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Natalie Portman said, "When I got to Harvard just after the release of Star Wars: Episode 1, I feared people would assume I had gotten in just for being famous, and not worthy of the intellectual rigor here."
I changed my talk slightly for Jozi.rb4, a meetup in Johannesburg primarily targeted for Ruby developers.
I have provided new slides5 and the transcript of the talk for those who are interested.
I may look happy, a little crazy yet happy, but appearances can be so deceiving because deep down, I really feel like a fraud.
Last year I finally identified that I have Imposter Syndrome and it’s possible that some of you here may occasionally have it too.
In fact, research says that about 70% of the population worldwide experience this and it often goes unrecognized.
I think that the more we talk about it, the more we can help each other out.
It’s important to note that this does not just occur with Junior level Software Developers. All levels experience this. It’s also not isolated to our industry. Many professionals experience this from time to time.
That’s why I am here today.
First we’ll cover what Imposter Syndrome actually is.
Then explore some of the signs that can help you identify your inner imposter.
And lastly, we’ll look at some techniques that could help you when and if this applies to you.
The term was coined in 1978 by two clinical psychologists and is also referred to as “The Impostor Phenomenon” or “Fraud Syndrome”.
Wikipedia says that it doesn’t have a standard definition, but explains that it as a ‘concept describing high-achieving individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and have a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.’
Now, it is not a mental illness, it’s just the way that people react in certain situations.
It’s not a death sentence or something to be embarrassed about. It is manageable and will occur from time to time.
You may overburden yourself with some phrases like:
- I can’t do it
- I’m not worthy
- I must be perfect
- I must not make a mistake
- I’m not good enough
- Nobody loves me
Essentially, you feel like you are tricking everyone around you into believing that you are more competent than you actually are and really hope that no-one ever finds out.
Even with evidence
Compliments and positive feedback probably make you feel uncomfortable. You don’t believe them.
Even when there is evidence to the contrary like how your peers praise your work and effort, you tell yourself, and others, that you probably succeeded because of:
- Dumb luck,
- Your charm,
- A mistake or error,
- Good timing,
- Knowing the right people, or
- Being in the right place at the right time.
2. Identify your imposter through signs
When you feel like this, you could react negatively without realizing it.
Identify and understand your inner imposter so that you can change your behavior.
Self destructive behavior
If you don’t address it, it can lead to self-destructive behavior where you
- Become obsessive
- Feel anxious
- Get depressed
- And even burn out from all the stress and pressure that you put yourself under
It impacts others
It affects the people around you too.
Your relationships take strain and it can cause unnecessary friction in teams.
There are many signs6 that you are experiencing Imposter Syndrome but I’ll be sharing four of them with you today.
#1. Doubting yourself
The first sign I want to talk about is doubting yourself.
Sure, we all doubt ourselves occasionally but the red flag is it when it’s so bad that we can’t function properly.
If you have Imposter Syndrome, you’ve probably convinced yourself that you are not good enough.
I remember working on a massive project which was technically complex involved a lot of people.
We had a deadline that we couldn’t miss because many our products would simply stop working.
Obviously this made a lot of people tense and stressed.
Now, it’s relatively easy to write code and get it into production but it is way more challenging getting the right people to talk to each other and make the right things happen at the right time.
With so many people, it’s hard to stay on the same page. There was a lot of confusion and contradiction probably because of miscommunication and misunderstandings.
I got lost and started doubting myself more and more.
- I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing,
- I second-guessed my code & decisions,
- I believed everyone around me was smarter than me, and
- I lost confidence in my skills as a developer.
I did eventually convinced myself that I just wasn’t good enough and that I should quit. Luckily I didn’t.
Words define your reality
After a lot of reflection, I came to realize that I have a voice inside my head, and that voice can be really mean. It constantly puts me down and I believe it.
It’s like having the depressed robot Marvin from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy inside my head all the time - only less funny.
Words define your reality! You will believe the words you use to describe who you are. If you keep putting yourself down, you will feel negative about yourself.
Holds you back
If you don’t address this, it can hold you back from doing even the most simplest things such as:
writing code as you are too afraid of being criticized and wrong,
prevents you from engaging with others because you are afraid of what others may think about your ideas or solutions,
kills innovation and creativity because your mindset is so bleak,
holds you back from grabbing amazing opportunities like applying for that position even if you don’t check all the boxes.
#2. Setting the bar too high
The next sign I want to talk about is setting the bar too high where you have such high expectations that no-one can live up to, not even you.
Now it is good to push yourself so that you can grow. A red flag is when you set the bar so high that you burn out or are doomed to fail.
Taking on more than you can physically handle because you can’t say no or want to please everyone around you. Working those long hours trying to get everything perfect before you hand it over to the next step in the cycle. Overworking yourself on work and personal projects. The list goes on.
In 2014, I was in a team that changed a lot. I would fill gaps that I saw because I couldn’t miss a deadline or let a project fail.
Before I joined the team, I was used to working alone at small companies where I had to do a little bit of everything - like design, development, testing, working on production servers, troubleshooting, support directly with clients.
So, in this new team, I instinctively took on the roles of these people where I saw the gaps, instead of holding them accountable simply because of what I was used to - I didn’t know any better.
Insane difficulty level
Before I knew it I was playing the role of Product Owner, Scrum Master, Team Lead, Designer, Tester and Developer; taking on all the responsibilities and stress that came with each role.
I worked so hard to keep everything afloat that I did eventually burn out without compensation. What was this pain that I was putting myself through for exactly? Except for my own detriment.
To top it all off, I was filling these gaps about six months after I joined my first corporate company, while I was still ramping up. The ramp up was steep for me.
There are so many people, systems, servers, products and insane network constraints like the corporate proxies.
I realize that I keep increasing the difficulty level and expect myself to excel, not taking into account the emotional, mental and physical strain that I put on myself.
Expect more from others
When you set the bar ridiculously high for yourself, the problem is that you also set it ridiculously high for those around you and then no-one can live up to your expectations.
- If you work long hours, you expect others to do the same,
- If you learn new tech in your spare time, then others must too, and
- Dare someone not do TDD if it is something you strongly believe in and expect.
It’s important to know that people focus on different things in life and it is unfair for us to impose what we think is important on them.
In teams we need to hold each other accountable for the quality of the work delivered in the expected hours of the day instead of taking on the work of those who are not delivering. If this is unconstructive, a manager needs to get involved in resolving the problem.
The Unicorn Job
The same applies for finding the “perfect” job.
Start-ups may look attractive as you can learn lots, make cool stuff and have good times with amazing benefits and interesting products.
People are infatuated by companies like Google, Netflix, Spotify and Facebook.
What we see is a culture of learning, innovation and fun but what we don’t see is the pain that comes with it.
Every company experiences problems, flaws and constraints. Nothing is ever perfect.
You are missing out
We keep aiming for a unicorn that doesn’t exist instead of being happy in the moment where we are.
If you look at Facebook timelines they’re filled with the best holiday or wedding photos. People are bragging about their latest sky-diving adventure or romantic supper the man organized on a whim.
It’s the highlight reel of people’s lives which doesn’t always advertise the pain a person is feeling so we tend to compare our shitty lives to these extraordinary events we are exposed to with each scroll.
In life we are set on finding the “perfect” things and we search so hard that we miss out on what is currently happening in our lives right now.
#3. Making things perfect
The third sign I want to talk about is making things perfect. This is basically about our inner perfectionists.
Now it’s good to focus on consistency, aesthetics and quality, while aiming for perfection, but a red flag is when you can’t let go because it’s not perfect.
If I think back to the creation of my blog, I remember how the pursuit for perfection exhausted me.
The idea behind my blog was to:
- Give back to the community by sharing my perspective,
- Have a platform to showcase my skills for my career, and
- Tinker with different technologies.
I wanted something lightweight so I chose Jekyll - which absolutely rocks! and I used Grunt for workflow automation such as image resizing, linting, minification and so forth.
At what cost?
I created it from scratch - many times,
- Redesigned the interface,
- Restructured the folder contents,
- Reworked the automation, and
- Completely customized the Jekyll integration.
All because I wanted everything to be perfect - before launch.
I invested a lot of hours into this website and I became obsessed.
I would come home from work, and go to my laptop where I spent the rest of the night working on it.
- I neglected my health as I didn’t eat well, skipped meals, didn’t exercise or stretch,
- I didn’t get enough downtime and rest,
- I stopped socializing with friends and family because I was too busy, and
- I got frustrated because I kept seeing flaws.
Now, the same happens with our code. Keeping a codebase maintainable is a good thing, but where do we stop?
We could refactor it for years to be perfect, but that isn’t feasible.
And what is perfect code exactly? Have you ever seen it? If so, have you checked it out again a week later only to find flaws and better ways of writing it?
It’s like that sinking feeling you get when you look at code that just doesn’t make sense and you think “What the hell is going on here?”.
You do a
git blame and realize it was you who wrote it.
What a way to spike your Imposter Syndrome.
No need to fret, this is definitely a sign that we are growing. Our knowledge, understanding and skills grow and change with time.
But instead of pouring hours and hours into perfecting something, we should settle for something that is good enough.
When it satisfies the needs of the business and the customer, and is understood by the developers, then it is good enough.
Don’t confuse this as an excuse to write shitty code. You need to give it your best shot, with the knowledge, constraints and resources that you have at that point in time, knowing that there is a possibility that you could fail, but without harming yourself in the process.
Failure grants you an opportunity to learn and grow.
#4. Too afraid to fail
The last sign I want to talk about is too afraid to fail.
Fear is good when it makes you act or put in extra effort to achieve something.
It’s a red flag when it paralyzes you.
Last year I learned to live outside my comfort zone. I did a lot of stuff that I wouldn’t have done before because I am scared of what people will think of me and I don’t feel confident in myself to actually try.
The scariest thing I signed up for was public speaking.
The idea makes my knees weak and my heart race. I get anxious and nauseous. My throat closes and I feel like can’t breathe properly.
I don’t have to wait to get onto the stage to feel this way. In fact, from the day I accept, until the day I speak I generally struggle to cope with this.
I get panic attacks. Logic can’t save me. No amount of advice, suggestions or tips help. It is bad.
Yet I want to push through this fear so I:
Fully commit to it. I accept and get details posted online about the talk. Backing out becomes harder once advertised.
To deal with the panic attacks I have to breathe - deeply. Anxiety medication and breathing would temporarily help me think clearer and soothe the anxiety.
Even though I am terrified, preparation helps soothe the nerves somewhat. Even though I’m on medication that affects my memory and concentration.
A solid support structure. helps to get another perspective, coaching and support which can make it much less terrifying.
Befriend your imposter
Now that we can identify and name our imposter, we can befriend it by taking back control of our minds.
It’s that cautious friend that keeps you and your ego in check which can be humbling. Having that balance keeps you from becoming over-confident and arrogant.
Here are some of those techniques that can help you find your balance.
The trick is to understand when you are experiencing it.
It is a spectrum ranging from few to extreme characteristics which varies over time.
If you are interested in knowing where you stand on the spectrum, Dr. Pauline Clance developed a test called the Clance IP Scale 7 to help individuals determine whether or not they have Imposter Syndrome characteristics and, if so, to what extent they are suffering.
Be honest with yourself
Juggling all these feelings can be scary and overwhelming. Accept that you are experiencing Imposter Syndrome and that you can work through it.
Be in control
You may feel like a victim at times but your mind is creating this bleak reality which you can actually control even if it doesn’t feel like it.
Calm your mind
If your mind is too busy then you can’t focus or be in control.
Realize that you are not your thoughts and feelings. They come and go, so you don’t need to be consumed by them.
Try meditation and mindfulness practices to calm the mind to gain control.
Be kind to yourself
Being your own worst enemy isn’t going to get you anywhere. Accept yourself for who you are and be careful how you talk about yourself.
You are the most important person in your life so look after yourself mentally, physically and emotionally.
Reflect and introspect
If you want to improve, then you can reflect on situations and introspect on your behavior by asking yourself what went well, what didn’t go well and how can you improve?
Talk about it
Remember that you are not alone.
Get a different perspective on your performance and behavior by talking to people around you.
Give back by sharing your experiences and your perspective.
Find a mentor with a similar personality to get guidance in situations where you struggle.
You could also start or join a support group where you have regular discussions about this.
Take it day by day
It’s a bumpy journey. Some days are good, others not so much.
I have to put in a lot of effort and some days I feel like I’m right back at the beginning.
Just take it one day at a time.
Get outside your comfort zone
Don’t stagnate in a comfortable place. Do something that scares you, you haven’t done before or learn something new. Just be cognitive that this doesn’t lead to your detriment and try one thing at a time instead of piling on more than you can handle.
Do something you enjoy doing and that you are good at. Celebrate your small wins to boost your confidence and happiness levels. Don’t forget to embrace failures as learning opportunities.
Get your life back
Why go through life missing out on opportunities, constantly putting yourself down and being scared of how other people see you?
You are not immortal, so take your life back!
This is my experience. What works for you may be different so don’t be afraid to explore other techniques that can help you improve how you feel.
If you have any other techniques or wish to start a discussion, feel free to get in touch using Disqus, Twitter or email me directly.
Rubyfuza 2017 Conference, Blog post about The Imposter Within talk, 11 February 2017
The Imposter Within, Blog post, 13 November 2017
RubyFuza, Africa’s premier Ruby conference
Jozi.rb, a meetup in Johannesburg primarily targeted for Ruby developers.
Slides, The Imposter Within.
12 Signs You Might Be Suffering From Imposter Syndrome — Fellow Perfectionists, I’m Looking At You, Bustle, Julie Sprankles, 23 October 2015
The Clance IP Scale, Dr. Pauline Clance, test to help individuals determine whether or not they have Imposter Syndrome characteristics and, if so, to what extent they are suffering.