imposter at work

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Like it or not, believe it or not, we bring our biology and biography to work, i.e., we bring our “family” to work. It’s a fact of psychological life at work that much of our behavior is based on how we were raised.

Many of our co-workers and colleagues remind us of members of our families. So, unconsciously, we relate to them based on this interpersonal dynamic. How so?

As young children we learned to behave in ways that either (1) brought us mommy’s, daddy’s and others’ love, approval, recognition, attention and acceptance and/or (2) kept us safe from harm, trauma or abuse from these same individuals. As children, it’s a psychological fact of life that everyone is “wounded,” hurt or traumatized by parents or primary caregivers who are doing their best, but who, nevertheless, unintentionally are negatively affecting their child in some way through their language, judgments, criticisms, and verbal and non-verbal, emotional or physical reactivity.

For many children, their home environment and experiences were characterized by a mantra of “you’re not good enough” in some way, shape or form. This dynamic holds true even in households on Candy Cane Lane where everything was “just beautiful and loving,” and no one ever raised their voice or “got angry.” In childhood, wounding on some level occurs. Developmental Psychology 101.

As a result, the child grows up feeling, consciously or unconsciously, they are deficient, lacking, or not good enough, in some way. Moving forward, even to this day (as an emotional 3-4-5-year-old in an adult body wearing adult), they need to respond (react) to their world – people, places, events, circumstances, even objects – in a way that protects them, or helps them feel safe and secure in an otherwise threatening world – i.e., from others’ judgments, criticisms, disapproval, unacceptance, abuse, etc., that is, from other’s (real or perceived) mental, verbal, emotional or psychological abuse.

So, fast-forward to adult life at work where folks re-create these family psychodynamics. Most folks who have not done personal work are unaware of the influence of these childhood experiences, unaware of how they show up emotionally as that wounded 3-4-5-year, often thinking, believing and insisting – in one way or another – “Hey, I am adult; I am mature, I am! I am! I am!…I’m not being emotional!).

These adults often see bosses and managers as “mommies and daddies” and their co-workers as their siblings. It’s not unusual to observe workplace conflicts that mimic family arguments and fights. It’s not uncommon to witness workplace dysfunctional relationships, gossiping, in-fighting and back-stabbing behavior that mimic sibling rivalries.

So, when these adults face workplace co-workers, circumstances or events that threaten their sense of emotional safety or trigger a sense of feeling rejected, unapproved, or undeserving of approval and “love,” their knee-jerk reactivity is to do “do what it takes to be accepted and loved.”

Consciously or unconsciously, feeling deficient, lacking or afraid that “telling the truth” about themselves, their project, their numbers, their feelings, their perspective, etc., might result in some type of “rejection,” i.e., disapproval, lack of recognition or acceptance, etc.,  they often resort to lying as one option or defense against “being punished” or “being seen as deficient” and losing the love and acceptance they truly want and seek.

Often, when folks do personal growth and self-awareness work, they discover the ways they have worn masks, veils, and put on false personalities, to cover up their feelings of deficiency, not being good enough, or being unlikable. They discover the “shadow side” of their personalities that serves as the oft-hidden driver of their negative reactivity and so feel the need to lie, or deceive. They discover the self-sabotaging beliefs and self-images they created about themselves, about authority figures and siblings as children they have carried into adulthood.

Once folks see and understand this truth about why they are “acting out” and being defensive as adults, they can begin to shed their self-limiting beliefs, their masks and their need to lie, to be fake and phony. They begin to see their false self-images and allow themselves to “show up” as authentic, as their true and real self and feel free to “tell the truth” first, to themselves and then, to others.

From this place of emotional, psychological and spiritual maturity, a place where the “truth sets one free,” folks move to a place of being real, a place they experience as refreshing and light, where honesty and trust are the foundational building blocks of their relationships. In this place, people see no need for duplicity, disingenuineness, lying, being fake and afraid. And, amazingly and refreshingly, they discover “telling the truth is not as bad as I thought.”

As the expression goes, The truth shall set you free.” The deeper question is why so many at work refuse to allow themselves to believe that – truthfully.

Some questions for self-reflection:

  • When you experience conflicts at work, are they more professional or personal? How so?
  • Do personality conflicts remind you of earlier life conflicts with parents or siblings? How so?
  • Do you ever experience hurt, resentment anger or fear at work? Is it “professional” or “personal?” Are you really, really sure?
  • Do personal issues interfere with your ability to work effectively with others? Are these “their” issues or “your” issues. Are you really, really sure?
  • Do you have a tendency to take things personally? What would your friends and colleagues say?
  • How have personalized assessments of others, or one another, affected your ability to resolve conflicts in your workplace relationships?
  • You know you have “bad days.” Do you allow others to have “bad days” as well?
  • Can you spot ways you bring your “biology” or “biography” (i.e., your “family) to work?

(c) 2019, Peter G. Vajda, Ph.D. and True North Partnering. All rights in all media reserved.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to share this reading with you and I hope you find it insightful and useful. Perhaps you’ll share this with others, post it on a bulletin board, and use it to generate rich and rewarding discussion.

What is the one thing that is keeping you from feeling successful, happy, confident, in control or at peace as you live your life – at work, at home, at play or in relationship? Maybe you know what that “thing” is…maybe you don’t. You just have a feeling that something has to change, whether or not you embrace that change. And how would that change support you to show up as a “better you?”

I’m available to guide you to create relationships that reflect honesty, integrity, authenticity, trust, and respect whether at work or outside of work. I support you to focus on the interpersonal skills that enable you to relate to others with a high level of personal and professional satisfaction – unhampered by personal inconsistencies, beliefs, “stories,” and behaviors that create barriers to a harmonious, pleasant, conscious, compatible, healthy and productive relationship.

I coach by phone, Skype and in person. For more information, 770-804-9125, or pvajda(at)

You can also follow me on Twitter: @petergvajda.