by Code Girl

Imposter Syndrome: what it is, why it happens, and how to stop the madness

Photo by Ali Yahya on Unsplash

Ever have that feeling that maybe you just didn’t measure up at your new developer job, in your boot camp, or on a help forum? A sickening feeling that maybe you are in over your head? How often do you compare yourself to someone else… someone… better? Welcome to Imposter Syndrome.

Imposter Syndrome is a fluctuating state of feeling out of place, under-qualified, a fake or a fraud. An imposter. At any moment, your secret will be shouted out for all the world to hear, and you’ll be humiliated forever. Have you had an experience like this?

People come from different economic and social backgrounds. They are all in different fields, at different levels of their careers, and they all have different talents and abilities…” Dr. Pauline Rose Clance

Yet, I found it fascinating, and at the same time, familiar, that the research on Imposter Syndrome does indicate that the more successful you are, the more likely you are to be impacted by Imposter Syndrome — and that success can be defined many ways. But if you are experiencing success why would you have a need to feel like an imposter…? We’ll get to that.

Here’s one of the biggest problems with Imposter Syndrome: most people don’t tell their stories out loud. They don’t acknowledge how they are feeling, and they don’t say “I feel like an imposter.” Which means some of us are in deep denial thinking it is somehow normal to torture ourselves day in and out. To make it impossible to enjoy the success that we’ve truly earned.

Acknowledging this feeling gives us a break from the constant onslaught of planning our next possible success. Further, we’ll likely share our story with someone who had no idea that they, too, were suffering. That is completely liberating. We have to tell these stories to find a way to work through them.

So I Will Share One of My Imposter Syndrome Stories

During mid-October, I was attending the Connect Tech annual conference. Last year, I was a random attendee thanks to a scholarship from Women Who Code Atlanta. This year, I was to be a speaker. I had a 50-minute slot for my talk with teacher and mentor, Toby Ho, titled, “Don’t Suck at Teaching Code.”

But that’s not what made me different. I was also the keynote speaker on the first day of the conference in front of more than 1,000 people. But not for one minute did I think I deserved the keynote slot, and often thought that there had been a mistake. I kept waiting for Pratik Patel, mentor and conference organizer, to take back his request that I would be his keynote for this year. I checked weekly to see if the Connect Tech website had been updated because only that would make it real.

Imposter Syndrome had me in a choke hold, and I found myself wondering how many people would think I was a fraud. On the day of the address, the first thing I thought was that no one was going to show up or fill the room for me — instead of thinking how thankful I was to have this opportunity and how proud I was for all the hard work I did to prepare. So deep was I into the weeds, that I gave that same presentation on three separate occasions to make sure it would be PERFECT.

Let’s go back to the research on success. I had been highly successful in reaching my goal to be a keynote speaker at a major technology conference, yet I was still in a state of denial. I had to keep reminding myself that it wasn’t a fluke. I seemed to be working harder and harder to speak at another conference — but this time, an out-of-town conference where no one knew me because maybe then I could just relax.

Do you see a trend? The more success I earn, the harder I work, and the more I work. Extra projects, more blog posts, another conference, volunteering… it doesn’t stop. The “imposter” truly wants to succeed and enjoy the success, but Imposter Syndrome tells us something different. It tells us that it’s a cycle and you must keep at that cycle. It’s like never getting off of a ride at an amusement park. You like the ride, and you do get tired of the ride, but you keep riding. When does the cycle end? When you consciously take the reins and use the following strategies everyday.

Curb the What if

Everyone goes through days where they ask themselves, “What if?” For example, What if I fail the whiteboard test? What if I don’t get the job? What if the traffic makes me late to the interview?

I can make a list of What if’s. But no more. As of today, you and I get ONE what if a day. That’s it. Use it wisely because you can not go through the day wondering about all the possible things that could go wrong.You know why? Because there are a million things that can and will go right and you should celebrate that.

If you limit yourself to just one What If, you might allow yourself to celebrate the successes of the day. Wow — I got a great parking spot. I finished the project two days early. My boss bought me coffee. Do you feel the smile on your face widen? It should.

Set Reasonable and Timely Goals

In Educational Psychology, we create four categories of goals: career, long term, short term, and today. Imagine if we only made a career goal. It would take precious time to achieve, and could be years. Your motivation to reach that goal might slowly dwindle and feel unattainable.

But what if we had four goals — that long term career goals, and then a long term goal — not as long as a career goal, but maybe finishing a graduate course or publishing an article based on your research? Now, in just two weeks you could complete 3 whiteboard challenges, and read the next chapter in your JavaScript book. If you can do all that, what could you do today? A few FreeCodeCamp challenges? Help someone in a forum?

Stop for a second. Every time you complete those goals, cross them off. Don’t get a new piece of paper. Show yourself what you have accomplished. Feel the success. Celebrate that you are one step closer to completing all of your goals. And when you finish one, add another goal in that category. Every day let that success wash over you because you can do it.

Create a reciprocal support group

Mentoring is a huge part of the growing process in learning code, but you need to realize that not just any mentor will do. Reciprocal mentoring is powerful. It means that you and your mentor are equals and support each other in various ways.

Here’s an example. One of my best friends has been a programmer for over 10 years. I had only just started. That was an unequal relationship and oftentimes, I felt like giving up — she knew everything, and I felt defeated.

But I had something else. As a former college professor of 10 years, I’ve written books, chapters, blogs and presented at conferences. My friend never had. We agreed we would mentor each other. The pressure instantly lifted. It’s been a few years now, and neither of us needs the type of mentoring we thought we would need, but both of us are highly successful, and I believe it is because we treat each other like equals.

Believe the Praise

When someone tells you that your code was clean, say thank you. Smile. And give yourself an internal high five.

When someone tells you that was an interesting way to solve that algorithm, give them a high-five.

In other words, believe the praise. Many of us that suffer from Imposter Syndrome do not hear the praise. We nod our heads and say thank you, but we don’t believe it and we forget it immediately. No more. Repeat that praise to yourself. Repeat it again. Say thank you, and mean it. Smile, with the broadest smile you can muster, and nod to yourself. Who knows, maybe you can cross something off of your goal list. Even if you didn’t, you hit a milestone, and you need to be proud of yourself.

Will Imposter System stop simply because you stop asking What if questions, set goals, find a mentor, and believe the praise? No, it won’t. Not right away. But the more you practice these techniques, the closer you are going to be to shutting out the noise of Imposter Syndrome.