How To Thrive When You Feel Like You’re Out of Your Depth

Italk to myself all the time. And I know that you do too. We all do. We all have an internal dialogue that sometimes makes us laugh out loud to ourselves when we’re walking along the street. It’s the same voice that sometimes keeps us up at night.

Oftentimes, that internal chatter we hear is negative. And annoyingly, that’s the one you keep replaying; the one that makes you feel guilt, shame, and insecurity.

Sometimes this negative voice can be useful. It can make you feel that little bit of stress that you need to work harder and make improvements.

But other times, that negativity can be counter-productive. It tells you that you’re not good enough. It leads you to assume that others can do things better than you can. You feel as though you’re a fraud; like your achievements are largely down to luck, and that one day, someone will realize that, and you’ll be found out.

Well, you’re not alone my friend. This sensation is called the impostor syndromeand researchers estimate that at least 70% of the population will experience this at some point in their life.

Today, the covid-19 pandemic had made job stability a thing of the past. As we prepare to experience the deepest recession since World War Two, thousands of businesses worldwide are having to shut down and downsize, making a lot of people unemployed.

Being fired can accentuate the feeling that you’re ‘not good enough’, and the fear that you might be the next to go can make you question whether someone might realize that you’re the weakest link.

It’s completely normal to have these thoughts. But it’s also counter-productive. This insecurity won’t help you perform at your best. It won’t help you keep your job, and it won’t help you find a new one. It can cloud your thoughts to the extent that you’re unable to focus on the task at hand and perform at your best.

So what are you going to do about it?

There’s a reason why I’m telling you this…

Dr. Valerie Young has identified 5 different ways in which the impostor syndrome manifests:

  1. You feel guilty if you’re not busy all the time.
  2. You don’t think you’re good enough unless your work is perfect.
  3. You don’t think you’ll be able to do ‘it’ because you’re not an expert.
  4. You don’t feel that you’re good enough if you’ve had to ask for help.
  5. You think you’ll only be good at the things that come naturally to you.

The chances are that you can relate to at least one of these thoughts. I can relate to all of them. I’m not blind to the fact that I could be the face of the impostor syndrome (please contact my agent). My default belief is that other people can do whatever it is I’m trying to do, better than I can.

The first time I felt completely out of my depth was at university. I went to the US-equivalent of an Ivy-League University in the UK to study Law. I was hard working and had always been a top student at school. But when I arrived at Bristol, everyone was a high achiever. I was just another number; I didn’t stand out, I was average.

Most of my friends had gone to private schools, or boarding schools, and spoke like the Queen of England. Their parents were Barristers, Professors, Academics. I came from a very big public high-school where kids were getting ‘binned’ and fights broke out on a weekly basis. My parents’ level of English was worse than mine, so they couldn’t make it past the first paragraph of my essays. I had no help, it was down to me. And I felt completely out of my depth.

This deep insecurity began to affect my grades. I was stressed and afraid, and these negative thoughts that I would fail clouded my mind to the extent that I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t absorb what I was reading, I couldn’t critically analyze because I couldn’t understand, and I couldn’t express my thoughts into words because they weren’t coherent and clear in my mind.

It was in my third year that I managed to flip my mental switch from negative to positive. I realized that all of the obstacles I was seeing were all in my head; just a fabrication of my imagination. So I worked to change my mindset; my efficiency drastically improved, and my grades shot up.

I wasn’t completely free from the impostor syndrome. I don’t know if I or you will ever be. It’s something that comes and goes. But once you’re attuned to it, you can take steps to manage it.

How did I do it? I’ll tell you. Here are 6 things you can do to boost your self-esteem and begin to root for yourself.

Look Back to See How Far You’ve Come

It’s often in situations when you’re surrounded by other high achievers that you feel insecure. You compare your abilities to theirs, and all you can see are the areas where you fall behind. Inevitably, every person you ever meet will be better than you at something. Know this at the outset, accept it, and don’t let the realization hold you back, because there’s nothing you can do to change this. You can’t be the best at everything.

What you can focus on instead, is yourself; your successes and your strengths. Instead of looking to the side and comparing yourself with those around you, look back to see how far you’ve come. Think of how much you’ve learned since you started, and be proud of what you’ve already accomplished.

Consider yourself a success, and trust that in a few years’ time, you’ll look back on today and appreciate how much you’ve done since this moment. Because it doesn’t stop here. Great things lie ahead; you just have to trust that you’re good enough to go get them.

Lower Those People You Idolize to Eye-Level

I recently listened to Matthew McConaughey on an episode of The Tim Ferriss Podcast. In it, he said, that one of the ways he reached success as an actor was by lowering those people that he idolized to eye-level. He said, “the Earth is flat”. We’re all human; we’re more similar than we think.

Those famous actors, writers, billionaire entrepreneurs that you idolize are people just like you and me. They’re not Gods; they too are mortal. If they can do it, maybe your dream isn’t so crazy. Maybe you do have what it takes to go for it.

Of course, talent, dedication, hard work, luck, opportunity…all of these things also come into play. But so long as these ambitions that you have for yourself are humanly attainable, trust that there’s a way to get there.

Bring those people that you idolize down to eye level, and learn from their journey. Place it within your line of vision.

Use Your Body Language to Your Advantage

It turns out that, you can literally fake it until you make it. Changing the way that you act not only influences other peoples’ perception of you, it also changes your own perception of yourself.

Professor of social psychology and researcher at Harvard University, Amy Cuddy, explains that by holding a ‘power pose’ for just two minutes, you can affect your physiology in a way that changes how you feel, and in turn, how you behave, and how you perform.

Power-posing is about taking up space. It requires that you make yourself as big as possible; the star-fish position is a great example. Obviously, I’m not saying you should star-fish your way around work. But sitting up straight, leaning forward, uncrossing your legs, holding your chin up…all of these things can affect your physiology and help boost your confidence. Why? It’s all about changing your hormones.

Recent experimental psychology from Harvard University shows that the best leaders, those who are both powerful and effective, actually have high levels of testosterone; a hormone which is linked to decrease fear, a desire to compete, and a heightened sense of confidence. On the other hand, they also have low levels of cortisol, which is linked to decreased anxiety.

Their experiments showed that we can increase our levels of testosterone and decrease our levels of cortisol by power-posing. You can literally change your body language to change how you feel, and in turn, how well you perform, and the confidence that you transmit to others.

Identify and Fill the Gaps in Your Knowledge

There are times where it’s completely legitimate to feel insecure because you don’t know enough about something.

In one of my first jobs, I worked as a Business Analyst in a Strategy Consulting company. I was a 24-year-old giving presentations to (predominantly middle-aged men) in senior management positions, who obviously knew their industry much better than I did.

I was explaining how the insights we had derived and the plan we had prepared for them could benefit them. And I was sure that it could; I had done my research, I was convinced of the theory, and I understood it well. But I knew my presentation would burn up in flames if I didn’t understand why it was relevant to them specifically.

I had to fill the gaps in my knowledge. I interviewed key stakeholders on a daily basis to understand what a day in their shoes looks like. I asked about their struggles, their concerns, and their thoughts for the future. I even spoke to people in their position from different companies so that I could build a more holistic understanding of the industry.

This way, I didn’t doubt myself. Of course they knew more than me about a lot of things, but I had my side covered.

It’s easy to feel insecure when you know there are questions you can’t answer and things that you don’t understand. But by identifying these gaps, you’ve already taken the first step. Now all you have to do is work to fill them.

Connect with Others

I’m a people person. That’s partly why I’m so susceptible to feeling like an impostor; I generally assume the best of others. But it’s not always a bad thing.

One of the best ways to avoid feeling like you don’t belong is to develop a sense of belonging. Connect with people in your line of work. Get to know them for who they are. Don’t just see them as a title, see them as a person; they’re not that different to you, you do belong.

Plus, people are generally good. There’s a lot you can learn from other people, and in my experience, most people are willing to help. Reaching out to someone for advice isn’t a weakness. It doesn’t make you ‘less than’ or question your competence. It’s a way to fill the gaps in your knowledge and reinforce your confidence.

So reach out, learn from others, and trust that you belong.

Final Thoughts

I like to adopt Matthew McConaughey’s perspective; that we’re not all that different. Sure, people are great. A lot of people are talented, successful, amazing. But so are you.

Someone will always be better than you at some things. But you are that someone to so many other people. You too are great at a lot of things.

You’ve come a long way already, and you have a long way to go. But don’t wait to consider yourself successful. You’re a success already. There’s so much you’ve achieved.

So let this thought fuel your self-esteem and propel you to greater things.

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