Main illustration: Susan Payne
Our work lives are riddled with anxieties. Many of them are natural and fleeting, and we deal with them.
One that can haunt people, however, is impostor syndrome. The belief that we are a fraud, doubting our accomplishments and talents.
“If you’re anxious about your abilities a lot of the time anyway, you’re 1,000x more so when performance review period comes around”
Each year (twice a year in my case), that feeling is amplified considerably by the dreaded performance review. If you’re anxious about your abilities a lot of the time anyway, you’re 1,000x more so when performance review period comes around. Over the course of this year, I’ve experimented with applying principles from the world of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to get a better handle on things. It’s been challenging, but it has also helped a great deal.
Adopting a therapeutic response
So, what’s CBT? Here’s what Mind, a mental health charity, has to say about it:
“Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of talking treatment which focuses on how your thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes affect your feelings and behavior, and teaches you coping skills for dealing with different problems. It combines cognitive therapy (examining the things you think) and behavior therapy (examining the things you do).”
So, when thinking about my abilities/performance, what are some of the negative thoughts I had (have?) and what behaviors did they create?
“Understanding this negative thought, the one that follows me around, was a difficult process but incredibly empowering”
You might boil my negative thoughts down to something like, “I’m not a good Product Manager and one day I’ll be found out.” I arrived at this by spending time looking at specific examples of feeling anxious or bad about something, and really digging into why I felt that way. It was hard, but an important first step. Understanding this negative thought, the one that follows me around, was a difficult process but incredibly empowering.
Confronting negative thoughts
This belief lead to all kinds of emotions and behaviors:
- Generalized anxiety, which manifested with the telltale signs – clammy palms, fiddling, tension, headaches, distraction-seeking, etc.
- Obsessive and paranoid thoughts – worrying about what people think, elevating small problems to large ones in my mind, and so on. This was especially true when receiving criticism from customers who use my product.
- Strong shifts in mood whenever I receive praise – going quickly from over-excitement (validation!) to strong self-doubt (they had to be wrong, I misled them in some way). This one was particularly challenging since joining Intercom because there’s a strong feedback culture.
- Holding back – avoiding/not seeking ways to share my learnings/experience with others, for fear that I’d set them on a wrong path or, worse, be found out as “the bad product manager”.
(My palms are sweaty just writing this down.)
The core idea of CBT is that how we think about ourselves or situations can affect how we feel and behave. When I applied this thinking to my situation, exploring that foundational belief (“not a good PM”), I discovered two thoughts that underpinned all of it:
- The “good” things I do are one-offs or flukes.
- Positive feedback is untrue.
Introducing the brag sheet
It was crucial that I confronted this self-doubt and found a way to navigate it. So, with my manager (I can’t understate how valuable it was to have a manager open to this and engaging with it actively), we figured out a way to challenge those thoughts by recording and reflecting on my work and feedback in a slightly different way. The brag sheet was born. This is a place where we record feedback, work, and behaviors over time. We designed the sheet and our way of using it so that it’s useful for a few things:
- It maps back to Intercom’s career ladder (a definition of the skills that PMs should be able to demonstrate at different levels) and my own professional goals (we set these every 6 months or so) so that I can see evidence/progress. This structure challenges the “I’m not a good PM” narrative.
- We add to this consistently. This challenges the “good things are one-offs” narrative.
- We discuss it regularly, reinforcing the feedback. This challenges the “positive feedback is untrue” narrative.
- We can use this as an input into performance reviews, helping to avoid recency bias and to show impact in areas where the formal feedback may not mention it. A useful additional benefit.
Reducing stress and improving confidence
Was all of this difficult? Yes. Very.
Has it fixed the problem? Somewhat. This is probably one of the most impactful things I’ve done to combat impostor syndrome and it’s reduced the stress of the performance review cycle considerably. I still feel anxiety about these things, but I see things improving. I’m more confident and I’ve seen a very positive impact on the emotions/behaviors I listed above.
“If you struggle with impostor syndrome or similar thoughts, take some time for self reflection”
If you struggle with impostor syndrome or similar thoughts, take some time for self reflection. “Why?” is an empowering question to answer.
Ultimately, nearly everyone encounters feelings of self-doubt, and those feelings aren’t confined to periods of adjustment in new roles, but can persist despite any amount of apparent success. With effort and a framework such as this one, it is possible to overcome these feelings and find an equilibrium of healthy self-regard.