Tips for fighting impostor syndrome
According to Wikipedia, impostor syndrome is:
a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their skills, talents or 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.Impostor syndrome, Wikipedia
I’m thinking about impostor syndrome today because of a brief twinge of heartbreak when noticing someone else experiencing it. I am chairing a Code of Conduct (CoC) committee for an open source project that just kicked off in the last few weeks.
I wanted to begin our CoC discussion by having the committee members introduce themselves and talk mention any relevant past experiences that they wanted to mention. One committee member had a very rich background and had both created and enforced CoCs for a major open source conference. She had also worked closely with the Ada Initiative, a resource for supporting women in tech. In other words, she’s going to be an awesome resource for our CoC committee and I’m so lucky to have her.
Later in the message thread, another committee member, who happened to be a women of color, mentioned she felt like her experience was really minimal compared to others in the group. Everyone in the group instantly chimed in to respond that she didn’t need to feel that way and that all experience levels and perspectives were valuable on this committee. But it still broke my heart a little bit.
I, unfortunately, have moments like these on a fairly routine basis. It actually seemed to come up a lot when I would have one-on-one coffee chats over Zoom with other women in my company. And while personally I’ve been feeling it less in my career over the past year as I’ve grown more confident in my skills, it was something I regularly experienced in previous workplaces and roles.
From my personal experience, impostor syndrome acts as a small cognitive drain on me as I perform my duties, running like a small but malicious daemon software app in the background of my mind. It adds a tiny but persistent undertone of emotional baggage that slowly siphons my energy and poisons my attitude toward my job. It’s not a cognitively healthy pattern of thought.
And while it’s important to remember that men can experience rates of impostor syndrome at the same rates as women, I think there are a number of reasons why women like me and people of color working in tech can experience it acutely, such as:
- This industry still has a diversity gap, which can make you feel lonely and enhance the sense that “I don’t belong here.”
- In my case as a technical writer, I’m serving in a more supporting technical role that is focused slightly more on my communication skills than technical skills. Every once in a while I get treated like “the help” as opposed to a peer. And I regularly worry (perhaps overly so) about how my profession is perceived in terms of status and merit.
- If you work in open source like I do (at least part of the time), it can feel like your work is always on public display and open for constant criticism, which can exacerbate self-consciousnesses.
I don’t want to reinvent the wheel by mentioning all the ways to combat impostor syndrome. For example, Usenix has a great blog entry that includes many tips and tricks.
However, when it comes to reducing impostor syndrome and other unhealthy patterns of thought, I’m a big fan of cognitive behavioral therapy. Changing the way you talk to yourself about your perceived inadequacies can make a big difference. So, try to examine some of the narratives you find yourself using to explain your so-called technical shortcomings and see if you can re-route them into healthier patterns.
I’ll share a couple of quick examples of things I tell myself to change the script when I find myself falling into impostor syndrome and related unhealthy patterns of thought.
Instead of despairing about all the things we don’t yet know about technology, it helps to remember that the field of technology is so big, so complex, and is changing so rapidly that it is quite literally beyond any single person’s capacity to truly understand it comprehensively. What this means is that you and I should stop comparing ourselves to other people in tech who have developed expertise in one small slice of it or who have simply been in the field longer. There’s always something more to learn in tech—which is exactly why tech is exciting for people like you and me who are constantly curious and love to learn. We’ll never be bored because there’s always a new thing to learn and a new way to progress.
Another script that helps is to step back and look at the progress you’ve made. It can be daunting to consider all that you don’t yet know, but when you look back at all the things you’ve learned, you will realize how far you’ve actually come. You might be amazed at how much you’ve learned and changed in the last year compared to previous years alone.
Another thing that helps is to dedicate about 1-3 hours every week to spend just learning and improving your skills. It might feel like a selfish indulgence, but it’s actually quite necessary in this field. If there’s something that is causing you to feel stressed or anxious, make that the focus of your learning time that week. If you’re like me and you find that having a social component helps your learning, try to find other communities of learners to help support you in your progress. For example, I love the Write the Docs community, which exposes me to new ideas and a lot of other writers at various levels of experience who are sharing together.
And while we’re on the topic of communities, if your workplace isn’t one that lifts you up and makes you feel like your contributions are valuable, it’s time for a change. I can’t believe how much changing jobs in the last two years has helped me to change my own perceptions of my technical competence and the value of my contributions on a software team. Supportive work cultures make a big difference. If you’re in a toxic work environment or one that isn’t the right cultural fit for you, look for other work. I promise it can get better.
I could probably say a lot more about this topic, but I want to just close by saying: don’t give up and feel overwhelmed by all you don’t yet know. Keep an eye on your inner monologue to make sure that you’re talking to yourself in a healthy way about your contributions. I promise that you do have something of value to offer to the tech industry if you work to find your own niche in it.