The Cure For Impostor Syndrome

Painting of monks praying and point as a man suffers and dies

We Suffer From Our Comparisons

  • Every single person I know has had it.
  • It can keep you awake at night.
  • It makes you timid when you should be bold.
  • It's the voice that convinces you to take the easy path.
    • Don't take risks.
    • Don't challenge the senior developer.
    • Don't go for that promotion.

Of course, I'm talking about Impostor Syndrome.

What Even Is Impostor Syndrome?

Impostor Syndrome runs rampant in our industry, preying on our fragile mental health. It's likely most frequently seen with junior developers, but I've seen it with mid levels and senior developers as well.

And, in a good team, it can be somewhat mitigated. There is a support structure of people who will reassure you that you're doing a good job. Or will make themselves a little bit vulnerable to show you that you're not alone. This is good healthy communication.

But not all teams are like that. In fact, that might be a bit of an exception. Too often, there are teams where people feel no obligation to reassure you, or worse they compensate for their own feelings of inadequacy by exacerbating yours.

Meme cartoon where three characters labeled as self doubt, social anxiety and feeling like a fraud bully a nameless fourth character. A fifth character labeled as Your Team offers a helping hand only to suplex the bullied character. Text at the bottom reads An Unsympathetic Team Can Make Things So Much Worse

So, the working definition for Impostor Syndrome is this (from Wikipedia):

Impostor Syndrome is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a "fraud".

And here is the rub - the root of Impostor Syndrome is disbelief in your own success. How does that happen? You're accomplishments are right there in the ol' resume. You can track through a long list of completed user stories. You can see old PRs of your contributions - and yet no matter what evidence is presented this feeling persists.

This is a defining symptom of Impostor Syndrome. the psychological journal verywellmind has an article that has the following bulleted list of characteristics:

  • Self-doubt
  • An inability to realistically assess your competence and skills
  • Attributing your success to external factors
  • Berating your performance
  • Fear that you won't live up to expectations
  • Overachieving
  • Sabotaging your own success
  • Setting very challenging goals and feeling disappointed when you fall short

Do any of these sound familiar? The fact is that we all experience some of this throughout our careers, but composed together we start to feel as though we are frauds.

What Causes It?

It comes from comparing yourself to others, not how they are but how you imagine them to be. There are so many tremendously smart people in tech, it's tempting to see them as giants. Like they, through 100% of their own merit, were given opportunities to work on new technologies and present themselves to the world. Even though many of them would be the first to deny this alt-version of themselves! People like Scott Hanselman are quick to remind others that he once stood where you are. Moreover, Dan Abramov directly addresses reality vs. hype for developer expertise in his blog post.

More common, but less obvious, is when you compare yourself to people whom you think you should have parity and are shocked when they have deep knowledge of something unfamiliar to you. This happens to all of us. How quick we are to scold ourselves for not making the same decisions, studying the same things, making the same sacrifices. We're not fair to ourselves.

And yet, it's useless to talk ourselves out of these feelings. It's a rare day when I can negotiate with my feelings regardless! I just hide the negative ones, same as you I expect.

In the Time article "How to Deal With Impostor Syndrome" Psychologist Audrey Ervine says

There’s no single answer. Some experts believe it has to do with personality traits—like anxiety or neuroticism—while others focus on family or behavioral causes, Sometimes childhood memories, such as feeling that your grades were never good enough for your parents or that your siblings outshone you in certain areas, can leave a lasting impact.

The verywellmind article further explains the causes of Impostor Syndrome.

We also know that entering a new role can trigger impostor syndrome. For example, starting college or university might leave you feeling as though you don't belong and are not capable.

Moreover, we learn that Social Anxiety Disorder and Impostor Syndrome overlap, which makes a lot of sense when you consider that Impostor Syndrome results in a great deal of anxiety regarding how we're perceived by others.

Wait, You Promised A Cure?

Yes, I did.

I'm sorry to say, but the "cure" takes a while. It comes in the form of constant affirmation. And, if you believe that you're experiencing this in conjunction with Social Anxiety Disorder, then additional steps might be needed.

Darth Vader stating to Boba Fett 'I have altered the deal, pray I do not alter it further'

The first thing you can do that really helps is talk to someone. This is why being on a team that offers that kind of support is important. If you feel safe talking to someone on your team, then much of this can be dispelled. Don't try to solo it! It's important to be honest with yourself and others.

Another thing you can do is to focus on other people who might be going through the same thing. I achieved this by becoming much more serious about mentoring. Teaching people how to code and mentoring junior developers helps me see how far I've come. At the same time, I can see where they might feel insecure and it's a good opportunity to listen and reassure them.

I strongly recommend if you're a junior developer - try teaching a curious friend the basics of coding. If your a mid level or senior then commit yourself to mentoring a junior developer. It can be a great reminder of the learning and leaps you've made since you began this journey when someone else is looking up to you. This is a good way to constructively assess your abilities.

I also recommend seeking out those stronger developers as mentors for yourself. Put yourself in a position to listen to them rather than compete with them. It's a joy to work with super competent people who care about their work and their team.

We are constantly comparing ourselves to others. It can't be helped! It's how our brains are wired, but if that's all you do then you'll fail to see your own progress. Even better though, as you continue to teach and mentor you'll see the people you boosted begin to surpass you. This is a good thing! This means you were an EXCELLENT mentor. Be proud. It's also great to have a mentor rooting for you, invested in your success - and ready to dispel any notion that you're a fraud.

It's natural and right to use mentoring and teaching to improve ourselves and the people around us. It breaks down those social walls that hold us apart and creates a community.

Expanding brain meme, little brain is feeling inadequate in your job, larger brain is combating your own Impostor syndrome, next largest brain is realizing you've been competent all along, enlightened brain is dismantling structural problems in your job that exist to make people feel incompetent

Like with anything of this nature, there are no magic pills to make those feelings of inadequacy go away. We've got to do the work of finding our place and accepting ourselves as we are.