How to Stop Feeling Inferior at Work?

A reader asks:

I feel very insecure at work. I constantly doubt myself and have a ton of imposter syndrome. I don’t know why I do it, but I’m constantly comparing myself to my co-workers and feeling inferior. Any suggestions would be much appreciated.

There are really two questions in here:

  1. Why do I feel insecure/like an imposter/inferior?
  2. Why do I engage in behaviors like self-doubt and comparing myself to others that make me feel insecure/like an imposter/inferior?

The second question answers the first one: You feel like an imposter because you constantly doubt yourself; and you feel inferior because you’re constantly comparing yourself to your co-workers.

How you think determines how you feel. And how you habitually think determines how you habitually feel. So if you habitually doubt yourself and compare yourself to others, you’re going to habitually feel like an inferior imposter.

That means that if you want to stop feeling those things you need to stop thinking that way, which gets us to the more interesting question…

How to stop doubting yourself and comparing yourself to others?

Self-doubt and social comparison are forms of thinking. More specifically, they’re mental habits. And like all habits, there are two critical things you need to realize:

  1. They’re hard to break
  2. But they can be broken

In my experience, the key to breaking mental habits like this is to understand their function. In other words, what job are they doing?

Because if you can understand what job that habit’s doing, you can potentially identify a better way to do that job—one with fewer negative side effects than self-doubt and social comparison. And as a result, you won’t need your self-doubt/social comparison habit as much.

One common job self-doubt does is anxiety relief.

Obviously, self-doubt and negative social comparisons make you much more anxious and less confident in the long run. But in the very short-term, they often have the opposite effect by giving you something to do that superficially feels productive and briefly distracts you from the pain of anxiety.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that most unhealthy mental habits are just brief coping strategies to avoid painful emotion. And even though they leave us worse off long-term, we get addicted to them because the short-term relief is powerful.

The next time you have a situation at work where you often feel inferior, make it a point to really reflect on what’s happening inside your head. Specifically, try to notice three things:

  • The Trigger. What happened to initially trigger your feelings of inferiority? A coworker’s comment? Your boss entering the room? You thinking about speaking up? Etc.
  • The Thoughts. What mental habits were engaged? Worry? Self-doubt? Comparisons? Etc.
  • The Emotions. What emotions are present? Anxiety? Shame? Regret? Frustration?

Once you get better at noticing these things play out in your mind, you’ll be better able to intervene in a helpful way and break the habit of self-doubt and unhelpful comparisons. Specifically, you should be able to acknowledge the difficult emotions you’re feeling and validate them rather than using self-doubt or other mental habits as a way to cope with them.

The better you are at validating and tolerating your difficult emotions like anxiety or embarrassment, the less you will need self-doubt and comparisons to distract yourself from them. And the less you need those mental behaviors, the lower your feelings of inferiority will be over time.

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