Have you ever felt like you’re playing pretend? Like everyone except you knows what they’re talking about and has everything figured out? Don’t worry, I’m right there with you! If you feel like a fraud or worry that you don’t deserve your successes, you are experiencing Imposter Syndrome. Clinical psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen defines Imposter Syndrome as, “a pervasive feeling of self-doubt, insecurity, or fraudulence despite often overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It strikes smart, successful individuals. It often rears its head after an especially notable accomplishment, like admission to a prestigious university, public acclaim, winning an award, or earning a promotion.”¹
Throughout my life, I’ve dealt with anxiety both socially and professionally, including Imposter Syndrome. Once your mind starts convincing you of false inadequacies it’s easy to spiral out of control and into a gloomy state. I am a Sr. Software Engineer with a degree in Computer Science and a Mathematics minor, and I have worked in software for over three years, yet no matter how much experience I have, what I learn, or what I accomplish, a dark thought still creeps into my mind — you aren’t good enough for this.
In the software industry, by the time you’ve mastered the current raging framework there’s brand new technology everyone is using that you must learn to stay relevant. There is so much to know and you can’t possibly learn it all, which can be very overwhelming.
While Imposter Syndrome still affects me regularly, over time I’ve learned to shut down negative thoughts, look at myself objectively, and lift myself up. If you suffer from Imposter Syndrome or anxiety, I’d like to help you do the same.
First, the good news: you are not alone! Most people experience Imposter Syndrome to some degree. According to the International Journal of Behavioral Science, it affects 70% of people.² Even people at the top of their profession can suffer from professional insecurity, and have spoken out about these feelings:
- “I am not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people,” John Steinbeck wrote in his diary just one year before publishing The Grapes of Wrath. The year after publishing, The Grapes of Wrath won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction and played a major role in John Steinbeck winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962.
- “Very few people, whether you’ve been in that job before or not, get into the seat and believe today that they are qualified to be the CEO. They’re not going to tell you that, but it’s true,” Howard Schultz, Starbucks CEO.
- “There are an awful lot of people out there who think I’m an expert. How do these people believe all this about me? I’m so much aware of all the things I don’t know,” Dr. Chan, Chief of the World Health Organization.
- “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out,” Maya Angelou.
Doesn’t it seem irrational that such successful people could look at themselves and wonder if they’re competent enough? Chances are, your Imposter Syndrome is equally unfounded. It happens to everyone. You are not alone.
With this in mind, I’d like to share four tips that have helped me throughout my career. While anxiety will impact us all now and then, there are actions you can take to prevent this from impacting your career or your mental health.
1) Ask Questions Often
Typically, people are hesitant about asking questions because they are afraid of looking foolish. This is understandable, but asking is likely the fastest route to information. Moreover, once you know something, you can bring that information to the table. In the past, I’ve spent hours working on a problem that seemed to have no solution, yet once I asked someone with more expertise the problem was solved in a matter of minutes.
Achievers CTO Aris Zakinthinos, said something about asking questions that has always stuck with me, “What’s the worst that can happen? That person thinks you’re stupid, then you move on.” As someone who is terrified of looking foolish, it’s a funny thing having these fears trivialized, but he is right! One person’s opinion does not matter. If you can accomplish something in significantly less time by asking someone who knows better, then asking is the best approach.
2) Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable
Run from comfortability, it implies stagnancy. I am inspired by the words of Brian Tracy, — a motivational public speaker and self-development author, — who says, “Move out of your comfort zone. You can only grow if you are willing to feel awkward and uncomfortable when you try something new.”
When I first started as a Software Engineer I often felt like assignments were outside my area of expertise. In fact, as embarrassing as this sounds, for the longest time I avoided using the word cache because I was afraid of looking foolish in front of my co-workers. Was it catch, cash, cash-è? But when I finally said it out loud and said it correctly, I never worried about saying it again.
It’s scary to feel uncomfortable, but if you don’t put yourself in that position, you’ll never grow past what’s blocking you. If you’re uncomfortable due to lack of knowledge, you’ll never possess the knowledge you’re lacking. Likewise, if you are unskilled, you will never possess that skill. Face your fears and one day you will look back and laugh about ever being afraid.
The voice in the back of your head can prevent you from doing things you are capable of. Once I realized my self-doubt was hindering my personal growth, my mantra became say yes and figure it out. When faced with an intimidating challenge, I urge you to try. The more you put yourself out there, the more comfortable you will feel putting yourself out there in the future. You will gain new skills and the confidence to overcome future obstacles.
3) Own Your Achievements
I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to know your value. Start saying you deserve your success! People who deal with Imposter Syndrome often dismiss their achievements as luck instead of coming from their own capabilities.
Instead say, “I deserved that promotion.” It’s okay to know your worth, believe you did a good job, and accept you deserve your achievements.
This doesn’t always come naturally, so following these techniques can help!
- Take a step back
Looking at yourself objectively is an effective way to put your accomplishments into perspective. Think about yourself in the past and everything you’ve learned until now. When I think about myself in university and when I first started my career, I’m proud of how far I’ve come, everything I’ve conquered along the way, and how much I’ve improved. There are so many tasks I found challenging years ago that seem so simple now. When Imposter Syndrome starts creeping into your head, shut it down by taking a step back and looking at yourself objectively.
- Track your success
Keep a record of the good things people say about you and your work. If someone says, “You develop beautiful UI” or, “You always go the extra mile in your code reviews,” write that down! Looking at a history of people finding your work valuable instantly shuts down the feeling you don’t know what you’re doing. This is one of the reasons I love the Achievers recognition platform! When the voice in the back of my head starts to whisper, “You’re just playing pretend,” looking at my recognitions reminds me that I’m a great developer and I’ve contributed to this company. Practicing this will help you realize that it is your own expertise, not luck, that lead to all your achievements.
Imposter Syndrome may still get to you from time to time, but you don’t have to let it take over your psyche. Self-doubt is a natural experience that you can pivot into self-confidence. When worrying you aren’t enough, remember — you aren’t the only one who feels this way. Use these strategies to help you recognize everything that you’ve accomplished and earned. Ask questions, get comfortable being uncomfortable, and own your achievements! Your confidence will rise along with your talents, and you will go far. I know you deserve it.
¹ Sakulku, Jaruwan. “The Imposter Phenomenon”. International Journal of Behavioral Science. Vol 6 No 1 (2011). 73
² Hendriksen, Ellen, PhD. “What Is Imposter Syndrome?”. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-is-impostor-syndrome/.