by Daragh Byrne
How I beat impostor syndrome and stopped feeling like a fake
I have a confession to make. I have been an impostor throughout my entire adult life.
When I was studying physics at Ireland’s leading university, graduating near the top of my class, I was no good at any of it. It was a complete fluke, an accident.
First published on CodingMindfully.com.
When I excelled at my master’s degree in High Performance Computing at the same institution, I was faking it.
When I was offered a consulting dream-job at the School of Physics at another prestigious university, it was obvious that everyone around me was smarter. They were sure to find out that I was incompetent sooner or later, and there was no doubt they would get rid of me. It was just a matter of time.
When I changed industries and became a consultant to a household name investment bank, it was incredible that they didn’t fire me within days. I was surrounded by people who were just so much smarter than I was, who were doing better jobs.
When I joined a hugely successful web startup, leading my own team of crack software developers with a budget of millions, I was absolutely winging it. For three years, I did the job of an incompetent. I had no idea what I was doing.
When I became head of software development at a startup in the Australian property market, with free reign to hire my own team and set the technical direction of the company… I was actually mostly fine. The sense of being an impostor, a fake and terrible at my job had almost disappeared.
So what changed?
Download my Impostor Flashcard here — it’s a quick way to remind yourself that you’re actually pretty OK, even if you feel less than average.
Feelings versus reality
Let’s start by rewriting the story I just told you.
The facts stay the same, but this time, let’s re-frame it in terms of my thoughts and feelings. Here goes!
I have a confession to make. I have felt like an impostor throughout my entire adult life.
When I was studying physics at Ireland’s leading university, graduating near the top of my class, my mind kept telling me I was no good at any of it. It felt like was a complete fluke, an accident.
When I excelled at my master’s degree in High Performance Computing at the same institution, I constantly told myself I was faking it, despite the evidence to the contrary.
When I was offered a consulting dream-job at the School of Physics at another prestigious university, it seemed to me that everyone around me was smarter. They were sure to find out that I felt I was incompetent sooner or later, and there was no doubt in my mind they would get rid of me. The voice in my head kept on telling me it was just a matter of time.
When I changed industries and became a consultant to a household name investment bank, I thought that it was incredible that they didn’t fire me within days. I was surrounded by people who were just appeared to be so much smarter than I was, who I perceived were doing better jobs.
When I joined a hugely successful web startup, leading my own team of crack software developers with a budget of millions, I managed to convince myself was absolutely winging it. For three years, my imagination was full of stories that I did the job of an incompetent, even though we were universally praised. It seemed to me that I had no idea what I was doing.
Ways through impostor syndrome
Hands up if the above sounds familiar? The experience of living life with a certain degree of success, yet feeling as if it’s all somehow an accident?
Looked at objectively, it’s clear there was a huge disconnect between the realities of my life and my achievements, and how I thought and felt about them.
This is the essence of impostor syndrome — the feeling that, despite evidence of your basic success in life, you think, perceive and feel that your success has nothing to do with your personal qualities or the hard work you’ve put in — that it’s all some kind of accident, and you’re really a fraud.
Here’s the biggest lesson — our minds are lenses, producing a view of the world that, often, is slightly distorted from reality. These distortions in perception give rise to distorted thoughts and feelings. We start telling ourselves stories in our minds — like we’re just not good enough, everyone is better and so on.
Objectively, there is usually way less truth in these stories than our minds would have us believe — but it’s hard to be objective from the point of view of subjective consciousness.
Impostor syndrome sucks. It affects people who work in science and technology careers in particular for three main reasons.
- First, because we have deep knowledge in particular areas, getting things done is easier, so it’s very simple to dismiss our achievements as trivial. This means we build up a flawed picture of our abilities and what we are capable of over time. We undervalue ourselves terribly.
- Second, because of the psychological evolution of a typical geek, we tend to wrap up our sense of self-worth in what we know or what we can do, meaning we put ourselves under constant, subtle pressure to know everything — and since this is impossible, we feel bad when we constantly fall short — as we must in a career where we cannot possibly know everything.
- Third, the environments in which we find ourselves don’t help much. External pressures to be competitive turn the screw on our tendency to go hard on ourselves. Being surrounded by other smart people, many of whom are in the same psychological situation, and who are projecting out their own air of invulnerability (even though they are often feeling the same way on the inside), amplifies our feelings about our own so-called limitations.
There were a couple of huge things that helped me shift my perspective a number of important ways — I’m thrilled to have the chance to share them with you:
- Understanding the roots of the problem
- Debugging my own mind by practicing mindfulness
- Reinforcing the opposite belief
- Playing catch-up — within limits
Understanding the roots of the problem
Impostor syndrome is a pattern of thinking and feeling. It’s a habit of the mind — a bad habit, but one that can be managed and, with time, broken.
The mind is a funny thing. Humans are born pretty dumb, with a brain that’s far from fully formed. Infant minds are, in some ways, blank slates: although we’re born with temperaments and dispositions and inclinations, the amount of knowledge we need to survive in the world far exceeds the capacity of our DNA to encode it, so we enter the world with the capacity to learn.
We learn lots through a lifetime — useful skills like how to program a computer, or how to analyse big data for example.
We also learn how to respond to various stimuli and situations. Our cognitive (thinking) and emotional (feeling) responses are shaped by our life experiences.
We build up models of how the world works — psychologists call these models “schema” (much like a schema describes the structure and functionality of a database).
Schema are generalised models of sets of similar experiences. They dictate how we respond to similar situations in the future, in terms of thoughts, behaviour and feelings.
For example, we’ll build up schema about simple objects, like balls, or cars, or furniture. We know that a ball is round, and that when thrown, it’ll fly through the air, and we can catch it.
That’s a pretty simple example. We’ll also build up more complex schema around our emotional responses. Similar situations evoke similar emotional responses. These responses can be adaptive (useful) or maladaptive (not so useful).
It’s like our brain is programmable hardware. Except it can take a little bit of effort to undo the original programming.
Here’s an example from my own life. As I kid, I often felt there was something wrong with me because I was rejected by other kids socially. Over time, I built up what’s known as a defectiveness schema — a deep seated belief and set of feelings that there was something inherently broken within me.
Nobody wants to feel bad all the time, so we learn ways of dealing with uncomfortable emotions. Sometimes they take over, and we live our lives as if we ARE defective or whatever. Sometimes we ignore or suppress emotions (which is a disaster waiting to happen, but that’s another story).
Sometimes, we find a way to make ourselves feel good by doing something unrelated. We fight back against the feelings.
I found out that I could feel good about myself by working hard and being smart.
The simple act of knowing more than other people gave me the praise and validation that I wasn’t getting in other areas of my life.
This works well, for a while. Feeling like we know more than most people is very soothing when we feel a bit broken on the inside!
Leaving high-school for university made that a bit more difficult — I was surrounded by smart people and it was hard — if not impossible — to be the smartest all the time.
This is when I first had strong feelings of being an impostor. My inherent feelings of defectiveness had a tendency to take over, and my typical “knowing awesome things” band-aid didn’t work as well any more. That feeling of being a fraud was a frequent companion.
(As an aside, I found other ways to compensate, such as working on my social skills and partying ability — not very sustainable, but the sense of popularity also helped with the feelings of defectiveness — but that’s a whole other story, too!)
Every change in life circumstances — new social groups, and particularly new jobs — activated this schema. I find that my feelings of imposterhood are at their worst when I’m trying something new (for example, writing a lengthy article on impostor syndrome!).
The origins of impostor syndrome will be subtly different for everyone. The particular circumstances of your life, the experiences that you’ve had that trained your brain to feel defective in some way — this will be unique to you.
Most of them will have happened during the formative years of childhood and adolescence. But I guarantee that somehow, somewhere, you’ll be following a pattern of covering up for feelings of worthlessness by trying to continuously overachieve.
Simply knowing that you’re a victim of the natural evolution of your psychological make-up is soothing in itself, as it gives you a platform to work from, to take action to counter these feelings — to rewrite the story in the manner I did above.
Next, I talk about the most powerful tool that I have found that helps me do exactly this — mindfulness.
Debugging my own mind by practicing mindfulness
Geeks are are generally rationalists. We place a lot of faith in our ability to think clearly.
Read my Ultimate Guide to Meditation for Programmers here and begin your mindfulness training journey.
Rational thought is incredibly powerful. We use it to build bridges, keep airplanes and satellites from plunging to the ground, design surgical implements and techniques that save many lives, reason about the best moral courses of action and penetrate the mysteries of the universe. The twin disciplines of logic and the scientific method have given so much to humanity when considered in aggregate.
Reason gives us a framework for making sense of the world. Many people are entirely comfortable to assert “I think, therefore I am”, in the words of Descartes. It’s pretty normal for intelligent people to place a LOT of value in the activities of their thinking mind.
Indeed, as we discussed above, the desire for the ability to out-think other people — to be as smart as, or smarter than others — is often at the core of impostor syndrome.
The voice in our head is insistent and loud. Every thought demands that we pay it attention. Every thought insists its own value, its absolute truth.
This would be fine, except for the fact that thoughts are often distorted — sometimes just a bit off, other times patently untrue. Not every thought we experience will be correct!
Often the source of the error is maladaptive learning. Other times, it’s in-built psychological biases. Either way, as rationalists, it can be challenging to our self-belief to realise that we have a mind that produces thoughts that are, at least some of the time, completely wrong!
Impostor syndrome can be considered as a case of distorted thinking. We think that we’re inadequate or defective, and that bad things are going to happen as a result, when the facts and experience of our lives objectively indicate that this is not the case (or less the case than we believe).
We believe that we’re going to be found out, when in actual fact our contributions are valued. Even in cases where there may be a genuine problem with how we are perceived by others, we amplify the magnitude of the problem.
Mindfulness gives us an excellent way out. Learning to be mindful means learning where to accurately direct your attention. Mindfulness practices train us to take a step back from what we are thinking, simply observing it rather than completely buying into it.
With a bit of practice, we get into a habit of choosing when to believe or give value to the contents of our mind. When we’re dealing with distorted thinking, this is incredibly useful!
Now, because we’re smart people and our thinking is really useful to us, it’s often a huge part of our identity. What are we, if we are not our thoughts? When I first considered this possibility, I was terrified.
My ability to think was so central to my sense of identity that I found it really hard to consider it might have flaws! Hands up if you feel this way right now?
It’s really easy to completely identify with our thoughts — we become “fused” with them. Psychologists call the process of stepping back from our thoughts and feelings “cognitive defusion” — we de-fuse from thoughts and feelings.
This can be difficult, particularly when you’re used to giving primary value to the contents of your mind. But there are A TON of techniques available that help you to do this. And you’ll learn many of them in a short course in mindfulness meditation.
Check out the Ultimate Guide to Meditation for Programmers (free download) that I wrote if yow want to get started right away.
Mindfulness is about engaging what’s happening in your world right now. It’s about deliberately paying attention to an aspect or your present moment experience. It also has the advantage of some pretty significant scientific support as a way of dealing with a variety of problems, including stress and anxiety (something often associated with impostor syndrome).
Here’s an experiment: if you sit for a few minutes and write down thoughts as they come into your head, you’ll begin to notice a pattern. In general, our thoughts are pre-occupied with the PAST or the FUTURE (i.e. “they are going to find out”, or “I should never have taken this job”).
The primary purpose of our mind is to keep us alive. It’s a survival device. It’s constantly doing two things (1) projecting into the future about what MIGHT happen, so that we can be prepared (2) reflecting on what went wrong in the past, so we can avoid making the same mistakes in the future.
This is great, and useful as there are genuine situations when the mind actually keeps us alive. But they are pretty rare. Dealing with a mind full of distorted thinking gets draining fast.
Mindfulness acts as an antidote because it forces us out of this past/future preoccupation. By choosing to focus on what’s happening right now, we break the worry loop, even if it’s just for a few seconds.
The present moment is awesome. Generally, it’s a pretty safe place (don’t believe this? You’ve made it through every single moment today without dying! Unless you’re reading this from beyond the grave — in which case, well done). And it’s full of things we can focus on — they are often called “anchors”, as they anchor us in the present and stop us being dragged into the future or the past.
Learning to be mindful is a matter of practicing connecting with any or all of these anchors. These practices include meditation, but there are also a number of other exercises.
When I first learned about mindfulness, it was a revelation. The simple concept that I was not my thoughts was challenging but revolutionised how I related to my own mind. I started out by learning mindfulness of breathing through breath meditations.
I knew it was working when I started to notice myself “catching myself” caught up in worry loops (the impostor loop for example) and, instead of continuing to freak out, choosing to concentrate on my breath instead. An altogether more pleasant experience than the anxiety that I would typically feel on those occasions!
Mindfulness is becoming more and more accepted as an approach for dealing with a wide range of problems. Here are just a few links. I like it so much that I became a meditation teacher — you can read that full story here.
Re-inforcing the opposite belief
Download my Impostor Flashcard here — it’s a quick way to remind yourself that you’re actually pretty OK, even if you feel less than average.
As I mentioned, you can thing of your mind as a programmable device.
Humans have known for millennia that it’s possible to catalogue, dissect, challenge and alter the patterns of thinking and feeling that exist in your mental space.
To change your habits of thinking requires awareness, evidence-based challenge and repetition
- Awareness means building awareness of the fact that you are engaged in a thought pattern (e.g. I’m a worthless impostor) as described above
- Evidence-based challenge means remembering that your unhelpful thought pattern is most likely distorted in some way. You start to think of incidences in your past that DO NOT support the content of your distorted thinking (e.g. — you remember the times you had success as a programmer — that app you actually wrote despite its imperfections, that satisfied customer… and so on)
- Repetition — you repeat this process as many times as you detect yourself falling into the troublesome loop. Eventually, thinking and feeling a more desirable way becomes a habit.
Playing Catch-up — within limits
Of course, there are times where it’s possible to deal with feeling like an impostor by simply learning more.
Be warned though — there are limits to what a human can learn. And the list of situations in which you might find yourself knowing absolutely nothing about the subject matter is huge.
But if you feel like you could brush up on your CS/Programming basics, you could do worse than investing in The Impostor’s Handbook by Rob Connery (not affiliated).
Your mindful way through impostor syndrome
I’ll be honest with you — from time to time, I still feel like an impostor.
But the knowledge that it’s a deep rooted pattern, plus the ability to take a mental step back, and rewrite the story in terms of thoughts and feelings — neither of which are the full truth of the situation — make it a LOT easier for me to deal with it as it arises.
I believe in the power of mindfulness to help with problems like impostor syndrome so much that I retrained as a mindfulness meditation teacher (you can read the full story here).
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