Handling Imposter Syndrome

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Imposter syndrome is a very common problem in the technology realm. My husband himself is currently going through that I think – he’s at a new job learning a new language and was worried maybe he wasn’t learning it quickly enough, or good enough to be an expert (he’s been there a month). The concept has been around for a while, but I really feel like it’s started to come to prominence just in the past year or so.

The phenomena was first described in 1978, in an article entitled, The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention, followed 150 women with advanced degrees who all believed it was luck or a mistake. The paper in fact asserts that, “…success for women is contraindicated by societal expectations and their own internalized self-evaluations, it is not surprising that women in our sample need to find explanation for their accomplishments other than their own intelligence – such as fooling other people.”

In case you were curious, the study also noted that this phenomena was experienced by men, although with less frequency. I think this might have been a product of it being the 70s, and it’s something felt near equally at this point in time. This sentiment is reaffirmed in Slate’s 2016 article. In fact, some people even assert that experiencing Imposter Syndrome is a show of humility, and good mentally. Helen Mirren, who of course is well known for her pithy insights into humanity (or maybe it’s her acting), asserts “It would be wrong to think that you’re always right and correct and perfect and brilliant. Self-doubt is the thing that drives you to try to improve yourself” (cf. Famous Women on Imposter Syndrome and Self-Doubt).

Irrespective of whether men feel it equally, it seems that most articles about it are geared towards women, who may feel it more deeply and acutely in STEM fields as a result of other prejudices. So how do you deal with it? How do you get past the feelings of inadequacy?

Maybe it’s not such a bad thing to have some self-doubt.

Not to be crippled by it, of course, but to keep striving to be better while simultaneously acknowledging skills that you do have.

Other articles have focused on talking to your colleagues at work about it, reframing your mindset to focus on positive aspects (“I’m going to learn a lot” vs “I can’t believe I don’t know anything about this”), and remembering that others feel similarly (cf. Why Women Experience ‘Imposter Syndrome’, and How to Beat it). One article developed a 7-pronged approach to combat the problem.

  • Find a wingwoman
  • Squash negative self-talk
  • Stop letting screw-ups hurt your self-confidence
  • Psych yourself up
  • Visualize success
  • Overprepare for the task at hand
  • Unsubscribe from doubt

Source: Seven Ways I’ve Learned from Other Women to Fight Imposter Syndrome

I think these are good approaches, but I don’t know if they are enough. I think it’s important to acknowledge the feelings that you’re having and try to understand what the motivation is behind it. And not the generic, “I don’t feel qualified,” but what specifically makes you feel like a failure. Are you comparing yourself to another individual? I do that all the time. And you know what – I’m not going to know as much as coworker A who has 15 years experience in the field and likes to build programs in their spare time. Do you feel like your quality is not good? You can take some extra classes, feel a little bit more prepared. Do you think that you aren’t learning something new quickly enough? Try and figure out how long it takes people to figure out x,y, or z.

I deal with imposter syndrome every day. I’m about to start a new job with a new tech stack, and I’m terrified I won’t be able to measure up. Perhaps my success at my previous job was just a fluke. And that’s a common feeling in tech because THERE'S SO MUCH TECH OUT THERE. Nobody is going to know all of it, or be experienced with most of it. But I find if I can pinpoint the specificity of my stressor, I can better address it. Sure, use the other approaches – particularly finding other people to talk to, and realizing that mistakes are a part of life. But dealing with a miasma of self-doubt can be difficult. Narrow it down and approach it methodically.

And remember - sometimes aphorisms can screw with your head. Just listen to Julien Danjou.

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