Culture, Technology

What you should know about the impostor syndrome

A tiny human looking up at great, big technologies.
Illustration by Reetta Kotilainen
August 16, 2021

Read time 7 min

“How did I get myself into this mess?”

If you work in the IT industry, chances are that at some point in your career you have felt like a fraud. As the already complex field of technology advances at an exhausting rate, it’s easy to feel like you’re in over your head and give yourself a hard time for not being “enough” of an expert. Jouni Winter is a full stack developer who loves working in teams on something that’s either fun or makes the world just a little bit better.

As new employees and summer trainees started to join us once again earlier this year, I figured it was high time to talk about something I know everyone in tech has experiences of: The impostor syndrome. This blog post is the result of my original internal Reaktor post, and the great discussions that followed it.

Impostor syndrome in tech is something that pops up from time to time, but needs to be talked about more. At worst, it makes us fearful and overly cautious, and forces us to play things safe instead of trying our best. It can rob our full potential from the people, clients, and causes we work with – and most importantly, from ourselves.

Ultimately the goal here is to emphasize how commonplace impostor syndrome is, because it often leaves you feeling alone and undeserving among the “real” experts. The fact of the matter is this syndrome is quite common, there are more of us than you think. Hopefully, by the end of this text you will feel a bit more equipped to deal with it and a bit less alone struggling with it.

So what exactly is impostor syndrome?

The textbook definition goes something like this: Impostor syndrome is a psychological pattern in which one doubts one’s accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. Despite external evidence of their competence, those experiencing this phenomenon remain convinced that they are frauds, and do not deserve all they have achieved.

To put it blunt, it means you constantly feel like a phony, a faker, like you don’t really know what you’re doing, like you’re just winging it, “bullshitting your way through school” – while fooling everyone else.

In the tech context, it’s very typical to feel like you cheated your way into employment, even when you successfully made it through several rounds of interviews and proved your skills in the process. The difficulty to accept your own success is the cause of this: When something goes right, you attribute it to external factors. But when something goes wrong, it surely is proof of your own inadequacy.

But wait, there’s more!

There are at least five different types of impostor syndrome

Most of the time when we talk about impostor syndrome, we talk about it as a singular experience. However, several patterns in how people experience it have been identified. Here are the five most commonly cited patterns of Impostor Syndrome, as identified by Dr. Valerie Young:

  •  “Perfectionists” set extremely high expectations for themselves, and even if they meet 99% of their goals, they’re going to feel like failures. Any small mistake will make them question their own competence.
  •  “Experts” feel the need to know every piece of information before they start a project and constantly look for new certifications or training to improve their skills. They won’t apply for a job if they don’t meet all the criteria in the posting, and they might be hesitant to ask a question in class or speak up in a meeting at work because they’re afraid of looking stupid if they don’t already know the answer.
  • When the “Natural genius” has to struggle or work hard to accomplish something, he or she thinks this means they aren’t good enough. They are used to skills coming easily, and when they have to put in effort, their brain tells them that’s proof they’re an impostor.
  • “Soloists” feel they have to accomplish tasks on their own, and if they need to ask for help, they think that means they are a failure or a fraud.
  • “Superheroes” push themselves to work harder than those around them to prove that they’re not impostors. They feel the need to succeed in all aspects of life—at work, as parents, as partners—and may feel stressed when they are not accomplishing something.

I match 4/5 of these myself 🤷‍♂️.

Acknowledging the patterns will help you spot and identify the feelings of impostorism, which in turn will help you address them too.

Let’s say you’re in a situation where you need to perform, and the feeling of being a fraud is weighing you down. How do you tame down or turn off the unpleasant thoughts that get in the way of doing your job? 

Here, we’ve gathered some ways that have been found especially useful in the context of software development:

  • Focus on helping others and providing value. When you’re struggling with impostorism, you’re focusing on yourself; how do other people see me, how do I look? But the work we do is not about us. Acknowledge your point of view, and shift your focus on genuinely trying to help others and solving the issue at hand.
  • Realize that you don’t need to be perfect. Being an expert at something is not about knowing everything about it, it’s about knowing more about it than most people. Also, being wrong or making mistakes doesn’t make you less of an expert, but learning from your mistakes will make you more of an expert.
  • Stop comparing yourself to others. The world is full of smart people who’ve built amazing, big things, and you can always set the bar very high. But there’s no sense in comparing yourself to everyone else’s highlight reel. 
  • Accept that success is the 1% on the top of the iceberg. You don’t see the struggles and failed attempts of others. That leads to us seeing failure as something that almost never happens and huge successes as the only acceptable default. Focus on doing a bit better than you did the last time, and cherish your own successes.

The best thing you can do about impostor syndrome is to talk about it.

When I wrote this blog post and shared it with all 600+ Reaktorians, the post started quickly garnering likes and comments. Colleagues both old and new shared their own experiences. The funny thing is: the experiences are quite similar, regardless of the person’s skill level, background or area of expertise. And suddenly, none of us were alone with our thoughts, and instead we related to each other better, sharing both our adversities and ideas on how to get past them.

So talk about it, talk about it, and then talk about it some more. This is a straightforward and often the most effective way of dealing with any hindrance, and impostor syndrome is no exception. 

Whether you’re a software developer, AI enthusiast, data miner or a UX designer, the experiences are almost exactly the same: Impostor Syndrome creeps up on us all from time to time throughout our professional lives. It hits us hardest when we face new situations, new people, and new challenges, and does the most damage when we are left alone with it.

What now?

If you’ve experienced feelings of impostorism, please join in on the discussion. Maybe you have an anecdote from your career how impostor syndrome has affected you? Or maybe you have more tricks to help keep the syndrome at bay?

Whatever it is that comes to your mind, I hope you share it with peers and colleagues, as talking about it openly is the best way to mitigate it. It can be intimidating at first to talk about, and if you’re not quite there yet, that’s ok too.

But I hope you do it anyway: I guarantee you’re not the only one.

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