The imposter syndrome sandwich: How to banish self-doubt at work

The imposter syndrome sandwich can be found in many a workplace. However, it mustn’t be mistaken for an innocent lunchtime snack. In fact, if you find yourself faced with this type of stress sandwich, you will need to deconstruct it quickly before it gives you heartburn. But fear not, there are ways to build confidence in the workplace and here is some information that might help you do just that. 


Research tells us that as many as 70% of people have experienced the feelings associated with imposter syndrome. If you are wondering if some of the stress and worry you are experiencing at work might be imposter syndrome, see if you answer 'yes' to any of these questions:

  • Are you highly critical of your work or do you feel highly stressed if you make a mistake?
  • Do you struggle to see your own skills and talents and assume that you are only surviving due to luck or outside factors, not linked to your own abilities?
  • Do you feel that you need to work harder than everyone else, to justify your position or role?
  • Do you fear constructive feedback and tend to focus on the negatives and dismiss the positives?
  • Do you feel that is only a matter of time before you will be ‘found out’ as a fraud and do anything you can to avoid this happening?
  • Do you hold yourself back, avoiding opportunities for promotion or challenge, thinking others can do better than you?
  • Do you set yourself unrealistic goals and targets and punish yourself when you fail to meet them?

If you can relate to some of these questions, then maybe you too are suffering from imposter syndrome.

But why a sandwich?

Well, most people would agree that the best part of any sandwich, no matter how fancy the bread on the outside, is the filling. The options are endless; the flavours and textures can be as individual and exciting as you are. 

So, when thinking of yourself, consider the filling of this sandwich to be your potential. It may be hard to believe, but the reason you have got as far in your role as you have now is thanks to a range of skills and character traits that you possess. These personal qualities have allowed you to be productive, communicative, and successful in your role and will continue to be the deciding factors in your future success. In any great sandwich, the filling should ‘sing’ on a plate all by itself. Any artisan bread that is added should only serve to enhance the flavour.

We all deserve to feel fulfilled in our workplace and to experience the feeling of our own success. However, imposter syndrome can get in the way of this. Imagine all your potential being crushed by two stale and unsatisfying slabs of emotional bread. I wonder if this may be happening to you. 

Slice 1 - Low self-confidence

Research suggests that your early experiences may have had an impact on how strongly you experience imposter syndrome. Perhaps you had family members who put a strong emphasis on achievement, or you experienced inconsistent levels of criticism and praise, which caused you to tie your feelings of self-worth to your achievements rather than your personal qualities.

If we believe that we are only worth something when we are successful, we can feel very threatened by failure rather than seeing it as a route to new learning and development.

If you experienced conflict growing up you are more likely to avoid challenge, for fear it might lead to confrontation.

If you fear failure or criticism, you are more likely to isolate yourself and be less open and communicative with your co-workers at times of difficulty. When called to share your work with others, you may give a false or exaggerated impression of yourself, in order to be accepted or even put yourself down more than you deserve. The more we sell a false sense of ourselves, the scarier it can become to show up as the person we really are. Sharing our fears and goals with others is important and if you cut off the opportunities for this, the fear will increase, and your self-confidence will plummet even further.

It is normal to experience self-doubt in the workplace but if everyone who felt it hid it, the work environment would become toxic very quickly. Good managers model how important it is to recognise and build on mistakes as a positive process without piling blame and shame on others. A positive ethos like this will build a resilient workforce. Those who succeed are usually no more talented than those who don’t; the key difference is that they are less afraid to fail. This fear of failure is known as the top slice of the sandwich, the one that keeps the lid on your potential.

Slice 2 - Fear of failure

Those who suffer from imposter syndrome may also be prone to perfectionism or social anxiety. To build a successful future, consider promotion or take on new challenges, we need to be able to feel confident to stand out from the crowd a little. 

If your inner voice is constantly telling you that you are only worthy if you are perfect, you may find yourself standing in the wings for the rest of your life, allowing other people, as imperfect as you are, to take the stage instead of you. Nobody wants that!

Here are some confidence-building tips that can help rid you of imposter syndrome:

  • Talk to others about how you are feeling. This could be a line manager, colleague or friend. It is easier to notice our faulty thinking habits when we share them with others.
  • Evaluate your skills in an objective and non-emotional way. This can be done during a performance management review or with a work coach. Recognise your accomplishments and detail the different skills and steps that helped you get there. You will soon see that the influence of ‘luck’ or being at the ‘right place/right time’ has much less to do with your success than you think.
  • Be brave enough to try new things but don’t do too much at once. Small steps are key. Recognise your efforts and celebrate them at each stage, not just when a task is complete.
  • Stop comparing yourself to others but don’t stop communicating. When someone looks confident and tells you that they have everything in hand, that doesn’t mean it’s the case. Focusing on your own progress is far more useful and you will learn much more in doing so. Sharing your work with others and inviting conversations around it is a much healthier way to collaborate.
  • Feel the fear and do it anyway. So what if you do feel like a fraud? Thoughts are not facts. Honour your feelings and take care of yourself but don’t let them take control of you.
  • Consider coaching or therapy. If you have ingrained beliefs that have held you back for much of your life, therapy can help unpick them and encourage you to let go of the negative views imposed on you from past experiences and make space for new positive ones. 

Deconstructing the sandwich

Think about it this way: when the ratio of bread to filling is unbalanced, you can’t enjoy the best part of the meal.

Isn’t it time to deconstruct this sandwich so you can allow yourself and those around you to benefit from your amazing potential? 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Sittingbourne, Kent, ME10
Written by Catherine Beach, Counselling, Dip Couns, MBACP
Sittingbourne, Kent, ME10

Catherine is a person centred counsellor, teacher and occasional poet from Kent. She is on a mission to rid the world of shoulds and musts, working with her clients to discover their passions, wants and needs. Catherine is passionate in the belief that we are all good enough but live in a world that often lies to us.

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