‘My Co-worker Has Terrible Impostor Syndrome!’

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Photo: SSPL via Getty Images

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Dear Boss,

Someone who I work with, let’s call her Sonja, seems to suffer from an awful case of impostor syndrome. I’m looking for advice on how I can best support her as a colleague.

We’re friendly, but not friends, and we have not worked together on a project before now, but we’ve recently embarked on a substantial piece of work which will have us collaborating closely for the foreseeable future. Even in the relatively short time we’ve spent together, I can see that Sonja is very smart, kind, and is really excellent at doing her job. But it’s equally clear that she doesn’t believe that. Not one little bit.

The self-deprecation is constant. She’s told me she’s weird, she’s ridiculous, she’s “probably the strangest person you’ve ever worked with.” She says she isn’t very good at computers and that she takes “too long” to learn new things. She acts as though her very existence is a burden, and I swear her most commonly used word is “sorry.” She displays excessive amounts of gratitude for every second I spend with her and for every contribution I make to the joint project, however small.

I’m feeling conflicted because I have enormous amounts of sympathy for Sonja, especially because I am a recovering impostor-syndrome sufferer, and I know what it’s like to feel like you aren’t up to scratch. But her constant negativity is draining and the overwhelming gratitude makes me very uncomfortable because it is so unnecessary. This is a joint project which needs both of our skill sets to be successful! I’m not doing Sonja a favor, we’re collaborating.

I’m not Sonja’s boss, and we’re so similar in age and experience it would feel strange to offer mentoring or coaching, but I need strategies to help us work together in a positive way. I would hate for things I do unconsciously to make her feel worse, and I really don’t want to get frustrated and end up snapping at her or something.

When we’re working together, I tend to keep things very calm and low-key when she says negative things or is excessively grateful. For example, “I’m so slow at this” would get the response, “No, you’re fine. Hey, what about [subject change]?” And a gushing “thank you, you’re amazing, thank you so much” might get, “No problem, just doing my job.” Should I be challenging these things more strongly? Should I refuse unnecessary thank-yous altogether?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this! I have no doubt that our project can succeed from a technical perspective, but I want it to work as well as possible on an interpersonal level, too.

Poor Sonja. That’s got to be a hard place to be.

But you’re in a hard place, too. As you point out, it’s draining to be on the receiving end of a constant stream of self-deprecation and self-criticism. And it puts you in a position where you have to do some emotional labor around her self-doubt. When she talks about how slow or inept she is, you have to respond to that in some way. Silence would feel rude, and agreement would feel worse. So you’re forced to tell Sonja that, no, she’s not slow or inept — over and over. And that’s exhausting, and I’m sure it started to feel like a burden pretty quickly.

It sounds like you’ve done a nice job so far with staying low-key and matter-of-fact and moving the conversation on to other topics. You’ve avoided falling into the “no, really, you’re so great!” reassurance trap that women in particular often do to each other.

If you want to, it’s okay to stick with the strategy you’ve been using so far. You’re not obligated to push back or give Sonja a pep talk or try to get her to be easier on herself. But if you’re willing to talk to her about it, it might be a huge favor to her.

One option is to just address it in the moment when it happens. The next time she trash-talks herself, look at her very seriously and say, “I think you’re great at what you do, and I’m dismayed to hear you say that. Do you really believe that?” She’ll likely affirm that she does, and you can respond with something like, “Wow, I don’t think you’re seeing this objectively! You’ve picked this software up as fast as anyone else I’ve seen do it [or whatever piece of evidence will counteract her criticism].”

Do that a few times and see if it has any impact. Who knows, maybe it won’t — but maybe it’ll nudge her world view a little, even if not right away.

The other option is more of a big-picture conversation. You could grab coffee with her or just wait for the next time there’s a relatively relaxed moment and raise it then. For example, you could say: “Can I tell you something I’ve been thinking about? I’ve noticed that you’re pretty self-critical! You’ve made a lot of comments to me about thinking that you’re too slow, or that you’re weird, or that your skills aren’t up to snuff. I want to tell you, I’m really impressed by your work and I think you’re great at what you do. It bugs me to hear you get so down on yourself and I don’t know if you realized how critical you can be of yourself, so I wanted to mention it.
You deserve to feel good about your work.”

That’s not going to solve her self-doubt overnight, of course, but it might prod her into realizing how vocal she’s being about it — and it might shift her perspective on herself a bit too. If nothing else, hopefully it’ll cause her some useful cognitive dissonance, which can sometimes be the start of questioning an overly loud internal critic.

You might also mention impostor syndrome to her as a Thing, too — as in, “Have you ever heard of impostor syndrome, where people don’t feel like they’re really good enough for the job they’re in? I used to struggle with it myself, and I suspect you’re dealing with it too, based on some of the things you’ve said.”

If you try any of these options and she still continues the negative talk at the same pace, at that point, I’d just directly ask her to stop. For example: “Cut that out! It sucks to hear you be so harsh on yourself!” Or, “Don’t bash yourself like that. It’s hard to hear you do that.”

The excessive thank-yous are a little different. They probably do stem from the same place of “I’m not good enough and thus anyone helping me is doing me a favor that I didn’t earn on my own merits.” But some people are just excessive thankers (I sometimes fear that I might be one), and on the list of things to tackle with her, I’d prioritize the awful self-assessments. It might be that if she can clear that up somewhat, her over-the-top gratitude will naturally diminish on its own.

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‘My Co-worker Has Terrible Impostor Syndrome!’