working harder. Once we enter the workforce, we apply the same logic, resulting in overtime and overwork. But once we get the results we want, whether a promotion or pay raise, we’re satisfied.

Now, that’s for normal people. For sufferers of Imposter Syndrome, we believe we don’t deserve these rewards, and so we work twice as much as anyone else to justify or prove that we do deserve them.

Frankly, it’s mind-numbingly exhausting having to entertain perpetual thoughts of self-doubt and anxiety, especially since it’d be far easier to just accept a positive outcome from our hard work.

But apparently, the condition isn’t as uncommon as I once thought: 70% of people experience these causes of Imposter Syndrome.  

Well, he looks like he has Imposter Syndrome. Jk, you can't tell from the outside. And that's the best/worst thing about it. (Image: Unsplash)
Justin: Woah, I can’t decide if that’s alarming or comforting.

But I suppose all those hours spent working overtime with an obsessive desire to prove yourself can eventually lead to burnout. That’s actually really interesting.

Whenever anyone talks about burnout, the conversation always revolves around the same few issues: having an overwhelming workload they feel ill-equipped to handle, feeling perpetually stressed and exhausted, unrewarding work, or not having anyone in the office to turn to with their problems.

And so to prevent or stave off burnout, both friends and colleagues have told me that I need to draw a definitive line between professional and personal life. I have to learn how to make time for hobbies and rest, they say.

I don’t know about you, but it’s never been that simple for me. I’ve tried to unplug from work, telling myself I need to sleep in order to function better and be more productive. But guess what. More often than not, I can’t fall asleep because I just can’t get my mind off work. I end up feeling guilty and hate myself for taking that time off even though I know it’s necessary, and the shitty cycle repeats itself over and over again.

Even when I meet my friends, sometimes—and they’ve commented on this as well—I’m just not there. I might be physically present but I’m still thinking of all the work that’s just waiting for me to get to. So far, no advice anyone has ever given me on how to stop burnout has ever worked.

What about you Grace? How have you dealt with this?  

Grace: I haven’t.

Throughout last year, I experienced burnout multiple times at work. I was mostly told to “take a break on weekends” or “go on a holiday”. The worst thing was someone told me to take a break so I could “come back recharged and ready to work again”. Lmao.

Ironically, these were the worst pieces of advice to receive, because it made me feel more alone. No one truly understood what burnout entailed, or how ‘overwork’ wasn’t the cause but the catalyst for burnout.

In turn, because working too much has never been the fundamental cause for my burnout, I realised my burnout would never be solved by relaxing on weekends or going on a trip to Bali—or, for that matter, 10 trips.

Besides, it also defeats the purpose of a break if you’re only taking one so you can have the energy to work more.

But yeah, all these solutions don’t really stop us from pushing ourselves so hard in the first place. They don’t work because they don’t address the root cause: Imposter Syndrome.

Underneath it all, it seems that both of us just want to be better and feel like we matter; like we’re worth something. Objectively speaking, this isn’t a bad goal to have, especially if it pushes us to be better at whatever we do. And the silver lining to Imposter Syndrome is never experiencing professional decline … because we’d never believe we’ve peaked or succeeded.

Jokes aside, chasing perfection out of a sense of inadequacy (i.e. Imposter Syndrome) comes at a high price. In this case, the cost is extreme physical, mental, and emotional burnout—something that could take months to recover from.

You know what would have helped though? Instead of solutions to burnout, I’d have appreciated solutions to Imposter Syndrome.

Big mood. (Image: Unsplash)
Justin: After doing the research and reading whatever I can find on the subject, the one piece of advice on how to deal with Imposter Syndrome that has been consistent is: talk about it.

Oddly, hearing that you deal with sometimes feeling like you don’t belong is … greatly comforting to me. Not that your struggles makes me feel better about myself, but rather, it just makes me feel less alone; like I’m not some weak-minded weirdo paralysed by insecurity.

People can tell us to document our accomplishments and celebrate victories (no matter how small), use positive language when talking to ourselves, reframe our thoughts, whatever. But perhaps the hardest thing for me personally is accepting that perfectionism (something which goes hand in hand with Imposter Syndrome) is impossible.

For people like us, it all counts for nothing if we can’t get out of our own heads. We’re the only ones who can help ourselves. I honestly doubt we’ll ever be able to do this but maybe we need to eventually learn how to let go. And when to take a step back and say that we’ve done enough.

For now though, nothing is as liberating as talking about it and finding someone who completely understands what it’s like. After all, it’s such a common thing, right?

However, nobody’s ever mentioned that Imposter Syndrome can be completely gotten rid of. Do you think we’ll ever truly be free from feeling this way?

Grace: Honestly, no. Unless we consistently recognise our Imposter Syndrome whenever it manifests, and shut it down before it affects our behaviour at work.

Justin: So we’re pretty much fucked if we don’t?

Grace: Yes.

Justin: Okay.

Grace: Okay.

All jokes aside, Imposter Syndrome is a serious matter. Especially if it’s started affecting your health and relationships. If you consistently exhibit the symptoms explained in this article and would like to save yourself, please seek the help of a trained counsellor. In the meantime, write to us at community@ricemedia.co to commiserate.