Going into the third month of quarantine, it’s getting harder, not easier, to know if your boss’s Slack means she’s mad at you or not, or if the dark circles under your eyes are obvious on Zoom. And the never-ending present of pandemic life can make you question if you’ll ever move ahead professionally. These kinds of impostor syndrome flare-ups are all but impossible to avoid while working from home.
“Women work twice as hard in part because [they’re] impressing management, impressing other people, so that their competence and capabilities get recognized. Virtual environments make it much harder to do that,” says Danna Greenberg, Ph.D., a professor of organizational behavior at Babson College who studies how work-life balance affects people’s careers. “When you’re sharing your success through coffee conversations, that makes you feel more confident and stronger at your job. ... You can’t do that in a virtual setting.”
Unlike balancing work and homeschooling, feeling impostor syndrome isn’t a feature unique to the pandemic. But as always, women are finding ways to be reminded of their skills, from focusing on winnable tasks to sharing TikToks with their co-workers. Here’s how five women are coping with impostor syndrome while working from home.
Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Lane, 36, marketing executive
I’ve always loved work. It helped me form my sense of identity. But the coronavirus crisis has helped me realize that it can’t be my whole identity. What you do is not who you are.
I work at a breakneck pace normally, which is part of why I’m good at what I do. This pandemic has slowed down everything, and in my case, not for the better. I think my job is still needed, at least for a little while, but if the business doesn’t grow as fast as we had wanted it to, my role won’t grow either.
The biggest struggle for me has been the way we’re forced to communicate — all online. Before, I was able to read the room and see if someone was yes-ing me or maybe had a doubt. We don’t have that luxury now. I worry that my colleagues might think I’m being too gruff or lack empathy, when I’m just trying to do 15 things at once. I miss my co-workers, and Zoom is a poor substitute for a desk drive-by chat.
To make up for it, I over-communicate. If I go grab lunch, I let my boss and the people I manage know I won't be on Slack for a bit. If I don't hear a confirmation, then I'll shoot over a text. It doesn't seem to bother anyone, but makes us all feel in the loop. I also try to be religious about my calendar. Anything over 20 minutes, I put in there so the team can see when they can reach out.
When we sat next to each other they could see if I was busy or available to collaborate. Often we would create a product or launch a campaign based on a great drive-by conversation. Now we're doing that on Slack. To keep the inspiration going we share things that we would have talked about in person: news articles, celeb gossip, ridiculous TikToks. We need outside stimuli to boost creativity.
Rachel, 39, business development director
Up until now, I didn't realize just how much help I had while I was working and on the road — grandparents, nanny pick-ups, my husband’s more flexible work-from-home schedule, cleaning services, going out to restaurants and parks, playdates. Doing everything yourself just isn't possible.
Given what I do is focused on bringing on new accounts to our agency, I feel very stunted right now. Some days I really feel like it's over for me professionally, that I just want to give up, that I am a complete failure as both a parent and as a professional. Other days I feel hopeful about where we’re headed if we can all survive this crisis together. The pandemic has shed some light on the fact that I base a lot of my self-worth on what I do, rather than who I am.
I’d never thought about taking a sabbatical before, but now I find myself sometimes feeling like I need to focus on my 5-year-old daughter and get a backup plan for work. She really needs her mom right now. So I’m trying to open myself up to the idea of reinventing myself in a new role or industry, or taking some time to just be a mom. It’s a big change for me to think like this when I’ve prioritized the career I have for so long.
Jill*, 38, assistant professor
I often feel that I don't necessarily belong in the leadership position I'm in at my college. That maybe my research is not rigorous enough in the field. The fact that I'm not able to focus on my research right now compounds that feeling.
This is just survival mode, getting the bare minimum done to meet the requirements of my job. I have my two kids, one of which I am now homeschooling. It's a ton of work to keep the older one focused on anything for more than 30 seconds. I spend an inordinate amount of time cooking. I'm getting emails all day from my students, and I need to stop what I’m doing to care for them. I have colleagues who’ve never taught online who I’m trying to help. I feel like everyone is in my care, so my actual work doesn't get half the attention it should. When I go to the office normally, I can be “professor” and I can be there for my students, but at home, there's no way to focus.
None of us signed up for this, and it’s really hard. My kids have a lot more screen time than normal now. I have to be OK with that. I also have to just be in the mindset that a solid eight-plus hours of work per day is simply not happening right now. The biggest trick to feeling better at work is lowering expectations. I find myself getting up and down from my desk about one thousand times a day, so sitting for long periods to focus on a task is pretty much impossible. If I keep my tasks small — tasks within tasks! — I can feel more accomplished and less stressed.
Chiana, 28, account manager
A week into my new job, New York became the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that we’re doing everything at home, I’ve been trying to get to know all of my colleagues from my laptop. We’re doing all these Zoom calls, and no one’s wearing makeup, so I feel like I’m getting to know people more quickly.
At first, I felt a little weird and not so confident. I didn’t know if it was only me sometimes feeling anxiety, sometimes stress, worrying about being productive enough, wondering if I am working too hard. I live by myself. I don’t have any pets. I don’t have any children. It’s just me in my apartment. It’s been a huge adjustment. I am a super extrovert. I love to talk and be around people.
I’ve found it’s important to over-communicate while working from home. Some people respond quicker in different formats, so understanding everyone’s preferences means nothing gets lost in communication. It’s definitely stressful figuring all that out on top of starting a brand new job and navigating working from home in the pandemic.
I do have insecurities. I worry, “Am I reaching out to the right person? Am I reaching out to them in the right way? What’s the process for this? What’s the process for that?” I tell myself, “Even Michelle Obama has impostor syndrome.” Some days I do feel like I’m just off and I wonder if I am capable. But I have a check-in with someone from HR twice a week. It helps me get my mind off the news and balance my work structure a little more.
Lindsay*, 37, assistant law professor
My impostor syndrome was kept at bay by the regular reassurance I got being in-person with my students and my colleagues. When I can't see my students, I don’t get the reassurance that they understand what I'm teaching them. Before, I was pretty confident that I did that well. And it's totally out of character, but now I worry all the time that I'm not. There are moments when I have a real reminder that I am in fact good at what I do, but those moments are becoming fewer and further between because of the physical distance.
I wake up in the morning and check my email and just have this sense of dread. How did I disappoint someone? How did I fail to help someone achieve what they want to achieve? Even though I have no reason to think that's actually happened. I've been doing this for nine years and I haven't felt this kind of insecurity about my ability since I was brand new.
It's always been a challenge for primary parents to find the focus and calm needed to do the writing we're expected to do in my field. That is all but impossible to do now. The pandemic is going to reinforce the inequities women in the legal academy already face. It's forcing people to say that they can’t do the amount of work that their male, childless peers could do on the same clock. That’s going to provide a cover for institutions to justify reinforcing those existing hierarchies. It's now going to be that they're not picking a man, but picking the person with the most articles.
The doubt comes and goes, but there’s always anger. It's really hard to be good at your job when you're f*cking furious. This is not the ideal headspace for me to be encouraging and constructive and intellectual. I am angry for other women who will be producing less during this time. I am angry that this pattern is going to make the misogynists in the field feel validated.
*Names changed to protect privacy.