Someone once said to me that photos don’t lie, but do they? On the first day of my new job as the right-hand advisor to one of the province’s top leaders in the justice system, some 16 years ago, my new boss insisted that we take this photo. He said that I’d look back at it someday and think fondly of these days. He also took me around and personally introduced me to all of the judges who were available. While I may have been all smiles on the outside, I was scared. I was also pregnant with our first child and — despite my boss’s reassurance that he believed I could have a career and a family — I secretly wondered if I’d be judged by the judges for taking maternity leave.
My boss was very empathetic and kind. He likely suspected that I had doubts and worries, just as he did when he was new. I clearly wanted the job and the opportunity to grow and succeed in my career, but I still questioned things.
- What if they discovered they made a mistake hiring me?
- What if I can’t answer their questions?
- What if they think I’m not working enough because of my maternity leave?
- What if I fail?
Despite my boss’s best efforts to help me feel included and appreciated, my “what ifs” stayed. In my early years in the position, I kept my head down, did my work, and tried not to draw attention to myself. It felt risky to speak up and express an opinion or to ask questions that might expose my uncertainty. By staying quiet, I was also disconnecting from others, which did not help alleviate my doubts about whether I was doing enough or how I could best contribute.
With my self-doubt pressed down deep inside, I developed habits to cope with the doubt like working at home late into the night and constantly monitoring my work phone and emails. Although nobody ever told me that I needed to work more or make myself available at all hours, I thought I needed to do these things to please my colleagues and prove my worth. These habits continued in my work when I became a parent and were replicated in other areas of my life. Eventually — and inevitably — I became exhausted and overwhelmed.
Looking back, I’m not surprised that I developed these unhealthy habits while working in a high-pressure environment and juggling multiple aspects of professional life, or that so many of my coaching clients struggle with these habits too. The Journal of Behavioral Science (2011) estimated that 70% of people experience the impostor phenomenon at some point in their work.
Getting to the crux of your unhealthy work habits is the key to change. Start by recognizing any patterns or blind spots that may seem like good strategies to keep you safe from embarrassment or failure but which may not be as helpful as they appear.
- Are you holding back from asking questions or sharing different perspectives?
- Is the distinction between your work and non-work time blurred?
- Do you feel like you are always “on” or connected to work in some way?
Once you have identified your unhealthy habits, the next steps can be more challenging. Being honest with yourself about the impact that your habits are having on you and others is hard work. In my experience as a professional coach, this exercise in empathy and self-compassion is where most people get stuck. Working with a professional such as a trained coach, who will create a safe, non-judgemental environment and positively challenge your beliefs and attitudes, can make a difference in your ability to achieve lasting change.
Once you have acknowledged the impact that unhealthy habits are having, the next step in the process is exploring the limiting beliefs that are behind them. These beliefs about yourself or others are false or partially true and can get in the way of growth and success that is meaningful to you.
One of my limiting beliefs in my early career was that I couldn’t ask questions or seek help because doing so would expose me as a fraud and prove that I shouldn’t have been hired. By facing limiting beliefs with curiosity, self-compassion, and empathy, I was able to move beyond fear and shift away from self-doubt — and you can, too. These guiding questions can help you examine your limiting beliefs.
- What are my assumptions and perceptions of what others might be thinking about me?
- What other perspectives could there be?
- What do I risk by remaining silent?
- How has my definition of “help” been getting in my way?
- How could expressing my desire to learn and provide quality work be an indicator of commitment and contribution?
Such self-evaluation will help you, as it did me, rewrite new beliefs that feel better and truly reflect your capabilities and the value you bring to your work or organization.
Looking back at this photo, I think fondly of my early years, as my boss suggested I would. I think of how far I have come in facing my fears, rewriting my beliefs, and tackling habits that once exhausted and overwhelmed me. Most importantly, I learned that no one should struggle through their professional challenges alone. With the right support, you can create healthy work habits that support your growth and success and that of your organization.