TL;DR Imposter Syndrome is not a problem, it’s a solution.
Imposter Syndrome sounds like a medical diagnosis that suggests something is wrong with us. Perhaps there is a magical pill or some interesting psychological trick we can apply to get rid of this sickness which apparently is bad for us? If you are a high-performer in a challenging job, I’m sure you have already heard about Imposter Syndrome. But, unfortunately, I also feel you might have heard about it way too often and never in a positive way.
It affects all of us in the same amount, and there is no bias towards women or people of colour. There is quite a bit of research done to prove it. Although we can catch this nasty “virus” anytime, and the way it impacts us is different. Unfortunately, it tends to create more negative symptoms for women under its influence.
Impostor syndrome is a psychological pattern in which individuals doubt their skills, talents, or accomplishments and have a persistent internalised 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.
I actually think the Imposter Syndrom makes us better human beings. Still, as with everything in life, if overdosed, we will suffocate under its pressure and keep failing at things meant for us.
Why does it suck?
Let’s be honest, there is nothing noble or remarkable in underestimating our capabilities and doubting our value. It brings a lot of pain, worry, and overthinking, but worse of all, it can prevent us from doing what we are really good at in our lives. That’s where it really sucks. So many people fall victim to this self-doubt phenomenon, which sounds like a medical definition of psychological cancer. It would be nice to just get rid of it… Would be so nice…
I know I’m not alone in this kind of thinking, and not many people actually openly talk about it and share their self-doubt thoughts. It doesn’t look good in front of their bosses. It doesn’t spark confidence in their skills either. So… I’m sharing what I’ve learnt, and I encourage you to face and share your imposter thoughts. Running away is not a solution, and your demons will haunt you until the end of your days, no matter how successful you become.
I’ve got the “disease”. Auuuch…
I find it a bit ironic because I never felt it applied to me. I had some doubts in the past, but come on, surely it wasn’t the imposter syndrome?
I had a moment of realisation when I was going through a leadership program. It started from a proper 360-degrees review which required me to evaluate myself. It was awkward, and I didn’t want to do it. I also asked another 15 people to fill it out and provide feedback about me, my work and my leadership skills. It was very comprehensive. When the report arrived, I spent a whole day reviewing, analysing, reading and trying to understand what had just happened. People, I used to work with (direct reports, managers, peers), scored me way higher than I rated myself. I could only see that because I filled out the initial survey, and the contrast hit me. I undervalued myself, downplayed my skills and experience, and always felt “I should do better”. That sounds like imposter syndrome to me…
It has been a big part of my life, and I won’t lie that it never affected me. I’ve been working within software engineering for around 20 years now, and throughout this time, I’ve been focused on different areas. My doubts appear when I haven’t touched a particular topic for a while (coding, for example), and I feel my knowledge might be irrelevant. I feel “rusty”, and despite the very successful projects I delivered in the past, my brain plays with me and suggests that my hands-on skills are not worth more than these of a junior developer. It sucks!
But now I understand it, now I know it, now I can face it…
What is the opposite of Imposter Syndrome?
While writing this post, I thought that maybe on the opposite side of Imposter Syndrome is Dunning-Kruger Effect (another medical-sounding disease). People who don’t know enough think they are exceptional (hence the D-K effect), and those who are actually amazing end up with Imposter Syndrome.
“The bigger the ego, the harder the fall.”
The reality is that only stupid people have no doubts about their skills and knowledge. They easily get lost in their heads, considering themselves as the only amazing human beings on earth, and everything they do is nothing less than perfect. That’s how we end up working with jerks who, despite their limited knowledge and experience, behave like gods.
Imposter Syndrome is a positive thing, and we need it.
Seriously, it’s a good thing. It might mean we have reached a point where we are genuinely good at something, and our brain starts putting doubts in front of us to make sure our skills stay sharp. It’s a self-balancing system for our ego that helps bring us back to earth and plant some uncertainty in our abilities. Of course, it is up to us how we choose to deal with it — saying “well, I suck” and omitting all the past and fantastic work we did that prove otherwise? Or we can face it and prove it’s all wrong… Likely over and over again, because it will come back to us like a boomerang and keep haunting us as long as we care about the matter.
“Don’t believe in everything you think.”
I realised that option number 1 is not a good solution. On the contrary, it will get worse, and it will prevent me from doing what I love, only because I can’t see past my self-doubt and believe too much in what I think, even if it’s untrue.
Dealing with feeling inadequate.
I don’t know if there are different ways of dealing with it, but I know the one that works for me. Whenever I feel I’m not good at a particular thing (ex. coding), I review some of my old code and often find myself surprised at how sophisticated stuff I wrote in the past. It sometimes feels like it is impossible that’s mine, compared to how I feel right now about my skills. So how did I do that? Of course, that doesn’t really solve anything yet, but it’s a good start to remind myself of some great things I did.
The next step is my solution — I just go and do it.
After leading software engineering teams for a couple of years and being away from writing complex code, I have the right to feel inadequate. If I need to change that, I will just go and code. Find something challenging and just start writing. Maybe a new architecture for a mobile app or something equally complex to my skills and think beyond “easy”. A few days in, and I don’t feel rusty anymore. Instead, I feel empowered, back in the flow, and very motivated (ps. that really helps with resilience too). I don’t feel I have to prove anything. I know what I’m doing. It’s this feeling of “I still got it” that brings relief and help me to focus on the important stuff, rather than doubts and self-worry.
“If we are spending too much time in the inner world, we have less time to focus on events around us.”
I brought an example of coding as this happened to me very recently. After years of leading large teams and being away from the code, I faced the challenge of writing architecture from scratch. Instead of thinking how hard it was going to be, I reviewed some of the things I did in the past, got inspired and started coding. The results of what I produced are so much better than what I wrote 5 years ago, and it’s all enriched with my new experience and different points of view on what matters. Amazing!
Don’t think you are not good enough. Do it, and prove yourself wrong.
PS. I’m sure that after half a year of coding, my internal “re-balancing system” will wake up and say: “Maybe you are not as good as a leader as you used to be? Maybe you suck? Maybe you should just continue coding, you are good at it, right?”.
Ask me about it in a few months…
I’m waiting for this to happen and I will be ready :)