my coworker has terrible imposter syndrome

A reader writes:

Someone who I work with, let’s call her Sonja, seems to suffer from an awful case of impostor syndrome, and I’m looking for advice on how I can best support her as a colleague.

We’re friendly, but not friends, and we have not worked together on a project before now, but we’ve recently embarked on a substantial piece of work which will have us collaborating closely for the foreseeable future.

Even in the relatively short time we’ve spent together I can see that Sonja is very smart, kind and is really excellent at doing her job. But it’s equally clear that she doesn’t believe that. Not one little bit.

The self-deprecation is constant. She’s told me she’s weird, she’s ridiculous, she’s “probably the strangest person you’ve ever worked with.” She says she isn’t very good at computers and that she takes “too long” to learn new things. She acts as though her very existence is a burden and I swear her most commonly used word is “sorry.” She displays excessive amounts of gratitude for every second I spend with her and for every contribution I make to the joint project, however small.

I’m feeling conflicted because I have enormous amounts of sympathy for Sonja, especially because I am a recovering impostor syndrome sufferer and I know what it’s like to feel like you aren’t up to scratch. But her constant negativity is draining and the overwhelming gratitude makes me very uncomfortable because it is so unnecessary. This is a joint project which needs both of our skill sets to be successful! I’m not doing Sonja a favor, we’re collaborating.

I’m not Sonja’s boss, and we’re so similar in age and experience it would feel strange to offer mentoring or coaching, but I need strategies to help us work together in a positive way. I would hate for things I do unconsciously to make her feel worse, and I really don’t want to get frustrated and end up snapping at her or something.

When we’re working together I tend to keep things very calm and low-key when she says negative things or is excessively grateful. For example, “I’m so slow at this” would get the response, “No, you’re fine. Hey, what about [subject change]?” And a gushing “thank you, you’re amazing, thank you so much” might get, “No problem, just doing my job.” Should I be challenging these things more strongly? Should I refuse unnecessary thank-you’s altogether?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this! I have no doubt that our project can succeed from a technical perspective, but I want it to work as well as possible on an interpersonal level, too.

Poor Sonja. That’s got to be a hard place to be.

But you’re in a hard place, too. As you point out, it’s draining to be on the receiving end of a constant stream of self-deprecation and self-criticism. And it puts you in a position where you have to do some emotional labor around her self-doubt. When she talks about how slow or inept she is, you have to respond to that in some way. Silence would feel rude, and agreement would feel worse. So you’re forced to tell Sonja that, no, she’s not slow or inept — over and over. And that’s exhausting, and I’m sure it started to feel like a burden pretty quickly.

It sounds like you’ve done a nice job so far with staying low-key and matter-of-fact and moving the conversation on to other topics. You’ve avoided falling into the “no, really, you’re so great!” reassurance trap that women in particular often do to each other.

If you want to, it’s okay to stick with the strategy you’ve been using so far. You’re not obligated to push back or give Sonja a pep talk or try to get her to be easier on herself. But if you’re willing to talk to her about it, it might be a huge favor to her.

One option is to just address it in the moment when it happens. The next time she trash-talks herself, look at her very seriously and say, “I think you’re great at what you do, and I’m dismayed to hear you say that. Do you really believe that?” She’ll likely affirm that she does, and you can respond with something like, “Wow, I don’t think you’re seeing this objectively! You’ve picked this software up as fast as anyone else I’ve seen do it [or whatever piece of evidence will counteract her criticism].”

Do that a few times and see if it has any impact. Who knows, maybe it won’t — but maybe it’ll nudge her world view a little, even if not right away.

The other option is more of a big-picture conversation. You could grab coffee with her or just wait for the next time there’s a relatively relaxed moment and raise it then. For example, you could say: “Can I tell you something I’ve been thinking about? I’ve noticed that you’re pretty self-critical! You’ve made a lot of comments to me about thinking that you’re too slow, or that you’re weird, or that your skills aren’t up to snuff. I want to tell you, I’m really impressed by your work and I think you’re great at what you do. It bugs me to hear you get so down on yourself and I don’t know if you realized how critical you can be of yourself, so I wanted to mention it. You deserve to feel good about your work.”

That’s not going to solve her self-doubt overnight, of course, but it might prod her into realizing how vocal she’s being about it — and it might shift her perspective on herself a bit too. If nothing else, hopefully it’ll cause her some useful cognitive dissonance, which can sometimes be the start of questioning an overly loud internal critic.

You might also mention impostor syndrome to her as a Thing, too — as in, “Have you ever heard of impostor syndrome, where people don’t feel like they’re really good enough for the job they’re in? I used to struggle with it myself, and I suspect you’re dealing with it too, based on some of the things you’ve said.”

If you try any of these options and she still continues the negative talk at the same pace, at that point, I’d just directly ask her to stop. For example: “Cut that out! It sucks to hear you be so harsh on yourself!” Or, “Don’t bash yourself like that. It’s hard to hear you do that.”

The excessive thank-yous are a little different. They probably do stem from the same place of “I’m not good enough and thus anyone helping me is doing me a favor that I didn’t earn on my own merits.” But some people are just excessive thankers (I sometimes fear that I might be one), and on the list of things to tackle with her, I’d prioritize the awful self-assessments. It might be that if she can clear that up somewhat, her over-the-top gratitude will naturally diminish on its own.

Originally published at New York Magazine.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 193 comments… read them below }

  1. nnn*

    My advice to OP would be to ask Sonja for advice when you need advice. Even if you don’t need advice about your direct work tasks, ask her for things like “Can you understand what the client is asking for in this cryptic email she sent me?” or “Do you know how to search and replace across multiple documents at once?”

    Either Sonja will be able to help you, or she won’t be able to help you.

    If she can help you, that will show her that she knows some stuff that others don’t. If she can’t help you, that will show her that the others in the office also find difficult things difficult.

    1. SS*

      If this is too off-topic let me know but … DO YOU know how to search and replace across multiple documents at once? If so teach me!

      1. Becky*

        It depends on what program and file type you are using. I can do it in all files in a particular file tree in atom or another code writing program, but probably not in something like word docs.

      2. Vaughns*

        Hey, I can help with this!

        I use a program called “Agent Ransack” or “FileLocator Lite” (some companies balk at the first title, understandably). You can find it here:

        Even the Lite (free) version is incredibly useful for me. It can search through plain text, Office, and PDF files (assuming the PDF has text, not images of text).

      3. Sarah in Boston*

        If it’s just text files*, I use a great little tool call Search & Replace by Funduc. Best $25 my company ever spent on me considering how much use it’s gotten!

        *Mind you it may work on MS Word docs or other “fancier” text documents too. I’m just not sure. I use it for Matlab m files mostly and occasionally HTML pages.

    2. C Andy*

      Seems a bit silly to create artificial interactions about things when there’s a lot of reality going on that needs to addressed.

      1. Legal Beagle*

        I agree. This type of constant negativity and need for affirmation is draining, time-wasting, and unprofessional. LW is better off approaching this head-on than trying to (kindly) manipulate the coworker into thinking more highly of herself.

      2. nnn*

        Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean creating artificial interactions! I meant when you’re going to be asking someone anyway, ask Sonja.

  2. CatCat*

    Great advice. I bet she is not even aware she is doing it.

    I used to have major imposter syndrome. My main symptom was to downplay compliments. I was not aware of it until someone pointed it out to me. “Hey, whenever I say something nice about you, you excuse or downplay it. Why?” I was shocked and really had no idea why. I had to actively work on stopping that behavior, which was hard, but I could only start to work on it once I knew I was doing it.

    1. Lil Fidget*

      I had to work very carefully to stop over apologizing in my professional life. I thought I was just smoothing things over, but it became clear that my boss thought I was incompetent and was screwing up all the time, since I was always apologizing. He never apologized for anything, including things that were definitely his fault, and he assumed I wouldn’t be doing it unless I’d really screwed up! Now I bite my tongue and take an extra beat before just explaining dispassionately how/why things are happening the way they are.

      1. MakesThings*

        Oh, ugh. I hate that polite people have to take a professional hit because rude people assume that to be polite is to be guilty. I’m sorry you were forced to change your manner. For the record, there is nothing wrong with wanting to be diplomatic and to smooth things over. Your boss was an ass and contributed to the world being a worse place.

        1. Yorick*

          It may come from a nice place, but it’s not exactly polite to apologize when you’ve done nothing wrong. You could almost think of it as rude to say something unclear that makes people think something other than what you mean. It can also basically make all your apologies meaningless.

          1. Koko*

            An apology is also a social oeuvre that requires a response, most commonly requiring the person receiving the apology to reassure you that they’ve accepted the apology and forgiven you. It’s a small form of emotional labor you’re making people do for you without cause over and over again when you apologize excessively and unnecessarily.

            It’s not really all that different from excessive self-deprecation even without the apology. People feel uncomfortable to hear a colleague berate themselves and feel like they have to say something to soothe the agitated colleague, but often resent having to do that emotional labor of caretaking the colleague’s mood when they really just want to ask where the llama brushes are kept and not do caretaking work. (See: this letter.)

    2. No Parking or Waiting*

      I became aware of this in myself. Part imposter, part insecure, part ingrained behavior. The best thing I learned was to be gracious about accepting a compliment. I really want to encourage you to follow CatCat’s advice. If you like Sonja and really want to help her (before she becomes your BEC, because she will. You can project your own impostor issues on her, you can empathize with her esteem issues, but this me-centric handholding is going to get old. The empathy well will run dry.) then tell her about it.
      “You need to trust me when I say you did a good job. I wouldn’t say it just to talk.”
      “You don’t have to apologize for things that aren’t a mistake, a problem or your fault. Not to me. I working right beside you. I know all the work you put in.”
      Being one big cheerleader a few times instead of a million mini skirmishes against her negativity will help you both.

    3. Nerfmobile*

      It took me a long time to really be confident that the correct response to a compliment is simply “Thank you”. Not “thanks but…” or “it wasn’t that hard…” or “I just got lucky…” or anything else deprecating or downplaying it. Just “Thank you.”

      1. Koko*


        In fact, I’ll often go the opposite route and “up-play” it! “Thanks, I worked really hard and I’m so glad to see that it worked for us,” or, “Thank you, I put a lot of effort into this and your appreciation means a lot to me.”

    4. Nic*

      I also had it badly for a while. I read somewhere that it is better to say “thank you for being so patient” instead of “Sorry I’m so slow” or whatever is appropriate for the situation. I started implementing this, and I feel like it made a big difference both in how I perceive myself and how others see me.

      1. Had Matter's Pea Tarty*

        I saw that comic on Tumblr, and honestly someone thanking me for ‘being patient’ instead of apologising for keeping me waiting would really annoy me.

  3. SarcasticFringehead*

    I have a coworker like this, and I worry that my frustration with her negativity will just reinforce the cycle – I’ll try to keep this advice in mind!

  4. Artemesia*

    I think this is more about being self centered than imposter syndrome; she has gotten used to the need for constant strokes and this is how she obtains them. Many people get into this habit and can be knocked out of it by pointing out to them what they are doing and how draining it is. Making a bit of a joke of it if that seems like it would work can also help. e.g. After the pep talk and your acknowledgement of how draining it is for you, provide a card with 5 affirmations for her to look at when she feels the need. The worst way to deal with it is with buying in to the ‘poor poor me’ bit. Take it too seriously and she believes her line of patter about how terrible she is. Give her a heads up and be light about it and she may get a grip. Not everyone who is awful is without hope or remedy. Lots of awful behaviors in interpersonal relationships are bad habits that people fall into and then don’t recognize until someone points it out.

    1. JB (not in Houston)*

      Whoa, that’s a little harsh. Specifically, the “not everyone who is awful” comment–it seems like you are calling the OP’s coworker and awful person? There are people with imposter syndrome who really do act this way without realizing it–wanting to knock themselves down before others do it because they think setting expectations this low keeps them from disappointing people, and they desperately don’t want people to overestimate them only to be (in their view) inevitably let down. I don’t think I’m an awful person, and I don’t generally feel like I have imposter syndrome, but every once in a while I will feel a combination of despair that this person thinks I have a skill I don’t think I have and desperation to convince them that their high expectation is misguided. It sounds like the OP’s coworker has that all the time, with everything, and it’s exhausting for the people she works with, but that doesn’t make her an awful person looking for ego strokes.

      1. neeko*

        Agree completely. Seems just unkind to call someone who is clearly dealing with self-confidence issues (which is incredibly common) as an awful person.

        1. Artemesia*

          People come to this site every day to complain about the awful behavior of a co-worker who is driving them crazy. Doesn’t make them an evil person but the behavior is pretty awful. The OP is finding this co-worker’s behavior very hard to live with. Her best shot at changing that is to be open with the co-worker about what is most probably a bad habit and not something hopeless that can’t be changed. YMMV.

          1. Clare*

            This behavior is mildly annoying, not awful. We are not entitled to make everyone around us change their personality and habits so we don’t get annoyed. There are times when we need to stop trying to fix someone else and instead work on being more accepting of a person’s flaws.

    2. WeevilWobble*

      I strongly disagree. That wouldn’t explain why she is so grateful for the time OP spends with her. Or why she is so put off by compliments.

      And I think the OP knows her best and probably has the right reading.

    3. MommyMD*

      I agree with Artemesia. I don’t think Sonja will take subtle hints or redirections. I think it will come down to The Big Talk. This is the way she gets her emotional strokes and it won’t be an easy habit to break because it’s rewarding to her. And this stuff is negative to be around.

      1. Kara_Lynn*

        Agreed. I’ve known quite a few people like this. It will never end until someone really sets her straight. Let it be you, OP.

    4. oranges & lemons*

      Hmm, I think it might be a bit of a combination. I suspect she genuinely is lacking in confidence and doesn’t realize how much of a burden she’s putting on the LW. But I do think she has a bad habit of relying on others for reassurance. It’s a common anxiety-related tic, and one that I used to have, but it is unfair to those around her and something she should try to break.

      1. Lil Fidget*

        Yeah low self esteem can include both. She’s genuinely anxious and she’s seeking reassurance inappropriately.

      2. No Parking or Waiting*

        I’m with you. I think LW projects the imposter syndrome. I think Sonja has found a way to function that feels safe. I think she would be a lot happier if she weren’t that way. But it will be hard to convince her. Those little perks of reassurance are addictive. She has to train herself to be gracious and to act confidently.
        Projecting myself, I found a lot more joy out of getting to say, “thanks for saying that, I’m really proud of X.” over, “naw, it sucks, but it’s the best I can do.” I think she will too.

      3. Daisy*

        Yes, I agree with you. I’m sure it is genuine to an extent, but Artemesia has a good point that validating this type of behaviour is not a good cycle to get into. AAM’s advice is good for covering the first part, but it’s all concerned with consoling the coworker. I feel at some stage it will be necessary to note the effect it has on other people.

      4. Pollygrammer*

        I think so too. And I think it would be more productive to respond with observations instead of/in addition to the reassurances. “Wow, you talk yourself down a lot.” “That’s the nth time today you’ve criticized yourself.” It’s not unkind, but it doesn’t encourage the behavior.

    5. Jesca*

      I’m gonna say, “nope”. and Then just stop, because I have no other constructive way of detailing how absolutely out in left field this is.

      I know the type you are talking about. I soo do. But that behavior is normally coupled with a whole lot of behavior that otherwise proves that the offender does in fact not feel that way about themselves. She isn’t like running around asking for approval or showing off or trying to skirt around doing new tasks. She is apologizing for herself while working really hard. That is pretty common, especially among women.

      When I suffered from impostor syndrome, I wasn’t even going to attend my own college graduation. I worked full time while I went to school, and I thought it was a waste of everyone’s time to see me “graduate”. Yep. Not exactly attention seeking or asking for validation. I really just wanted to ensure I was out of everyone’s way. That sounds more like what the OP is talking about.

      1. OP*

        Jesca, you’ve got it exactly. I don’t think that Sonja is consciously seeking approval and ego boosts, I think she’s got herself stuck in a mindset where she truly believes her own awfulness. I know from experience what a tough place that is to get out of, which is why I’ve got so much sympathy for her!

        1. Reba*

          OP you sound like a kind, compassionate colleague! Don’t be afraid to interrupt the script that you and Sonja have established thus far. It might initially feel rude not to follow the script, but you can frame it as a desire to reset how you work together.

        2. Julia*

          If I had to guess, I would say that Sonja was probably bullied or belittled as a child. In such cases, every time someone is nice to you, you think, “oh, they’re being nice to little, awful ME? Someone thinks I’m good at something?”

          While, ultimately, this is her problem to overcome, I think you are being a very good colleague and person for being so kind. Sometimes, someone’s kindness can help repair the damage someone else inflicted.

          1. RVA Cat*

            I wonder if maybe the OP could point Sonja towards some resources that might help? I find the Affirmation Pod podcast helpful and there are some recent episodes about confidence at work.

        3. Birch*

          This is not imposter syndrome–that phrase has been applied waaaaaay too broadly in a lot of cases of confidence issues when it’s actually a very specific problem. One of the really unique hallmarks of imposter syndrome is the disconnect between logically knowing your achievements/success/skills/abilities are objectively fine, and still feeling like a secret fraud. Two parts to that are not happening here. Clearly, Sonja does not feel like a secret fraud–she is very publicly exclaiming her terribleness. Imposters don’t do that. Many powerful and brilliant people suffer from imposter syndrome, and nobody knows about it until they come out about it, and others still struggle to believe them. It’s a secret, shameful feeling, that’s the whole point of being an *imposter* (it’s in the name!). Secondly, imposters have a disconnect. They can logically point to their achievements. For me, it’s knowing that brilliant, successful people in my field have supported me and worked with me on projects, so my work has their reputations tied up in it. I’ve won grants, gotten jobs, led projects, published papers, and finished a PhD. Objectively, I’m doing great, and my colleagues think I’m very successful. But I feel like one day they will see that I’m struggling with a line of Matlab and realize I’ve been faking it! I *feel* like I’ve been faking it. THAT is imposter syndrome. Sonja can’t even objectively state her own skills. There’s no logical disconnect in her. She has some confidence issues (no armchair diagnosing here), but she is not showing what we know as imposter syndrome.

    6. Delphine*

      I disagree with your assessment completely. There’s excessive gratitude mixed in with her self-deprecation, and that suggests that she’s not self-centered and fishing for compliments, but has truly come to believe this about herself.

      And she’s certainly not “awful”.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        I have a family member who could throw one-liners with the best of them. He knows how to use words to shrink people down to about 1 inch tall. There many times where he will berate himself because of his nationality, his faith, his bald-headedness (Yes, no part of his life went unscathed.)

        I have to say I got sick of it. I got sick of all the negative put downs about others and about himself. There are things in life that are enjoyable- puppies, flowers, good friends. It’s not all bad and this is something the family member was not prepared to hear or cope with. I would tell a story about a cute thing the dog did last week and the next thing out of his mouth would be “That’s nice. Did you hear about the bank robbery?” I. can’t. deal.

        I compare OP’s coworker to my family member and it’s night and day difference. It sounds like OP’s coworker might actually want something better than the worldview she is using now. Comparatively speaking, of course. Family member has indicated he is happy in his dungeon.

    7. designbot*

      I heard somewhere a very apt phrase, “Insecurity makes narcissists of us all.”
      The line between fishing for compliments and genuine insecurity is very thin, and is often a loop.

      1. Mary*

        Yeah, I don’t think the dichotomy of “she’s a terrible person who is just fishing for compliments” vs “she’s a good person suffering from low self-esteem” holds. Or can come out of genuine low self-esteem and still be a really irritating, self-reinforcing behaviour where you’re basically outsourcing your esteem to others without their consent and you default to that option because it works and you never learnt to self-soothe. It doesn’t have to be consciously manipulative to be very frustrating and an unreasonable burden for your co-workers.

          1. Legal Beagle*

            Yes, perfect description. Having been around this, it’s VERY draining and burdensome. There will never be enough reassurances to satisfy the need, so you are trapped in an endless loop of listening to negativity and having to rebut it.

            1. Pollygrammer*

              There are gentle ways to redirect, in my experience. A cheerful “that’s enough apologizing for today!” Or “Consider me plenty thanked!” Unless somebody is truly oblivious, it closes the subject at least for a while.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          I definitely see OP’s cohort not working on soothing herself or calming herself. It could be that it never occurred to her to work on that.

          I have a very intelligent friend with a heart as big as all outdoors. She gets tense over stuff. Some stuff does not require tension in reality, however she is tense. I have tried helping her calm down, that did not work. So now my question becomes, “What do you think you can do or tell yourself that will help you calm down on this point?”
          I keep throwing out the idea that she CAN console herself, she can actually provide comfort to herself. Her life has been a long, winding road, so I can see where there were plenty of times in her life that held NO consolation for her. In other words, there was no consolation to be had, so why look for it? My message to her is that “It’s okay to look around for consoling thoughts.”

        2. Literal Mental Image*


          For some reason, that just makes me thing of someone petting themselves and going ‘There, there’.

          1. Jo*

            This legit just made me snort water out my nose. From now on that will be my default image for the word “soothe.”

          2. Mary*

            I think it kind of is that! Like, usually as adults we’ve learned to do that internally, but when I’m trying to soothe my toddler when there’s a terrible tragedy like a bump on the head or no more Peppa Pig, I genuinely think of it as training the voice in her head that will say, “there there, it’s OK” when she’s too big for me to do it for her!

    8. MakesThings*

      It’s honestly really hard to read this comment. Have you tried actually empathizing? At all?
      “Buying into the poor poor me bit”: meaning, you don’t believe that anyone can have low self esteem, and therefore it must be an act?
      Why don’t you read an article about Impostor Syndrome, and then come back to us?

    9. C Andy*

      This is a good thought.
      A jolt along the lines of, “If you really weren’t good enough at this, you probably wouldn’t be here.” might help.
      Tough love.

  5. Anna Tolstoyevsky*

    I think it is important to keep in mind that acceptable levels of self-deprecation vary vastly between cultures. American culture is close to the least self deprecating end of the spectrum, which causes Americans to be perceived as boastful. Sonja will still be better off with a behavior adjustment, but I am wondering if there may be a cultural component to it.

    1. WeevilWobble*

      I’d say it varies wildly between regions of the US too.

      Self-deprication is very normal where I grew up (New England) but when I lived in California it was very much not a thing.

      1. kb*

        Yes, I’d say parts of the Midwest are also big on self deprecation. The northern Midwest is also big on never mentioning your accomplishments for fear it could be interpreted as boastful. It was initially really intimidating for me to mingle with people from areas that are more confident and outspoken and I’m sure other people were confused by my self-deprecation as well.

      2. JB (not in Houston)*

        I don’t know if it’s regional or what, but most of the women I work with (from secretaries to attorneys) are quite self-deprecating, to the point that I’ve wondered if any of us know how to accept compliments or to ask for favors without disparaging ourselves first. So while I won’t deny that the US, unlike some countries, doesn’t have self-deprecation as a cultural thing that we may or may not ironically take pride in (not all countries where this is cultural have made it a point of pride, but a few have), it’s a pretty common thing for Americans to be self-deprecating.

        In any case, it’s a bit of a derail because there’s not really anything in the OP’s letter to indicate that the coworker comes from a difficult culture where this could be the source of the issue.

        1. Erso*

          I mean, it’s the Mean Girls bit, right?

          Regina: “You’re really pretty.”
          Cady: “Thank you.”
          Regina: “So you agree? You think you’re really pretty?”

          There a lot of people who think accepting a compliment means they agree with it and therefore think too highly of themselves. I was always terrified of coming across as being “full of myself” so I learned how to deflect compliments so as not to appear vain or boastful.

          1. Not So NewReader*

            Regina set the trap and went in for the kill.

            One time, I was with friends and I sneezed several times in a row, allergy stuff. One of my friends said, “Quit being so attention seeking.”

            In that moment she told me more about herself than she ever wanted me to know.

          2. Julia*

            There’s actually a study about how women just accepting a compliment, they often get punished for that by being called stuck-up. I put a link into my name.

            1. Marthooh*

              I’m gonna be picky here: it’s not a “study”, it’s one woman’s “social experiment” on Tumblr. An interesting experiment, for sure!

    2. OP*

      Well, we’re in a country where self-deprecation could be considered a national sport, and this goes way, way beyond the usual! It is a good point though that worry over appearing boastful or arrogant may be contributing to the way Sonja interacts.

      1. Had Matter's Pea Tarty*

        Are you by any chance in the UK?

        I have a simular problem, to the point where I can’t write cover letters or CVs because ‘bigging myself up’ is alien to me. I can’t take or really believe compliments, I see myself as annoying, obnoxious, incompetent, unlikeable, not worth employing, etc etc. This is either why or because I am unemployed since 2015.

        1. Jean (just Jean)*

          Oh, my. Posting to send you postive vibes because I’ve been where you are now. Being long-term unemployed can really mess with a person’s head.
          How can you reframe your circumstances in a way that will make you happier?
          It’s not “bigging yourself up” if you’re listing your qualifications and/or experiences in the best possible light. (There’s a difference between telling total falsehoods and describing yourself without apology.)
          I wish you increasing confidence in the coming year. Everyone has something good to offer the world. This means you, too.
          ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ (these are positive vibes)

  6. Emily Spinach*

    That sounds so hard on her, but also frustrating for you! She’s asking you take on a lot of social and emotional work to manage her sense of self. I hope Alison’s suggestions help, letter writer, and I hope Sonja grows into a better sense of herself. Good luck.

  7. NicoleK*

    I could have written this about my coworker. In my case, my coworker has anxiety which feeds the self doubt, low self esteem, and imposter syndrome symptoms. She needs constant reassurance. But the reassurances she receives from other people just feeds into it. OP’s situation may be different and OP giving her coworker compliments may help her overcome the imposter syndrome.

      1. MakesThings*

        You’re such an absolute delight, wow. What a series of thoughtful, compassionate comments you’ve shared with us on this letter. The empathy just SHINES THROUGH.

        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          MommyMD’s style of commenting is to be very direct and sometimes curt. I understand why this can often be interpreted as unkind, but personal attacks and sarcasm aren’t very kind, either. If she’s being overly harsh in a way that seems to transgress the commenting rules, then it’s ok to call it out.

          But I want to gently push back on the idea that it’s ok to criticize a person’s character/personality because of their comments or commenting style.

          1. MakesThings*

            It’s not really the curtness, but the utter and complete lack of empathy, and no interest in cultivating it.

            1. JB (not in Houston)*

              Yeah, I agree with PCBH that we should not criticize someone’s personality just because their style of commenting rubs us the wrong way, but I have noticed that MommyMD comes across as someone who lacks empathy. But I think it’s too tough to tell from their comments whether it’s their actual personality or whether it’s just what it seems like from their commenting style and what they choose to comment on.

              1. JB (not in Houston)*

                In other words, it’s probably best for us to stick to commenting on the comments and not on their personality, since we don’t have much to go on for that.

                1. MakesThings*

                  Maybe, for now. I’m not very kind to people who can’t spare a thought for the mental state of others, or who view and interpret EVERYTHING through their own values, or can’t stray from their own rigid view of “This is how things ARE”.
                  But on this thread, this time, I’m willing to leave it alone.

  8. Anonymous Poster No. 51*

    Poor Sonja. Someone told her she was stupid or weird, or both, and she believed them. Or maybe she was constantly criticized by a family member. And because she wore a sign that read, “I’m stupid,” other people dissed her, too.

    Be patient with her. It may take years for Sonja to realize her value.

    I’m past 60 and still figuring it out.

    1. MommyMD*

      Politeness is definitely warranted but this is a workplace problem affecting at least one coworker negatively and cannot go on for “years”. There’s a limit to problem behavior in the workplace.

    2. Lady Ariel Ponyweather*

      That’s what I was thinking, too.

      I’m sorry people said things like that to you. You have value and worth and I’m glad you’re here!

    3. Anon Marketer*

      This is what I was thinking. I suffer from AWFUL self-esteem from being called weird and strange and all kinds of things growing up and you just feed into it. Sonja probably is wrangling with that and the need for constant reassurance, which can be taxing on co-workers, even if she doesn’t mean it that way. It’s a delicate situation that can swing either way. I think once something happens that will require to Sonja whether she’s ready to step up or not will see how much she can handle without the extra reassurance (and might be what she needs to see she can succeed too).

    4. Specialk9*

      Yeah but… The OP isn’t her therapist, paid to help her with through her problems, over years. There’s this compassion fatigue that comes from the self hating emotional vampires who need constant pulls of everyone’s sympathy and reassurance.

      I had a friend like this. I tried so hard to to convince her of her worth and amazing-ness. But her self disgust became such a never ending drain on me – I couldn’t ever make her better, but she could certainly take me down. I eventually let our friendship drift because it was one-sided, depressing, and draining.

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        I was coming to say the exact same thing. Compassion fatigue is real and real difficult. I have a friend who is brilliant, thoughtful and fascinating. But she also has some very deep issues that she continues to grapple with. As our friendship deepened, I saw less and less of the amazing side of her as she trusted me and shared more and more of the insecurity… which required a lot of affirmation on my part. It was, as Specialk9 describes, “one-sided, depressing, and draining.” I, too, had to let the friendship drift because I would come back from hang-outs exhausted and emotionally spent.

        If OP is willing to have the Big Talk, I think it’s worth it. Perhaps nothing will change. But at least OP will have put Sonja on notice that Sonja’s being an Office Dementor.

  9. fposte*

    A lot of people feel impostor syndrome without verbalizing these things to other people as they complete tasks; that to me is a difference that can be significant. I also think that the verbalizing habit can be separate from the issue of self-confidence, so I wouldn’t assume that it will go away just because she feels more secure.

    “Friendly but not friends” can cover a lot of ground; if you’re close enough, I might say, kindly and curiously, “Sonja, you say frequently say things like that. Can you tell me what you’re hoping for from me when you do?” She may not get to the ultimate answer of, say, “I hope I’ve lowered your expectations enough so you’ll go easy on my mistakes,” but there might be an interesting exchange focusing the fact that you judge her on her work, her work is good, and her prejudging herself seems to be asking for something that probably she should be handling internally.

      1. Clare*

        Explain herself for what, being human? The LW is the one getting annoyed so this is really the LW’S problem, not Sonjas. I don’t think it’s wrong for the LW to say something, so long as it comes from a place of empathy and not “how dare you annoy me with your human flaws!”

    1. Lil Fidget*

      “I hope I’ve lowered your expectations enough so you’ll go easy on my mistakes” – SO TRUE that this is the subtext of some people’s apologies, but it can come across in a lot of different ways in business, including as other commenters have interpreted, “I’m requesting a complement from you again.”

    2. Reba*

      Yes, negative self-talk can be a very very durable habit, even if the root cause of insecurity or low self-worth is ameliorated. Sonja may not even realize that she’s doing it or how much. It’s a pattern that needs to be interrupted.

    3. Jim*

      That seems like a good approach, pointing out that the OP is exhausted with having to find ways of reacting to Sonja’s negative self-talk. Maybe OP can follow up with “Can you do me a favor, Sonja? I think you are just as capable and fun to work with as the next person, but I am running out of ways to defend you from your self-deprecating comments. How about you try not to put yourself down, just for this week, and when it slips anyway, we will both pretend you didn’t say that?”

      1. Lil Fidget*

        Among friends, I’ve used lines like, “Hey, I wouldn’t let anyone talk about my friend that way!” (I have to do this to myself as well. I’d never let anyone get away with saying terrible things to me, so why say them to myself?).

        1. Not So NewReader*

          This, this. I will say to a friend or family member, “Hey don’t be talking about my good friend/favorite aunt that way. I won’t tolerate that.”

          But by the time I use this I have done other things in the past such as, “Hey, go easy on YOU, okay?” or “You would not talk that way to me, so why talk to YOU like that?”

          OP, you can say things like “hey, go easy” or “why don’t you let yourself up for air?” instead of saying what you have been saying.

        2. Story Nurse*

          Yes, I was going to suggest something along these lines, plus collaboration—”I would be really uncomfortable if you talked about one of our coworkers the way you talk about yourself. I know I get down on myself sometimes too. Can we agree to work together on only describing ourselves the way we’d describe other people?”

    4. Specialk9*

      Ooh I like this! Many of us only start thinking through our quirky habits when confronted by something basic but startling like this. ‘What do I want you to do? I wasn’t even thinking about you. Wait, what does it feel like on her side? Ohhhh…’

    5. Not So NewReader*

      I like this a lot because it can be broken into two parts, the external habit and the internal workings. Breaking one’s self of the external habit can help the person to work though some of the internal stuff that is going on also.

    6. Birch*

      I think that’s why this isn’t actually imposter syndrome—people who are actually dealing with imposter syndrome don’t verbalize it constantly! The whole point is about being “found out”–you can’t be found out if you constantly tell everyone how terrible you are! This sounds like some sort of confidence issue, or maybe even self sabotage. A lot of smart people don’t try things they’re afraid of failing at, or will try to get ahead of expectations to lower the bar. In any case it sounds frustrating for everyone involved but I think OP should just try not to engage in it with Sonja.

  10. Gen*

    Oh dear, this could have been written about me (though it’s more a specific disorder for me than impostor syndrome). Honestly the best thing for me if when people just respond to my spirals with ‘k’ or ‘uh huh what about that other topic?’ When people respond to things like that with reassurances my brain takes it as lying which gets more upsetting because I have to prove to people that I really am as awful as my brain thinks I am. If people really believe I’m terrible then they won’t be as angry when I inevitably mess up (generally I don’t mess up as bad as I expect). I am working on this as much as I can but I’m also aware that it’s a horrible thing for other people to deal with :(

  11. Lil Fidget*

    If you do become friendly enough with Sonja to address this directly, I’ve had decent luck explicitly naming that I’m breaking the cycle – “when you say things like that, I feel like I’m supposed to reassure you, but I don’t think it’s helping you feel better. I’m going to try changing the subject when you apologize or put yourself down because it’s hard for me to hear.” Then do it from then on, and if possible try to add, in the nicest way possible, some version of “you’re doing that thing again.” She probably doesn’t realize quite how bad this habit is, in terms of how often she does it and how poorly it reflects on her. But, she has to know that you care about her before you try something like this, or else it comes across as too fix-y.

  12. DogPerson*

    If it were me, I’d ignore it. It’s like training a cat to stop meowing. You might think it’s harsh, but it’s about you and your boundaries and what you agree to connect with. If you pretend she doesn’t say it, she won’t have an audience for it, and she’ll learn it’s not acceptable behavior around you.

    1. Lil Fidget*

      I’d use that technique around “fishing for complements” friends (I have a couple) but OP may be able to judge if this comes from true lack of confidence, in which case seeming to agree with the criticism can be even worse.

  13. Student*

    You should certainly start from the position that you and AAM take here, of assuming this is imposter syndrome or similar.

    However, if that doesn’t solve the problem, you may be wrestling with a different problem – someone who wants constant positive attention and compliments. Or someone who wants to get out of the hard/thankless parts of a project.

    The behavior you describe does match up well with imposter syndrome – but it also matches up very well with something my brother has done for his whole life that is decidedly not imposter syndrome. I don’t know what it’s called, but I always thought of it as him going into “Eeyore mode”, from Winnie the Pooh stories. When he isn’t getting enough attention and praise to satisfy him, he starts talking about how terrible and pathetic he is in a constant, escalating stream. Eventually somebody starts pouring praise on him to get him to stop. There’s no real theme to whatever he’ll mope about, which is the clue that it’s not imposter syndrome (focused on ability to do a work task) but a different issue. He’d mope about extremely mundane things as well as more common things – making grilled cheese sandwiches, his hair, his job, his latest hobby, his clothes, taking the dog out, just… everything. It’s extremely draining.

    He also figured out he could weaponize his stream of self-pity to avoid other people’s feelings or work. It’s pretty transparent. Somebody gets upset with him or asks him to do something? He falls on his sword in the most dramatic way possible – “Brother, could you take out the trash? It’s your turn,” would get met with things like, “Oh, I can’t believe I forgot that. I’m such an idiot. You must think I’m a gross, terrible person to forget to take the trash out. How disgusting of me. What kind of person forgets that? I’m so dumb, maybe there’s something wrong with my brain…” and it just drags on until you put a stop to it somehow, usually by heaping praise on him and/or just doing the task yourself. I can see exactly what he’s doing, but it’s such an over-the-top reaction to something normal that it’s hard to counter. You can walk away from it, but then the task still doesn’t get done, the issue remains unaddressed, and you risk reinforcing his terrible view of himself if there’s any genuine feelings in there.

    1. Lil Fidget*

      Ugh, that sounds annoying. I had a roommate like that, and fortunately I wasn’t worried about hurting their feelings so I could put my foot down: “I’m not looking for an apology, just please take the trash out. Thanks.” (walks off). They toned it way down after a couple interactions like that.

  14. The Ginger Ginger*

    If you do opt to have a conversation with her it may also be worth mentioning, on top of the excellent scripts AAM provides, that this kind of talk will undermine her perceived competence in the long run. She’s setting herself up to appear unprofessional and incompetent, even if that’s not the case.

    I understand where she might be coming from. I used to use self-deprecation as a sort of pre-emptive mea culpa when I was not feeling confident about my knowledge or skills in an area, but there are better ways to do that in the long run. Asking for clarification, assistance, or follow up is much more professional and confidence-inspiring than “aw shucks”-ing your way through a project. She may not realize how often she’s doing this, and pointing out the frequency, as well as the possible career consequences, may help her recognize and change the habit.

    1. Tuesday Next*

      That’s an excellent point. She will come across as incompetent to someone who can’t accurately assess her skills as the OP can, or otherwise she may just be seen as too much hard work to be on a project with.

      1. OP*

        This is definitely something I would touch on when/if I talk to Sonja about this. Success in our line of work requires not only solid behind-the-scenes skills (which she has in spades) but also the ability to be seen to have those skills and interact with a wider community. I have heard through the grapevine than Sonja has some more public-facing roles because kindly folk in senior positions have put her forward for them, but it is generally expected that we work to increase our own visibility and put ourselves forward for such things. Relying on boosts from others is not a good strategy in the long term, and I really want her to understand that she might be limiting herself.

        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          Sometimes I think of impostor syndrome as being a little similar to body dysmorphia. What the person sees about themselves is heavily distorted from what others see. If her self-deprecation hasn’t “solidifed” fully, reminding her that she’s undermining herself by viewing herself as deficient or a burden and that that’s really out of the norm with what others see would be a great service to her, OP. With friends I’ve used the whole, “If someone said that about my friend, I’d cut them off. Why are you talking about yourself that way?” approach, but it sounds like you’re not close enough for that to be work-appropriate.

          I also think it’s ok to do what Lil Fidget suggests and tell her that you’re no longer going to respond to her with assurance when she says negative things about herself.

    2. Specialk9*

      Oh god no, don’t mention it could impact how others perceive her, she might dye her hair blue and come to work half nekkid!

      Wait, was that the wrong lesson to learn from that letter?

      (OP, joking, that was about an odd recent letter, if you’re not a regular reader.)

  15. Longtime Listener, First time Caller*

    Sometimes just acknowledging Imposter Syndrome is A Thing and a Really Common Thing is so helpful. My workplace recently held a seminar all about this topic. There was a keynote and panel discussion with senior-level manager (men and women) who all talked about experiencing Imposter Syndrome and ways to overcome it. It was so incredibly helpful and reassuring.

    1. Lil Fidget*

      I’m so glad they had men addressing it too. I feel like it’s become a Woman Thing and really it shouldn’t be (doesn’t help that it undercuts some of the systematic ways women are made to feel less-than in the workplace as just a mental habit you can Will Your Way Out Of rah rah).

  16. R*

    Wow… To be honest, I’m a lot like Sonja here. A lot. And this put a lot of it all into perspective for me.
    I know I put myself down a lot, but the idea it that I could be hurting other people or putting the stress on them… it sounds awful, but I’ve never really thought of that before. I don’t want to do that to anyone, ever.
    I definitely need to start working on this more. Thank you to the OP for sharing, I know my response is a bit selfish, but it’s really helped me.

    1. OP*

      Believe me – I so get where you are coming from! I think the reason for having so much worry over this situation is that I see so much of myself-from-x-years-ago in Sonja. I am so glad that you found my letter (and Alison’s fantastic response – thank you Alison!) a little bit helpful – good luck!

      1. Specialk9*

        It’s why I so like fposte’s suggestion, to say “Sonja, you frequently say things like that. Can you tell me what you’re hoping for from me when you do?”

        I’m guessing Sonja has never even once pulled out of her self focus enough to imagine how it feels to be on the other side.

        1. Specialk9*

          Which doesn’t make Sonja a bad person! Hurting people often are pretty self focused. Like how I expect my husband to deal with All the Things when I have a migraine. But also, people often react to pain in ways that cause more trouble – like favoring a hurt foot leading to shin splints on the other foot.

    2. NDC*

      Yes, I came here to say that, too. I’m a Sonja, and it hadn’t occurred to me how much work I’m putting on my colleague. I’ll work on stopping, too.

    3. Pollygrammer*

      I tend toward this as well, but I have some helpful tactics for curbing it at work:

      If it’s a serious mistake, apologize for it as a serious mistake, but DON’T make it about yourself–the mistake is the problem, and whatever happened to allow it–you didn’t understand something, you weren’t paying attention. Say you’re sorry, say what you’ll do to fix it/prevent it from happening again. Don’t bring anything into the situation about who you are as a person–“I wasn’t paying attention,” NOT “I’m absentminded.” “I made a bad call,” NOT “I’m an idiot.”

      If it’s just a little flub (and really most things are) allow yourself ONE self-deprecating comment, as long as it’s relevant to the person hearing it, and it has to be kind of lighthearted. “Welp, I did this, I’m a dummy today” or “okay apparently I left my brain at home this morning.” And it’s important to make it moment-based, if that makes sense–making sure you’re confining it to the day/morning doesn’t make people doubt your confidence AND makes it clear that you’re not expecting to be reassured about your entire existence.

      Longest comment I’ve ever written–I’ve put a lot of strategy into this over the years.

  17. Shannon*

    I’ve found it helpful to say, “Stop being mean to yourself,” in a kind tone, then changing the subject. I’ve never had it not shut down self depreciating talk.

    1. Lil Fidget*

      I like this because it short cuts the “I’m so terrible! / Nono you’re wonderful!” dance that is exhausting OP and not helping Sonja. It’s hard to find the right script to exit this dance in a compassionate way.

    2. Laurel*

      I like this too. Of course the kind tone would be key. I once had a professor exasperatedly tell me “Stop apologizing for existing!!” I immediately apologized for that… but it stuck with me and I (mostly) stopped that sort of behavior.

    3. tigerlily*

      I’ve told friends of mine that can be particularly hard on themselves that no one gets to talk about my friends that way around me, even themselves.

  18. JB (not in Houston)*

    I totally get why the coworker does this, but it is exhausting. It’s why I ended up being annoyed by Ruby on the season of the Great British Bake Off that she was on. I felt for her and saw so much of myself in her when I was her age, but boy did it get exhausting to watch when she presented baked good after baked good and preemptively declared it to be complete garbage before the judges had even cut into it. OP, it’s very kind of you to want to help, and you must have a lot of patience not to have snapped at her by now. And I say that as someone who was like her to a lesser degree when I was younger. Alison has good advice here, and I hope it helps.

    1. Reba*

      OOF yes poor Ruby.

      In her case it seemed clear that it wasn’t about fishing for reassurance, but she truly had that veil of depression/low self-esteem drawn over her eyes. She had talent but that was really how she saw things. I related to her (past me) too.

      1. JB (not in Houston)*

        Yep, I could see exactly where she was in her head. I know when I was in that mindset, I not only wasn’t doing it for reassurance or for ego strokes, I didn’t *want* people to try to reassure me. I was convinced I was right, and if they tried to reassure me or tell me I was wrong, I felt like they weren’t listening to me and were doomed to be disappointed in me.

      2. Specialk9*

        Oh gosh yes! I feel bad for her at first, and then eventually was tired of being sucked into her Issues instead of just getting to watch baking. I hadn’t signed up for the All About Ruby Support And Sympathy Show. It’s a really good parallel to this situation, with a coworker one sympathizes with, a lot, but it has a strong ‘non-consensual unpaid therapist’ element when you just wanna do your damn work.

    2. OP*

      Oh my goodness! Yes – she is very much a Ruby. I felt a very similar mixture of sympathy and irritation watching that season of GBBO as I am feeling with Sonja. The difference here is that I am in a position to maybe do something to help, which is both positive and slightly daunting. I have come close to snapping at her, believe me. But I can remember how terrible being snapped at made ME feel back in the day (I already felt like my existence was naught but a burden for the world, and now someone was really truly actually annoyed by me… hello fuel for the self-esteem fire) and I really hope I can avoid it.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        In order to avoid snapping, you can plan your responses. She probably repeats remarks or makes parallel remarks often enough that you can plan out some possibilities of how to handle it that may actually help.

        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          Agreed! The best “snap out of it” talk I received was a firm but private conversation from a grad TA who pointed out that I apologize too often. I think I probably had annoyed her, but she waited until I repeated a remark after class to pull me aside.

  19. Tuesday Next*

    I’d go for a more neutral response. For example, if she says “I’m so slow”, I’d say “I don’t see that”. Telling her that she’s doing fine could create a cycle where she continues to look for your approval.

    That’s not to say that you shouldn’t compliment her work or give her positive feedback. But do that in response to her work and not her self-deprecating comments. And do it in a way that reinforces your relationship as her peer and not her superior.

  20. Cassandra*

    OP, if you do have the Impostor Syndrome conversation with Sonja and she wants to know more, consider the global Pinboard “impostorsyndrome” tag linked to my handle. Plenty of good chewy stuff in there.

    Included are several pieces that explain how inner “I suck” voices often result from serious, constant negativity from outside — if that turns out to be part of this, as it almost always is IME, such a reading might be extra-helpful.

  21. OP*

    Thank you Alison for answering my question. It has made me more determined to have a conversation with Sonja, and your suggested scripts strike the right balance between friendly and professional.

    It’s interesting to see a few people wonder if Sonja’s behaviour comes more from a desire for praise/ego-stroking than from genuine self-esteem issues. To me it appears crystal clear that it is the latter, but then again I’m aware that I might be projecting because of my own past issues! I think there are some great suggestions here in the comments for neutral language to use when responding to her which I will try and adopt, and hopefully I can make a coffee break chat happen soon too.

    1. knitcrazybooknut*

      Here’s a tactic: the next time she brushes off your compliment, ask her, “Do you not value my opinion?” When she looks horrified and protests, say, “When you disagree with my praise, that’s what it sounds like. Could you please accept my compliment next time?”

      It may get her to think about what she’s saying.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        When I give a compliment that gets blown off, I sometimes say, “All that was required there was a ‘thanks’, nothing else was needed.”

        1. Effie, who is worth it*

          Same. I do this with friends, not sure if I’m brave enough to say it to my coworkers!

    2. Liz2*

      As noted, it can be both- it can be a dysfunctional cycle where you both constantly seek others to do the burden of mirroring while simultaneously never trusting what they say. The “I’m so weird” line especially seeks to this because only people who are really worried and needing comforting feedback will throw that out there. As someone who leads a very alternative life, it makes me smile, tell them welcome to the party and move on.

      1. Specialk9*

        I don’t think it’s necessarily at all on purpose. I’m someone who needs head-pats, a lot, in life. Not from everyone, but from the important ones. When I didn’t know that about myself, I also didn’t know that’s what I was driven to get any way I could. When it’s all some vague inchoate moaning *void* inside, it can be hard to realize what you’re doing – but if running yourself down means someone says those words of praise and affirmation you desperately need, bing! Positive reinforcement, right there.

        Nowadays I have negotiated mechanisms for getting what I need, using my words. Eg ‘honey I need some head-pats, is it a good time for me to tell you something awesome I did and then you tell me it was awesome?’ It should be ridiculous, but it is exactly what I need, and he’s not flailing around trying to figure out what the hell I need this time, and we both walk away with big satisfied smiles.

    3. Marthooh*

      Hi, OP!

      I think you already wrote the best possible script:

      “But her constant negativity is draining and the overwhelming gratitude makes me very uncomfortable because it is so unnecessary. This is a joint project which needs both of our skill sets to be successful! I’m not doing Sonja a favor, we’re collaborating.”

      Edit a few words and you’re good to go.

  22. Not a Morning Person*

    There are so many good suggestions here and I really like the helpful and gentle advice to keep up the encouragement. I have not read all of the comments, so forgive the repetition if this has already been suggested. I had a coworker who did very similar behavior. She was a “helper” and very caring person whose previous manager was very abrupt and critical and never had a compliment to spare. After working with her for awhile and hearing her deny every compliment or encouraging comment, I took the opportunity to point out to her that she had the habit of pushing back when people gave her compliments or positive feedback. I said to her, “Do you know what is the only appropriate thing to say when someone says something nice to you about your work or something you did?” She said she didn’t, so I said, “You say, ‘thank you’, and that’s all.” It was a lesson I learned a long time ago. And it didn’t help me follow it right away and it didn’t help her right away, but after that conversation, I could good-naturedly tease her when she started denying a compliment: “Now, now, what are you supposed to say?” And she’d smile and say “Thank you!” And we’d laugh. And over time she began to be quicker to say “Thank you,” to praise and compliments. It’s a habit and it takes effort and with practice you may be able to help her recognize and mitigate some of that response. Good luck!

    1. crookedfinger*

      I used to be that way. One day someone asked why I was arguing with their opinion (by denying it) and there was a light bulb moment up in my head.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      Good stuff.
      I had someone say this to me when I started working and in turn I have said it to others.

      Yes, there is that component of swallowing our self doubt, but reality is that a great many people question themselves often times in an UNfair manner.

      One thing I thought was that if we do not learn to accept compliments graciously, then we do not learn to calm our self-doubting.
      At some point, we have to earn a living because we need food and lodging. To convince cohorts that we are of no value is endangering ourselves of being homeless and hungry. Maybe some of this baseline stuff will motivate your coworker to rope in the comments.

  23. crookedfinger*

    I’ve had some pretty good results just by asking “why do you think that?” + real life example disproving their self-deprecating comment.

    “Ugh, I’m so slow at learning this!” “Why do you think that?” “It’s taken me 3 months just to remember where X is.” “Shoot, it took me like 6 months to reliably remember that. 3 months is speedy!”

  24. Manager-at-Large*

    Sometimes you can address this from the side with a remark like “you know, when I was starting out and everything was new, my boss would give me tasks that seemed way over my head – what I did though was trust that my boss was competant than I was at evaluating my skills and knowing what the task needed, he wouldn’t give me someething I couldn’t handle, and he would give me feedback if I started to go off course. I’ve found that people here are that way too.”

    Another sideways approach is to find an article on the web or a TED talk – and bring it up in casual conversation “I read this / saw this link on FB – and it was really interesting about how we learn new things and gain confidence in new skills. I think you might like it too.”

    1. Not So NewReader*

      It is true that experienced managers can see who will eventually catch on and who won’t. They very seldom make mistakes once they learn what to watch for.
      I have been both the speaker and the listener for this statement: “No, you will get this. You will be okay.”
      Sometimes we have to trust other people’s judgement that they see we are getting enough right and the rest will fall in place as we go along.

  25. Erso*

    My imposter syndrome would basically present as saying something that was down on my own skills, recognizing that it was probably imposter syndrome talking — but not being sure — and then looking for reassurance that it WAS the imposter syndrome talking and that I really did know how to do something. Lather, rinse, repeat. I couldn’t trust my own brain to tell me the truth. I’ve since gotten on anti-anxiety medication and the trust is now building. It’s not all the way there yet, but I definitely feel more confident in my ability to recognize when the bad part of my brain is trying to win the argument over the good part of my brain.

    1. Specialk9*

      I call that voice in my head the evil worm. It says things that aren’t true, and that prey on my doubts. Something about naming the evil worm has taken away much of its power. (I’d say removed its fangs, but that’s mixing snakes and worms and no good.) And by naming it, I can hear that its voice is different from my pen, which makes it even easier to filter out.

  26. Shoe*

    I have a coworker who does this to some extent, and then I feel like I have to do it back! And then we get into this weird spiral of how both of us are somehow dumb/unqualified. And neither is freaking true!

    In my case, because of my workplace culture and because I’m actually friends with my coworker, I started just saying, in a joking way, “You’re so full of s**t” whenever she said something about her limited abilities. This started being my go-to response, and I’d just leave it at that. It made it so that I wasn’t really reassuring her, just calling out what she was doing in a fun way (this is an acceptable way to talk to each other in my office, but I realize some places may be more formal). I found it really turned around the conversation. YMMV with the swearing but you could say “you’re full of it” or something else.

  27. Not So NewReader*

    OP, I have trained a lot of people. The most worrisome people were the ones who were very confident. Typically those folks were the ones who made the biggest errors. They are also the same people who tell me they are working very hard. Sure, that is why you did 4 teapots all day and everyone else did between 350 and 400.

    I am saying this to point out of the two extremes, I would rather deal with a person who did not have confidence. At least they will check their own work because they are sure they made a mistake.

    Which brings me to my point. One of the best tools I have found is to teach people how to double check their own work. Sometimes you can leave a sample. Sometimes you can show them how to crosscheck in some manner. Other times it’s just a matter of reading it twice. But I am a big fan of showing people how to double check. I used to tell them double check yourself before you show me. This worked so well, they could work through their mistakes and show me a finished item that was totally correct. They did not have to worry about embarrassing themselves.

    Another thing you can point out is to say that it is fine to ask questions when in doubt. But it does not have to involve berating one’s self.

    1. Story Nurse*

      Yes, objective measurements of quality, speed, etc. really help! Especially if you set them in advance. “Sonja, on our next project, it would be great if you could finish thirty rows of data entry by Thursday. Will that work for you?” And then she will do it and both of you will have concrete evidence of her competence to wave in the face of the “you’re so useless” brain worms.

  28. This Daydreamer*

    My instinct would be to start with a short conversation about imposter syndrome, maybe with a good source of information to explain it. After that, keep complimenting her whenever she does something good, then quickly assuring her that you meant it when she starts getting negative and then changing the subject. Go into your interactions with her cheerfully, matter-of-factly, and with the basic assumption that of course she’s great at her job so there’s no need to dwell on it. Absolutely keep telling her that she’s doing a great job but change the subject before it gets into a long conversation about whether or not she did well.

    Someone earlier mentioned blaming imposter syndrome every time Sonja bashes herself and I like the idea.

    “Fantastic job putting that report today. Thanks for giving me time to prepare for the meeting next week.”

    “Thanks but I really feel like I botched the charts.”

    “That’s just the imposter syndrome. The charts were great. Now let’s work on that meeting.”

  29. buttercup*

    OMG this really could have been about me. The only reason I know it isn’t is because I’m consciously now steering away from saying things like what the OP quoted. Just a couple of years ago, I behaved exactly like Sonja. Now I still think like her, but know to consciously swallow my thoughts because I’m aware now they make me sound unprofessional. I still say “Sorry” a bit too much.

  30. Zip*

    I feel for the OP. I once worked briefly with someone like Sonja who would preface every question with “This is a REALLY stupid question, but…” even though they were run-of-the-mill new person questions. It was like she constantly had to be told she was ok. If I’d worked with her longer, I likely would have told her straight up that her constant self-deprecation wasn’t doing her any favors. As it was, I didn’t say anything, but good grief that type of insecurity gets on your nerves. I kept thinking, I’m sorry you’re so insecure, but its really your issue to deal with, not everyone else’s.

    1. Lady Ariel Ponyweather*

      She probably worked for or grew up with people who mocked her for asking questions. I had a job where I was called stupid for not knowing things I couldn’t possibly have known. It’s a hard thing to get over. Not saying it doesn’t get on other people’s nerves, but this is really common and I’ve noticed it far more in girls/women than boys/men.

      If you come across this again, you can say something like “Definitely not stupid, here’s the answer” or “Better to ask a question than make assumptions, here’s the answer”.

  31. Tad03102*

    I had no idea there was a term for this, I feel like this all the time. Complements.often sound like lies or just something the person is saying to make me feel better.

    Does anyone know where I can find more information on this topic? Maybe some resources on overcoming the self-doubt, or at least gaining a little more control over it?

    1. Lady Ariel Ponyweather*

      I’ve written out this comment and come back to put the big thing at the top: You don’t have to make this journey alone. If the source of your beliefs about yourself are too big for you to face, look into finding a professional to work with. And if you feel the source of your problems is silly or trivial, it’s not. If it’s had a detrimental effect on you, then it’s important and needs to be dealt with. If the professional does not take your issues seriously or dismisses them, leave and find someone else.

      People have mentioned Captain Awkward as being a great resource, so you could start there. When I started on this journey, it was a combination of seeing a psychologist and self-help books. I’m hesitant to recommend any, partly because of the negative reaction to self-help books (which is warranted much of the time). But the ones that worked for me pretty much offered the standard/basic psychological techniques. They weren’t that out there: you didn’t have to work with the angels or anything like that. They also clearly stated you didn’t have to agree with everything the author said and to take only what resonated with you. That helped me a lot because there was far less pressure to ‘get things right’.

      You can look up cognitive behavioural therapy techniques as well, and see if there are any that work for you. One of the exercises that worked really well for me was proving what I was thinking in the manner of a scientific experiment. So for example, for the statement “That person doesn’t mean the compliment they gave me, they’re just lying”, I would have to prove it. I remember the worksheet was something like:

      Aim: To prove this person is just saying nice things to make me feel better.

      Method: Since I can’t see inside this person’s head, I’ll make a list of what I know of this person to see if this is true. For example: Person informed their co-worker that the co-worker made a mistake; that they were an honest person generally; one time I saw this person tell a cashier when they’d paid too little for their shopping, etc.

      Result: There are several items on this list that show this person is honest and truthful, and does not waste time or energy saying things they don’t mean.

      Conclusion: This person’s compliments about me were genuine.

      I remember filling out one of these worksheets and starting to giggle uncontrollably. I still don’t know why. It was funny to me, but not a self-deprecating way. I was all, well, can’t argue with science! And then I could focus on the next step.

      This will be a lifelong journey, in a way, but I promise you that if you start now and do a tiny little bit every day, you will be amazed at your progress. There will be times when it’s two steps forward, one step back. It’s frustrating but that’s part of it. So be kind to yourself as well.

      That’s all I can think of for now, but hope it gives you a starting point. Sending you all the good thoughts. You can do it!

      1. Tad03102*

        Thank you for taking the time to share your recommendations and advice. It’s already helped me and I am sure it will help me a lot more as I look into this more.

        1. Lady Ariel Ponyweather*

          Wonderful! So glad to hear it’s helped. Congratulations on taking the first step – it’s a cliche, but it is the hardest. Now you’ve got it out of the way, you can take the next one. Sending you all the luck, you’re going to do great! I know it!

  32. Chaordic One*

    I too, had a Sonja for a friend.

    The thing that I noticed was that there other various “mean girls” in the office who were always gas-lighting her and undermining her confidence. She’d a fine job on something and then they’d tell her how awful she was and that she’d been rude to the client. (Sonja handn’t been rude to the client.) Anyway, they played that poor girl like a fiddle and she didn’t know if she was coming or going.

    I tried to be reassuring to Sonja and would tell her that she was doing a fine job, but it was about all I could do under the circumstances.

    1. Zip*

      Wow, the “mean girls” in your office sound really sadistic. I’m glad your “Sonja” had you on her side!

    2. Lady Ariel Ponyweather*

      You probably did more than you realised. Having someone say, “Nah, you’re good, they’re just garbage” makes a huge difference. Thanks for being a good friend!

    3. Corisande*


      This is currently what I’m going through. It’s completely demoralizing and soul-destroying. I don’t exhibit Sonja’s outward self-flagellation, but my self-esteem is at an all-time low, despite my supervisors being happy with my work. But like Sonja, I definitely feel absurdly grateful to anyone who ISN’T being a jerk to me.

      1. Lady Ariel Ponyweather*

        It’s absolutely disgraceful that people are treating you this way. Some people are just straight-up evil and if your bosses aren’t willing to help you, I hope you get a better job soon. You don’t deserve this kind of treatment at all. If you’re having trouble talking to your boss about this, keep a diary of what goes on. Having something written down can help get across the seriousness of the situation. Good luck, hope everything improves soon, you are great!

  33. atma*

    I think this hasn’t been mentioned, so I’ll put this out there. Sometimes living with an abuser can do this to you – when your every action and word is questioned, eventually it will wear you down and begin to accept that view of yourself. I think it’s very cruel to describe that as fishing for compliments, it’s a coping mechanism, and it’s very difficult to break.
    Alison’s strategies will work, but it can be helpful to remember this aspect in order to stay compassionate oneself

      1. IDeas*

        This is what I came here to say, basically. She sounds like a survivor of or someone currently living with abuse. It’s awkward to recommend therapy at work, of course, but therapy is what would help if this is the case. Hotline poster in the washroom, just in case it’s happening now?

        1. Lady Ariel Ponyweather*

          Oh, that’s a good idea. It can’t hurt, and maybe there are other employees who would be helped by it.

  34. Lady Ariel Ponyweather*

    I’ve been both in your and Sonja’s position, and will say you can absolutely be compassionate and helpful while setting clear boundaries and explaining how this is affecting you. You can’t change Sonja, only she can do that. She also isn’t going to change overnight. If you notice that she’s making an effort, let her know: “Hey, you’re saying ‘sorry’ less often, good job” or whatever it might be. It might tough at first, but with compassion for yourself and her, you’ll have a more pleasant workplace (and possibly an amazing friend for life, who knows). Good luck!

  35. anonagain*

    I have rejected compliments and realized that I had genuinely hurt the person I was speaking to. If I’m stupid and they can’t even do the thing they just complimented me on, where does that leave them? It wasn’t my intention to hurt anyone and I genuinely didn’t think of others in those terms, of course. I was just too absorbed in my own insecurity to consider anyone but myself.

    I also realized that my students saw me as a role model and I didn’t want to teach them to diminish themselves. (It also made my heart ache to hear some of the brightest, most creative, funniest, all around greatest kids I’ve ever met call themselves stupid.)

    I was unsuccessful for years in changing my negative thoughts and feelings about my abilities. Considerations about how my competence would be perceived by managers or professors also weren’t terribly motivating to me. I believed I was incompetent, so of course my superiors would see that.

    What I absolutely didn’t want was to encourage self-loathing in others or to suggest to anyone that I thought they were stupid. Once I realized that in calling myself stupid, slow, etc. I was inadvertently doing just that, it became surprisingly easy for me to stop vocalizing those self-denigrating thoughts.

    Perhaps based on what the LW knows of Sonja, suggesting that this behavior can be hurtful to other people can prompt her to change. Sonja might also consider that in her career she will probably be a role model to others at some point, perhaps without realizing. There may even be people who look to her now.

  36. alana*

    I’m having this issue with a direct report, so I was so glad to see this letter. She’s a new hire (in the past six weeks) and she’s doing, by any objective standard, a great job. She’s hardworking, eager to learn, already doing good work, developing the skills she needs, etc. But she is convinced that she’s failing, super slow, asks stupid questions, is always bothering people, and so on. (I suspect this is a hangover from a Toxic Job past.)

    I’ve been reluctant to have a Big Talk with her because she’s so new, and I don’t want to reinforce her belief that she’s doing poorly — so I’ve just addressed it in the moment as Allison suggests, but I’m really glad to see an acknowledgment of what an emotional drain it can be. I’m a little burned out anyway and trying very hard as a manager to overcome being too nice in general (I know nice isn’t helpful, direct and kind is helpful) but I’ve found myself shortchanging her on attention and feedback because I just don’t want to deal with it.

  37. Ealasaid*

    Another recovering impostor syndrome person here.

    When my IS was really bad, I actually lost tiny bits of respect for people who complimented me (or convinced myself that I had tricked them somehow, so their compliment was based on a fiction). I actually thought less of Stanford when they accepted my grad school application. Seriously. Just complimenting someone a lot won’t fix IS. I didn’t make progress on mine until I started addressing other mental issues in therapy. Even if the coworker does have IS, OP isn’t going to be able to fix it.

    What OP might be able to do is address the behavior. When my friends are hard on themselves or say negative things about themselves, I say a variation of, “hey! don’t trash-talk my friend!” I wouldn’t let anybody else trash-talk them, I’m not going to listen to them doing it either. The next time it happens, I can interrupt with a cheerful “hey, we talked about this!” and just change the subject. Don’t let them apologize excessively either, just move the conversation forward as if they never derailed it.

    Not sure how well this approach would work in a country that’s big on self-deprecation, but surely there’s a line between socially expected self-deprecation and insulting yourself?

  38. TV producer*

    Wow, I’d never heard of imposter syndrome before. The whole time I was reading this question I was horrified it was about me–I’m so guilty of this. I never realized how draining it could be on other people. I’m the queen of giving too much thanks, over-apologizing, and giving a pre-cursor or qualification to almost every question or statement I make. I exhaust myself sometimes, so I guess I can understand how it’s tiring for co-workers. I’ve finally nailed the “saying thank-you for a compliment” bit, and am working hard on my self-deprecation.

    I had a co-worker who was a kind of manic pixie dream girl, very LA cool chick. She had the most interesting life story (lived in a trailer in the desert with her family, then on a private airstrip where her dad’s crop dusting planes were kept, she was a mechanic for them; drove a fertilizer truck; became an acclaimed chef; now works in TV) and was a total no-BS kind of girl. She would call me out every time I started to display symptoms of imposter syndrome, but she would also help talk me through why I felt the way that I did. We really examined the psychology behind it and worked to use positive language in our interactions. She went above and beyond, and I don’t think it is necessarily the right solution if you’re not particularly close with your co-worker, but sometimes just saying, “hey, I’ve noticed X, Y and Z…why do you think this is happening?” is helpful. Now that I have self-awareness of it I can work hard to fix it.

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