5 Tips to Overcome an Impostor Syndrome

  • September 17, 2019

The impostor syndrome is more common than we think and does not necessarily subside with years of experience under the belt. The effects are always adverse for those who suffer from this syndrome and can include exhaustion, anxiety problems, stress, and even depression. We talked to Pauline d’Heucqueville, an occupational psychologist and consultant with Stimulus—a firm specializing in psychological well-being at the workplace—about the patterns found in the impostor syndrome and the practical solutions that can help conquer it.

Developers can suffer significantly

Introduced by American psychologists Pauline Rose Clance et Suzanne Ament Imes in 1978, the impostor syndrome includes several symptoms that need to be met in order to be recognized as such: the inability to acknowledge your success, thinking you are over esteemed (and therefore deceiving those around you), and the fear of being revealed as a fraud. Be careful, though, as the impostor syndrome is neither an illness nor a simple lack of self-confidence. As Pauline d’Heucqueville explains, it is “the false perception of reality that chips away at the well-being and quality of life for those who experience it.”

This oppressive syndrome—affecting approximately 20% of the population (Kevin Chassangre et Stacey Callahan, 2017)—has a variety of causes, most of which are linked to childhood. A substantial discrepancy between how a child’s performance is perceived by their school on the one hand and their family on the other can lead to a warped perception of the child’s own abilities. Children can also later have difficulties with self-assessment as adults if they were overpraised or, quite the opposite, a victim of repeated negative feedback from figures of authority.

It seems developers are particularly affected—with close to 58% saying that they suffer from imposter syndrome according to a survey by Blind’s Work Talk. Without reviewing each personal experience, we can nevertheless imagine that it is easier to develop the syndrome when we do not feel fully legitimate in our job. The many self-taught developers are undoubtedly more likely to retain longer-lasting feelings of inferiority, despite measurable successes that follow them through their careers. Constant and rapid evolution in tools and technology also requires developers to build their knowledge and skills continually, which also includes self-assessment.

Thankfully, the impostor syndrome is not inevitable, and here are a few practical tips on how to overcome it.

Create your own success chart

A first solution might be to write down each of your successes on a piece of paper to substantiate them. Pauline d’Heucqueville explains that this exercise is to “thwart the brain’s automatic conclusions by illustrating concrete facts.”

Your success chart will look like this:

  • Description of a successful situation (a promotion, for instance)
  • Reason for this success that comes to you off the top of your head (luck, accident, error in judgment by superiors, and so forth)
  • Real cause of the success (skills, hard work, resume and career path correspond to the job, and the like)

This exercise can be repeated in several situations and allows you to get a better perspective, which helps you better assimilate your successes and expel the irrational fear of not having what it takes to do the job. In fact, the impostor syndrome tends to focus only on external influences when examining personal success, whereas here the focus is on your skills and abilities. With a bit of practice, you will begin to see that—more often than not—luck is a minimal factor when rationally explaining your successes. This exercise is beneficial for situations involving a promotion, because even if this opportunity appears to be good news, a developer suffering from impostor syndrome will see it as a source of anxiety, since more responsibility also means more exposure.

The point of this chart is to reduce the gap between real and perceived abilities as much as possible. Your life is not some dream you will wake up from one day; you deserve everything that has happened to you.

List your daily tasks

A developer burdened with impostor syndrome will tend to seek out intense and excessive work to hide their feeling of fraud. And even if, ultimately, a project is wrapped up with praise from superiors, this way of functioning perpetuates and encourages the impostor syndrome’s vicious circle—as the success will only be interpreted as exceptional preparation and investment.

To get rid of this overperformance reflex, Pauline d’Heucqueville recommends “listing tasks in order of importance and establishing a criterion of success for each that indicates when the task can be considered finished.” This helps you “avoid spending infinite time on a task to make up for lack of self-confidence in your abilities.” And if you cannot stop yourself despite your efforts, talking about it to another person is the best way to go.

In other respects, making this list helps you define a positive framework for success by reassuring yourself about proper process performance. You can cross off each goal you reach to keep you motivated during the span of the project. This is an excellent way to understand easily that one task encompasses the execution of a group of mini-tasks, which can seem tedious when listed end to end. It is also a good way to clearly see that you can set unrealistic goals for yourself sometimes.

Prove to yourself that you are not an impostor

To overcome the destructive behaviors linked to an impostor syndrome, Pauline d’Heucqueville highlights the importance of working at the root of the problem, which is very simply a false perception of reality.

She suggests this small exercise that can be done daily:

  • Draw a line on a piece of paper
  • One one end, write the word “impostor” with the true definition of the word
  • On the other end, write “me, my mask” and define it (know-how, interpersonal skills, knowledge, skills, and so on)
  • Place yourself on this line every day and explain why you think you are at that spot

What is the point? “To help someone who suffers from impostor syndrome understand that they objectively achieve what they undertake,” explains Pauline d’Heucqueville. Without a doubt, the greatest battle is within yourself!

Anticipate success rather than failure

Procrastination is another technique well known by people experiencing impostor syndrome. Fear of failure or not being able to fulfill coworkers’ or superiors’ expectations inflames the tendency to postpone the start of a project—which increases stress, overwork, and anxiousness. Procrastination often goes hand in hand with perfectionism. You will need to learn to re-evaluate (and not lower) your expectations to release yourself from the cult of performance that has dragged you into the impostor syndrome.

Anticipating success rather than fearing failure must be the recurring theme to accomplish this. Even if this type of advice is easier to give than to put into action, it is a positive practice that is key to a balanced relationship with your work. By going from “I must never fail” (understood as my role as an impostor must not be revealed) to “I will do everything I can to bring this project to its close,” developers can get rid of perfectionist and self-defeating speech in favor of positive and realistic thoughts that create a lot less anxiety.

Play down the syndrome

In talking with your coworkers, there is a good chance that you will discover someone else suffers from this syndrome as well. You might be surprised to realize that it is often the person everyone considers to be the “whiz kid” in the company. Accepting and talking about it allows you to not only lift that weight off your shoulders but also give perspective to a syndrome that affects a large number of people at any moment in their lives.

In the same vein, the next time you receive criticism about your work, remind yourself that there is no such thing as perfection. And before trying to learn the lesson from possible failure, ask yourself if the person giving the feedback is doing so justly. Do not forget that even criticism can be criticized! Make sure you have people around you who have your back, have a realistic idea of your skills, and who will comfortably and determinedly talk to you about areas of improvement.

Lastly, avoid falling into what social psychologist Leon Festinger calls upward social comparison. It would be absurd for a junior-level developer to compare themselves to a technical lead who has a dozen more years under their belt. On the other hand, the technical lead can be a source of inspiration and motivation if the junior developer hopes to increase their skills progressively to one day reach the lead’s level of expertise.

The patterns within the impostor syndrome are relatively similar, just like the methods to overcome it. Over time, through practice and repetition, you should be able to free yourself from the negative thoughts that distort reality. And do not forget that scheduling regular downtime to relax or have fun provides indispensable breaks for your well-being, which also contributes to the success of your projects.

This article is part of Behind the Code, the media for developers, by developers. Discover more articles and videos by visiting Behind the Code!

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Illustration by Brice Marchal

Istvan Drouyer

Web editor as well as a certified web integrator
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