I want to preface this article by stating that I am not a Psychologist nor do I have any training in mental health – the views expressed here stem from my personal experience and struggle with Impostor Syndrome.
Last time we introduced the concept of what Impostor Syndrome is and how you may have come to experience it as a developer. Today, we will explore the causes of the syndrome a bit more in depth, so that you may hopefully gain a better understanding of what you’re feeling and how you can process it.
The feelings of being inadequate caused by impostor syndrome, tend to originate from what we perceive the community (coworkers, other developers, etc…) to think of us. We are not just developers, whether that is a core part of our personal identity or not – there is much more to us, and we worry how others perceive that.
Sometimes, when experiencing Impostor Syndrome, we begin with an assumption that our peers have judged us to not be good enough (whether this is true is a different matter). Since we believe our peers judge us negatively, very mistake we make is seen as an opportunity to reaffirm that negative viewpoint, thus confirming that we are not worthy to be among them.
There is also the possibility we assume the opposite – we believe our peers have replaced us with an idealized version of ourselves, someone who can write such efficient and clean code that others would weep at its ingenuity. In this case, the syndrome takes on an entirely different face: rather than fear of confirming how bad we are, we fear disappointing others and ‘revealing’ our true selves to them.
These two assumptions both deal with our personal identity (who we are) and how we believe our community judges us based on that.
There is no straightforward way to deal with these feelings – it will always require a conscious effort, and no trick is universally useful. Even worse: evidence of success, even when it is impartial or objective, tends to do nothing to make us feel better. How can we handle these feelings, then?
One approach could be talking to others and learning about their own struggles and how they have ended up where they are right now. For example, in a university classroom, a student may feel better about their performance in an exam if they study with others and they can see first-hand the difficulties others have. Avoid comparing yourself to others whenever possible: look at your own progress relative to yourself instead. We’ve all started with simple “Hello World” programs, when we had no idea how to do some of the things we’ve worked on today. Once we feel our struggle is relatable, we can leverage that knowledge against the intrusive thoughts caused by this syndrome.
Let’s try something different: as an exercise, you can write down a list of everything you consider makes a successful developer; anything you can think of.
Once that’s done, go back over the list and highlight all the things that don’t apply to you. Then look at and analyze those statements: are they reasonable? Do you think your coworkers match up? Do you think anyone does? Maybe you had a specific person in mind when you wrote down the original list – someone you admire, a mentor, a role model – do you think they match up to all the items in the list perfectly? Why?
The expectations we have of what is a successful developer can be based on what we perceive of others. Remember – last time, we mentioned how no one sees our internal struggle and how many mistakes and failures we have made. The same applies to others!
You have no idea what anyone else has gone through in their personal journey. Your expectations are not likely grounded on reality. This does two things: it adds pressure to how you want to perform (either because you don’t want to reinforce a negative perception or because you don’t want others to find out you don’t ‘cut it’) and it changes the way you see your peers. You put them on a pedestal as flawless because you don’t see all their struggles, and thus your brain’s instinct is to assume there are none.
Making mistakes is not the end of the world. Failing is not the end of the world. Talk to your peers, a mental health professional, or someone you feel comfortable with and use their perspectives to help anchor your point of view. Are your expectations realistic? Are you holding yourself to stricter standards than your coworkers?
In the end, overcoming Impostor Syndrome is a slow process that requires constant work. You may need help from a therapist if the thoughts are prevalent enough to cause you constant anxiety – remember there is no shame in asking for help. The personalized treatment may even produce coping methods that work for you. In all cases, look at why you feel the way you do, analyze if your expectations are reasonable, and do your best to hold yourself and your peers to the same standards.