I’m the poster child for imposter syndrome. At 34, I started writing code without any previous experience or education. I just arrived hungry and naive but with a good attitude (I knew I had to be easy to get along with if I was going to learn from others).
Starting out, that’s essentially all I brought to the table. And it turned out to be enough, at first.
Six months into learning how to code, I got offered a job on the spot as I was leaving a WordPress Meetup in Las Vegas. I was hired as the only developer on the team and barely knew anything about content management systems. If I didn’t already feel like an imposter, I definitely felt like one then.
What is imposter syndrome?
We’ve all felt imposter syndrome before. But how do you define it exactly?
According to research from Tulshyan and Burey (2021), imposter syndrome is loosely defined as doubting your abilities and feeling like a fraud. It disproportionately affects high-achieving people, who find it difficult to accept their accomplishments. Many people question whether they’re deserving of accolades.
The line of “who find it difficult to accept their accomplishments” is telling. Because most of the advice I’ve read recommends working harder and achieving more as the remedy.
But that’s a paradox. You can’t accomplish your way out of doubting your accomplishments.
Just work harder
In a recent YouTube video I watched on the subject, I listened to Michelle Obama talk about her battle with imposter syndrome. She described her approach as “let me put my head down, and do the work. Let my work speak for itself”. I’ve used this approach myself.
It works wonders. Temporarily.
Later on, in the same video, she adds “And I still feel that I do that. I still feel that at some level, I have something to prove”.
Even with her accomplishments, she still battles imposter syndrome. I argue that this proves my point. You can’t earn your way out of feeling like an imposter.
Before rolling your eyes about affirmation, I don’t mean telling yourself you’re good enough while staring yourself down in the mirror. I mean inventorying your life for what you’ve already accomplished. Then, use these milestones to remind yourself of how far you’ve come.
You may have received a degree. Or you already got hired at the job you wanted. Maybe you’ve gotten a promotion or were recognized for your performance. Don’t simply dismiss these things. Remind yourself that these are not fluke occurrences.
A very talented developer friend of mine advises using a folder on your desktop where you store positive feedback. And I trust she knows a thing or two about bolstering confidence. She’s an accomplished engineer in a male-dominated industry.
Where acceptance comes into play is in recognizing imposter syndrome is a natural process of the mind.
In the Happiness Trap (2008) Russ Harris writes, “Our minds evolved to think negatively, and research shows that about 80 percent of our thoughts have some degree of negative content”. Rather than struggle with these naturally occurring negative thoughts, accept that they will always be there. You can’t accomplish them away.
Instead, realize that these thoughts are not facts. They are only words in our heads. We can then choose to believe them or allow them to exist without buying into them.
These may be departures from the usual approach to imposter syndrome, but I’ve found them effective. As always, trust your own experience and find what works for you.
How do you deal with imposter syndrome?
Burey, J., Tulshyan, R. (Feb. 11, 2021). Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2021/02/stop-telling-women-they-have-imposter-syndrome#:~:text=Examining%20Imposter%20Syndrome%20as%20We,they’re%20deserving%20of%20accolades.
Guardian News. (Dec. 4, 2018). Michelle Obama describes her battles with impostor syndrome. [Video] YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5EP-ljBlf38
Harris, R. (2008). The Happiness Trap. Trumpeter.