Nomadic Jake
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Nomadic Jake

The Impostor in the Mirror

Photo by Fares Hamouche on Unsplash

There was an impostor in my mirror.

For almost a year I had been on a total whirlwind; going from practically broke and working 10 years in retail to traveling the world working for an awesome remote company and encountering equally awesome people. Earning more, doing more, and experiencing things I had only previously dreamed of.

And all I could think of was how it was all going to come crashing down around me.

Within that year, I had serious anxiety, an occasional panic attack, and severe burnout from overwork. I constantly feared that I would be fired, to the point where I was secretly looking at local job availability in the town I was living in. Constantly fretting about metrics and wondering if the numbers I was posting were good enough to keep me employed another month. Burnout from overworking; trying to “prove” my worth to the company, I constantly was checking in on work channels and doing some work throughout the day, evenings and weekends. Anxiety and burnout also triggered stress eating (a personal standby/bad habit in how I routinely deal with stress and anxiety) and depression. How did this dream job turn into such an anxious experience? How did this person in the mirror fear the start of each new workday… in a job they loved ?

In January of 2018, I got an epiphany. From my boss.

During our monthly one-on-one session, he happened to mention my habit of constantly checking work channels. In a rare moment of candor, I let slip a small sentence or two about how I “worried” about things. Interested, he started asking me more questions about my work, and I let more and more out until he got a (somewhat) fuller picture of my anxiety and fear of losing my work. He then uttered those magic words: “Have you ever heard of Impostor Syndrome?”

If you’re not familiar with it, the clinical definition of Impostor Syndrome is that it is a “phenomenon” which “occurs among high achievers who are unable to internalize and accept their success. They often attribute their accomplishments to luck rather than to ability, and fear that others will eventually unmask them as a fraud.” (APA)

Quite basically, you do the work and are rewarded for it, but constantly fear that you have achieved this through fraudulent methods (or otherwise feel you don’t deserve it) and will eventually be discovered as such. That was me all over. After dozens of application rejections, two failed interviews with other companies, and a general sense that I was only good enough to stock shelves at a store, this awesome remote company came along and valued my talents and abilities enough to hire me and keep me. This, I felt, was a fluke sure to go away. If I was only good enough to stock shelves, then what the hell was I doing working from home and taking occasional work trips to Europe?

They say that the first step is acknowledging. That alone is powerful. Just the knowing, the ability to place a name to what I was feeling was alone liberating. I can’t thank my boss enough for helping me to see that.

But what comes next?

To start with, I asked for the help of others. My boss and coworkers are amazing human beings, and sharing what I was going through not only helped to put words to what others may have felt, but also created a support group that established check-ins and work boundaries.

Next, I worked to change how I saw my work and my mental health. To start with, I started trusting my work quality by working with my boss; he gave me actionable feedback on whether or not I was “doing well”, which helped me to internalize my value and performance. Then, my “support-support group” casually prodded me whenever they noticed that I was starting to work “overtime”; this created a more tangible sense of overwork which encouraged me to get offline and do other things.

Finally, I started taking my mental health seriously; something I hadn’t done previously. Most of that may be the fodder of another blog post, but the work I did in relation to dealing with my impostor syndrome included things like

  • Mental Health Days: from heading up to my parents’ house for the weekend to just driving in the countryside, I make an effort to be physically away from my computer… temptation, you know…
  • Meditation: it ain’t just for yogis or that one soccer mom that just gushes over Deepak Chopra’s latest book… Meditation has been proven by medical experts the world over to have wonderful benefits for mental (and even physical) health, and has helped me immensely. If you’re just starting, check out 10% Happier or Headspace.
  • “No-Smartphone Errands”: when running to the grocery store, clothing store, bookstore… anywhere I go shopping, I leave my phone in my car. This prevents me from aimlessly checking work communication channels while buying asparagus or standing in line at the checkout. It sounds like a small thing, but this helps me to mentally disconnect myself from my smartphone for short periods of time and, by proxy, my work. And small victories like those add up.
  • Sabbaticals: thanks to the generous vacation policy my company offers, I’ve had the chance to go on a nice long vacation. Using that time to really disconnect, I turn those vacations into digital/work/social media sabbaticals. Be it the West Coast of Oahu or the Arizona desert, heading out with very little in the way of internet-connected devices (and cell service) helps to create a forcefully disconnected environment where I almost have to reconnect with myself, my feelings, and the world around me. This has created some of the most breakthrough moments in my fight against impostor syndrome.

So that person in the mirror today still looks a bit like an impostor; that’s a work in progress. But much like looking into the mirror when it is covered in fog: the image may not look right, but give it time…

…it’ll clear up.

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The blogging home of creator and remote work advocate Nomadic Jake.

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Jake Woehlke

Jake Woehlke

Creator, marketer, and support consultant taking 2021 to become a financially independent digital nomad. Come wander with me. // jakewoehlke.com

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