Photo courtesy of ruby-docs.org
I spoke at Rubyfuza 2017 in Cape Town about how Imposter Syndrome impacts my day-to-day decisions and confidence, affects growth by limiting opportunities and makes me feel unworthy. I wanted to share my experience & perspective of feeling like a fraud with other software professionals.
This was my first conference presentation* in front of a large audience in a half an hour timeslot.
The talk was titled “The Imposter Within” which stems from the post I wrote last year. It was recorded and I’ll share the link when it is available on YouTube. I have made the slides in PDF available for download.
The content below is what I prepared but is not verbatim.
*I have given an Ignite talk (5 minute talk) at JoziJug in 2016
[Displayed a slide of a photo of me looking happy]
Look how happy I look here - a little crazy, but happy.
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.
The term was coined in 1978 by two clinical psychologists and is also referred to as “The Imposter Phenomenon” and “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.
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 simply don’t believe them.
Even when there is evidence to the contrary, 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.
Identify Your Imposter
When you feel like this, you could react negatively without realizing it.
Identify and understand your inner imposter so that you can consciously change your 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 signs that you are experiencing Imposter Syndrome but I’ll be sharing four of them with you today.
1. Doubting Yourself
Sure, we all doubt ourselves occasionally but the red flag is 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 recently and it was technically complex with a lot of people involved.
We had a deadline that we couldn’t miss because many of our products would simply stop working.
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 a bunch of 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 convince myself that I just wasn’t good enough and that I should quit - which I didn’t do.
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.
Who remembers Marvin the robot from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? I mean, what a depressed character.
It’s like having him 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 because you are 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, and
- 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
It is good to push yourself so that you can grow but the red flag is when you set the bar so high that you burn out or are doomed to fail.
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 the project fail.
Before I joined the team, I was used to working alone or in small teams at small companies where I had to do a little bit of everything.
So, in this team, I instinctively took on the roles of these people where I saw the gaps, instead of holding them accountable. I was simply unaware that I could do that.
Insane Difficulty Level
Before I knew it, I was Product Owner, Scrum Master, Designer 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.
To make matters worse, I was filling these gaps about six months after I joined the company, while I was still ramping up. This was the first time I joined a large corporate so the ramp up was steep for me.
There are so many people, systems, servers, products and the network constraints (think Internet Proxy!). It was just insane!
Anyway, 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.*
*Adapted from Chris Lema in his exceptional talk at WordCampPhx
- 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 strong 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.
The Unicorn Job
The same applies for finding the “perfect” job.
Start-ups look cool right!? They look really attractive. Work here, learn lots, make cool stuff and have fun.
Bigger companies like Google, Netflix, Spotify and Facebook… they look even more attractive because of their benefits and the cool products they create.
They advertise a culture of learning, innovation and fun where staff are well looked after - on their standards.
What they don’t always show is the pain. The problems, flaws and constraints, all those negative things they need to deal with which are probably similar to what you are currently experiencing in your job today.
You Are Missing Out
We are suckers to this marketing business.
It can be for your job, your life… I mean, look at Facebook. It is simply the highlight reel of people’s lives.
This marketing around us is done so well that even if you work for an amazing company right now you’d want to leave because it doesn’t meet the expectations that you have created in your mind.
Your life, compared to your friends and family on Facebook may seem boring, because all you’re seeing is the fun, exciting stuff that is shared.
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”
This is basically about the inner perfectionist.
Now it’s good to focus on consistency, aesthetics and quality, 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.
I created it for a few reasons:
- 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 the website from scratch. Multiple times, in fact, where I
- Redesigned the interface,
- Restructured the folder contents,
- Reworked the automation, and
- Completely customized the Jekyll integration.
I did this 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 a long day at work, go straight to my laptop where I would spend the rest of the night working on it.
So, what happened?
- Deprioritized health: I neglected my health as I didn’t eat well. I skipped meals, didn’t exercise or stretch.
- Fatigue: I didn’t get enough downtime and rest.
- Strain on relationships: I stopped socializing with friends and family because I was too busy.
- Frustration: I got frustrated because I kept seeing flaws in the work I was doing.
Now, the same happens with our code. Keeping a codebase maintainable is a good thing but where do we stop or draw the line?
We could refactor it for years to be “perfect” but that isn’t feasible.
Then again, what is perfect code anyway?
Have you ever looked at code and thought “what the hell is going on here?” only to do a
git blame where you sink deep into your chair seeing that you were the author?
This is a sign that we are growing. Our knowledge and skills grow with time. Instead of pouring hours and hours into perfecting something we should settle for what is good enough right now.
When it satisfies the needs of the business and the customer, then it is good enough.
Don’t confuse this as an excuse to write bad code. You need to give it your best shot but doing so 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.
4. Too Afraid to Fail
Fear is a good thing 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 start living outside of my comfort zone. I did a lot of stuff that I wouldn’t have done before because I was scared of what people would think of me or didn’t feel confident in myself to try it.
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 I can’t breathe properly.
Now, I don’t have to wait to get onto the stage in front of everyone to feel this way. In fact, from the day my talk got accepted until presenting it, I’d been struggling to cope with this.
I was getting panic attacks. Logic couldn’t save me. Advice, suggestions or tips didn’t save me. It was bad.
It was something I wanted to achieve so I wanted to push through. I did four things:
- Fully commit to it: I tweeted that I would be talking and booked my travel and accommodation so that it would be considerably harder to back out.
- Breathe: To deal with the panic attacks I had to learn to breathe deeply. I needed to calm my mind so that I could think clearer to soothe the anxiety and work on my content.
- Prepare: Even though I was terrified, being unprepared would have made matters worse. I prepared the content and practiced the delivery multiple times.
- Get a support structure: Without the support structure from amazing people in my life I may have backed out. I got different perspectives, coaching and emotional support which helped to reduce the panic and anxiety.
Befriend You Imposter
Now that we can identify and name our imposter, we can befriend it by taking back control of our minds.
We can see it as that cautious friend that keeps you and your ego in check, which can be quite humbling. Having that balance keeps you from becoming over-confident and arrogant.
Here are some of the techniques that can help you find your balance.
Be honest with yourself: Juggling all these feelings can be scary and overwhelming. Accept that you are experiencing Imposter Syndrome and know that you can work through it.
You are in control: You may feel like a victim but your mind is creating this bleak reality. You can actually control it 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.
Breathing, meditation and mindfulness practices can help you calm your mind.
Be kind to yourself: Being your own worst enemy isn’t going to get you anywhere. Accept yourself for who you are and be conscious of the words you use to talk about yourself.
You are the most important person in your life. Look after yourself mentally, physically and emotionally.
Reflect: There are always things you can do to improve on. Reflect by asking yourself what is going well, what isn’t going so well and how can I improve?
Talk about it: So many people are affected by this but few talk about it or even realize it. Know that you are not alone. You don’t have to suffer in silence.
Get a different perspective on your performance and behavior by talking to people around you. You can also give back by sharing your experiences and perspective.
Get support: Find a mentor with a similar personality to get guidance that will help you in situations where you struggle.
You could also start or join a meetup group where you have regular discussions about this.
Take it day by day: It’s a bumpy road. Some days are good, others not so much.
I have to put in a lot of effort and sometimes I feel like I’m right back at the beginning of this road.
I just take it day by day and try not to be hard on myself. I am only human.
Get outside your comfort zone: It’s easy to stagnate in this place of comfort. If you want to grow then do something that scares you, something you haven’t done before or learn a new skill.
And when all else fails, do what Barney Stinson says “When I’m sad I stop being sad and be awesome instead.”
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!
The Imposter Test
The Clance IP Test was developed by clinical psychologist Pauline Clance to help individuals determine whether or not they have Imposter Syndrome characteristics, and if so, to what extent they are suffering.
After taking the Imposter Test, add together the numbers of the responses to each statement. If the total score is 40 or less, the respondent has few Imposter characteristics; if the score is between 41 and 60, the respondent has moderate IP experiences; a score between 61 and 80 means the respondent frequently has Imposter feelings; and a score higher than 80 means the respondent often has intense IP experiences. The higher the score, the more frequently and seriously the Imposter Phenomenon interferes in a person’s life.
- Download the slides (PDF)
- YouTube Recording: TBC
- Twitter Moments
- Beat Imposter Syndrome
- Leaving Comfort Behind - Episode 202 on the Developer On Fire podcast
- I’m a phony. Are you? by Scott Hanselman
- The Imposter by Pablo Stanley on Medium
- 13 Charts That Will Make Total Sense to People with Imposter Syndrome by Kristin Chirico on BuzzFeed
- How To Fight The Programmer Imposter Syndrome? by John Sonmez on the Simple Programmer YouTube channel
- The power of vulnerability - Ted Talk by Brené Brown
- Teach girls bravery, not perfection - Ted Talk by Reshma Saujani
- The happy secret to better work - Ted Talk by Shawn Achor