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Adapting,  Confessions,  Living Abroad

Confessions: Feeling Imposter Syndrome at Work (While Living Abroad)

Dear Sophia,

While I am sure this is something that impacts many people working around the world, my experience with imposter syndrome is intimately linked with living and working abroad. This is because I not only question myself and my own abilities but I also question my ability to fit into the country and company culture while abroad. This puts me in a situation where if I feel that something is off or that I am doing something wrong, I immediately question my skills and understanding not only of the task at hand but also the situation surrounding it. Let me dive a bit deeper…


Imposter syndrome

Something that you can read about anywhere these days, imposter syndrome is the feeling that you don’t really know what you are doing and you are faking it. In other words, you are just pretending to be able to do something. I also relate it to the Dunning–Kruger effect, where those who know only a little about a subject think they know quite a lot and those who are more knowledgeable are more critical of their abilities. In this case, those who know enough to get the job done might question their own skills more than others.

Woman works at a computer with notes and a cup of coffee next to her. Now, on one hand, if your skills are “good enough” to fake it till you make it, I think pushing yourself outside your comfort zone is a great way to learn and grow. I have definitely taken jobs where I was sure I knew what I was doing and was thrown a bit of a curve ball when I started. I have also started positions where I wasn’t sure I was qualified and, in the end, everything was fine. So, a willingness to step outside of my own comfort zone and expectations has worked, overall, to my benefit. Personally, I also value working hard, asking for help when I need it, and underpromising if I am not sure I can make it (and overdelivering if I can).

Still, there are days (both in previous jobs and my current one) when I question what I am doing and why I even thought I was the right person for the job. I think this is normal and can be a bit healthy⁠⁠⁠—especially in comparison to being overly sure of myself. However, we get into dangerous territory if that becomes a negative, downward spiral of self-doubt and questioning. In these cases, I find that seemingly simple things like sending an email, which might normally take ten minutes, can take an hour to write.

In this way, to me, imposter syndrome leads me down a winding hole where I question what I am doing and how I am doing it. This way of thinking does not benefit me because it stresses me out, and it is detrimental to the company because I am not able to get my work done. Now, I know that many people feel these things and are trying to battle these feelings but before I give you my personal tips, I want to also share why the country and company culture impact these feelings.


Country culture

I am a full believer that every country has its own “norms” in the sense that people who are brought up in that country (or even a specific region) have certain expectations on how things should be done. That doesn’t mean that there is only one right way to do things or that everyone does them that way, but that there is a general expectation of how things are “normally” done. What makes this extra difficult is that these norms are rarely expressed in common society or even in employee handbooks because they are viewed as normal within the general culture and, therefore, often overlooked when explaining how things are done.

Camera next to images of famous places from different European countriesFor example, my experience working in a Finnish company has shown me that there is a norm where employees are expected to say if they have too much work and are overwhelmed. If there is a need to work overtime, employees will articulate that and ensure that it is the right step to take (expecting appropriate compensation of course). This is very different from other cultures where one might be expected to work overtime to get the work done or those where the management team is expected to watch over the employees to ensure that no one is feeling overwhelmed.

These differences in expectations can set us up for a bumpy ride if we are not prepared for them because we will not only question the work itself (and if we are up for the task) but how we are interacting with our native colleagues. Of course, I also want to point out that these are often things that we don’t think about until we are put in the uncomfortable situation of feeling like we have done something wrong. And our native coworkers will probably only notice that the “foreigner is doing something odd,” not that the norms are not aligning.

The misalignment of expectations around working hours and output came up for a team in a company I was working with, but only after it had reached a bit of a breaking point. That doesn’t mean it is unresolvable, but it does make it much more difficult to come to a shared understanding than if we would have aligned on these common practices earlier on.


Company culture

Just like with country cultures, all organizations have their own cultures where there are certain expectations or norms about how things are carried out and done. This company culture is more likely to be written down and shared with employees through formal means such as a company handbook. If they are not shared formally, they may also be shared informally by people who talk before meetings begin or gather around the proverbial water filter.

Connections between people.Company cultures are often impacted by the country they were founded in⁠—for example, the misalignment of expectations of working hours mentioned above is something related to company expectations of its employees that has been dictated by the place where it was founded. If the same company had been founded in another country, the norm about working hours could have been completely different.

Still, it is not always possible to know what the norms and expectations are of the company you are working in and it can often be frustrating trying to understand the “right” way of doing things. In these cases, it is usually unintentional when the company, your manager, or whoever is showing you around is unclear about what things are done and why. Very often, these points do not come up in interviews or first meetings but are something that you have to learn over time. This is because it is hard to establish and communicate a company culture, so, many times it is left more to the possibilities of learning on the fly or “fitting in” than explicit explanation.


My tips on dealing with imposter syndrome

1.) Ask about the norms or company culture

Although the company might not know how to answer you, asking about the company culture is a key way to ensure that you know you are following the expectations of those around you. This, in turn, will help you feel like less of an outsider (or incompetent member of the team) when going about your daily tasks. If you know what you are supposed to do, as long as you are sufficiently capable of doing it, you will be okay.

2.) Evaluate your capabilities and ask for help

In the case that you are unsure about something or unable to do it yourself, you have two main options: try to do it to the best of your ability any way or ask for help. Some people will see asking for help as a weakness but I believe that asking for help is actually a strength because it shows those around you that you are not going to waste their time if you don’t know. That is not to say that you should be asking for help on every task, but if you are working hard and doing your best, asking for help on occasion should not hurt your reputation and you don’t have to worry so much about doing things wrong.

3.) Check your results (and the reactions of others)

On more than one occasion, my imposter syndrome has been lodged in my own brain and no one else saw it nor did they notice anything wrong with my work. In these cases, I am often beating myself up about something or another that is not very relevant to the current situation and doesn’t impact my ability to do a good job.

It is equally possible that I think I am doing a good job but am making mistakes as I go along. The best way to know what path you are on is to check the reactions of others when they see the finished product but also how they react to you when they see you. Checking how your results fit the expectations and how others take it is a good way to know if the feelings you have correspond to what is going on around you or if it is just happening in your own head.

4.) Give yourself a break

Both in the sense that everyone makes mistakes and that you don’t have to be perfect, remember that you are allowed to do some things sub-perfect (in fact, I believe most things are, despite what people want you to believe). Making mistakes is perfectly normal and happens to the smartest people, so if you have made a mistake⁠—even a big one⁠—celebrate with the knowledge that you will be unlikely to make the same one again.

In addition, no one is firing on all cylinders and performing 100% all the time. If you know someone who is, I would like to meet them. So, if you are having an off day, that is okay. Showing up and doing the day-to-day, menial tasks is all we can manage some of the time. The important thing is to be consistent and do what you can do. If you have a day of inspiration and productivity, by all means, use it to your full advantage. However, if you find yourself in the opposite situation, consider what you can do today to set yourself up for a better tomorrow.


Most people have probably felt imposter syndrome, at one time or another, even if they’d like you to believe that they haven’t, so, if it is something you have been feeling lately, you are in good company. And, if you happen to be living abroad, know that you are definitely not alone as we navigate the work world around us without knowing for sure how it is done here. As you learn and grow, you will develop skills and confidence that you are doing what you are meant to do. In the meantime, work hard and give yourself a break from time-to-time.



  • Wendy Shillam

    This blog gives good advice on imposter syndrome. We all feel it. But I’d add to the advice with this tip. If you are really unhappy in a job, or something doesn’t feel ‘right’ you can always leave. It’s always a gamble and if you do leave you’ll never know if you might have turned it around. But in my life when I have bowed out, I’ve always found it a very freeing experience and I’ve always found new challenges outside the box I’d placed around my career options or life plan. Remember, life will continue!

    • Sincerely, Spain

      Dear Wendy,
      You are absolutely right! Thank you for adding this piece of advice we overlooked. It is very important to remember that sometimes a job isn’t a good fit or that it is time to move on.

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