My gut was screaming, “This isn’t me!” And yet every day I put on a mask – the face of someone who wanted to be there. I felt like a fake at work, and it sucked.
We’ve all been there. That awesome outfit in the trendy shop that you just know is going to look and feel great to wear.
Except when you try it on, it doesn’t.
It doesn’t fill you with confidence. It doesn’t match or say anything about your personal sense of style. In fact, it’s embarrassingly awful.
It’s very unlikely that if you were trying on such an outfit, in a shop, or looking at it online, you would consider buying it. In fact, you’d probably whip it off in record time and scurry out of the shop as quickly as possible.
And yet, somehow, when it comes to your career, you’ve somehow ended up tolerating, accepting, perhaps for a long time now, work that doesn’t suit you.
And when this happens, there’s this awful feeling that comes along with it, isn’t there? When you show up, every day, in this outfit of a career that doesn’t suit you, you feel like a fake at work.
This isn’t imposter syndrome. This isn’t about worrying whether you’re ‘good enough’ in your role (although perhaps there’s a little bit of that mixed in there too).
This is about having to show up every day, as someone that’s not really you.
It’s about there being a huge gap between who you are when you’re at work, and who you are the rest of the time.
Over time, it becomes excruciating…
Why it hurts to feel like a fake at work
1. Poorly fitting work is an energy vampire
Pouring energy into maintaining a version of you that’s not authentic, and doesn’t feel good, really damages the energy you have available more generally, both at work, and outside of it.
When you’re in a role that isn’t lighting you up, bringing you into flow, using your talents and skills in a way that feels really good, it sucks energy away from you.
You’re probably getting home, feeling exhausted, deflated, at best apathetic about your day, and possibly downright negative about it. I know I did before I made my shift.
You might find that you’re simply too tired to do anything much with your evening. Instead of engaging with your partner over dinner, socialising, or spending time on a much-loved hobby, you can probably just about manage a Netflix binge and a moan.
The last thing you want to think about is meeting an exciting new contact for coffee, or taking part in a new activity that might bring an influx of inspiration into your world.
On the other hand, when you do work that feels like a good fit for you, when you’re engaged and in flow, enjoying your work environment and looking forward to being there, energy flows to you.
I know I feel this way about my work now. And my coaching clients report similar feelings when they discover work they’re excited about: they talk about a ‘bath bomb’ feeling of ‘fizzy’ excitement, or a sense of feeling lighter, and lifted. You become more animated when you talk about it; your whole physical bearing shows the increased energy that’s humming inside you.
Work that suits you becomes something that you want to think about during your time off, and often gives you a little frisson of excitement when you do.
But when your work feels the complete opposite of that, it leaves you feeling drained, depleted and deeply uncomfortable.
2. You get a Popeye arm (or legs, or whatever)
If you’re anything like I was, you’re probably using some skills at work that you’re pretty good at, and yet somehow it’s still confusingly unsatisfying.
It’s not that you’re not good at these things, you are. You might even be doing quite well at work. Perhaps you’re getting positive feedback, or even promotions or pay rises.
I remember my former boss telling me that my particular skill set was “essential to the company”, that they “couldn’t do without me”. And while I was flattered by this, I also felt a profound mismatch between what she said, and what I felt.
It took me a long time to connect the dots between being unhappy and the reasons I was unhappy.
After a while I realised it was because it felt like I was doing a job that only used a fraction of the whole me, let’s call it my left arm.
That one arm was getting intensively exercised, daily. Quite frankly it was being overworked. It was tired. And it was starting to get resentful.
I had this one, super-strong, Popeye-like arm. While the rest of me atrophied.
I had so much more to offer. I had so many other skills and passions that I wanted to use. And because my role only gave me an outlet for one, it felt as though perhaps I wasn’t good enough at those other things for them to be ‘allowed’ out to play.
My confidence took a huge hit.
It’s really hard to admit that. Because, on some level I chose that work. It was a career I’d invested a lot in training for, and a particular role that I’d fallen into, almost by accident, and then decided to accept. I thought I’d wanted this.
It was hard to believe that I’d chosen a role that let so much of me go to waste.
And if you feel like a fake at work, I wonder if you might be nodding along to this too.
3. Your Superman (or woman) is sleepy
In the Superman movies, Clark Kent isn’t the main character. Superman is.
It’s not Clark Kent putting on the outfit to become Superman. It’s the other way round. Superman puts on the suit and the nerdy glasses, and ‘becomes’ Clark Kent.
He goes into the Daily Planet and performs a role: an awkward, unsure, sidelined employee, a fraction of the man we all know he is inside.
That’s kind of what you’re doing too.
And because you’ve been doing it for so long, you’ve probably forgotten what it feels like to be ‘super’.
All your deepest values, relegated to the shadows. Pushed down as you put on your work self and trudge through another day’s performance.
To know that you’re hiding, but maybe not exactly ‘what’ you’re hiding — that’s a recipe for discomfort. It’s no wonder that the work you and the real you feel like they’re so far apart.
That gap hurts. It means there’s a deep lack of alignment between who you are on the inside and who you get to show up as on the outside.
4. Because if this isn’t you, then who the f*** are you?
You may have a very clear sense that you feel like a fake at work.
But if not this, then what? Who are you, if this work isn’t you?
Big, hairy questions. Each tied deeply to your sense of identity, of self, and each capable of pulling the rug out from underneath you.
You may know that you feel like a fake at work. But to be able to move forward from it, you have to know what is the authentic version of you, and what it wants.
Where you are now, that isn’t clear.
And frankly it’s about a billion times easier, even if it’s uncomfortable, to not look those scary questions in the eye.
So, what do you do about it?
How to feel better
1. Play self-sneak at work
Look for ways that you can bring a little bit of who you are outside work, into your job with you.
Bringing something of the real you, whether it’s sharing a hobby that you love, or an aspect of your character that you don’t normally let out to play at the office, can have a really profound effect on the level of authenticity you feel when you’re at work.
2. Rugby tackle your energy barrier
This is where I’m going to ask you to trust me.
When you get home from work and you feel exhausted from not being the real you all day, find something, dig deep to do something, go somewhere, try out something, that you’re actually quite excited about.
This doesn’t have to be connected to a career idea.
Just something that lets you feel like you’re having real, true fun, and leaves you (hopefully) a little bit inspired.
Maybe you’re a lawyer. And being a lawyer you don’t get to use your creative side at all. When you get home every day, you’re exhausted. All you want to do is sit down with a glass of wine and numb yourself in front of the TV.
But because you’re deciding to push through and do something new, you book yourself in at a beginners’ pottery class at the local college. You push through the tiredness and you go.
At the class you get to make things with your actual hands. The feeling of the wet smooth clay on the potter’s wheel reminds you of time happily spent clay modelling with your grandparents. You connect with something playful inside. Soon you’re laughing and joking with the other students, and you light up…
Feel the difference in energy that comes when you allow that unused part of you to come out to play. You’ll get back all the energy you thought you were lacking, and more besides.
3. Cast off
Start the process of understanding who the real you is.
When you do that, you’ll not only understand more deeply why your current job feels so out of whack with who you are, but you’ll also get clearer on what you do want instead.
It’s not a quick process, but it is a worthwhile one.
When you do it, it will open up opportunities and experiences to you that you never would have thought possible.
And when you do find work you love?
It feels like moving with your whole body. And it’s a relief, an actual physical relief.
4. Practise being vulnerable.
You can’t have one without the other.
And being vulnerable can feel scary.
Showing up as yourself requires a level of courage: to be seen as you really are, and to face the fear of being rejected.
Yet when you can do it, you create the conditions for a deeper level of connection. Between you and others. And between you and yourself.
And that’s a powerful place to be conducting your career change from.
What happens when you try these approaches? Let me know!
If you’re ready to not feel like a fake at work anymore and move into work that feels more you, I can help. Find out more about my Elite Squad, the one-on-one, superhero-in-training career change coaching experience that will take you from ‘no clue’ to feeling clear, confident, and on your way to work that you’re genuinely excited about. Click / Tap here to find out more.