The Weight of Impostor Syndrome

Talk of impostor syndrome is almost memetic at the moment. If you don’t know what it is, go look it up.  I’ll wait.

Like lots of other people, I struggle with this constantly. I’m not as smart as everybody else in the room. I’m not as good a coder. I’m not as good a manager. Sooner or later I will be found out for what I am: an impostor.

Thing is, I can rationally defeat many of those things by looking at objective evidence. I recite the evidence to myself. I am smart: my IQ is nearly 150. I wrote a programming book that some people really like - note I first wrote that as “great”, deleted it, wrote “best-selling”, deleted it, and settled for “some people really like”. I have worked on some interesting coding projects. I manage a successful team at an interesting company doing things that are technically difficult and that will hopefully make a difference in the world.

But in the back of my brain, a little voice says, that was just luck.

I recently realized that impostor syndrome is present in all parts of my life, not just in my career.  Everyone is better at riding horses than I am, even though I’ve been doing it since I was four. My fiction writing sucks, and my critique group will eject me once they figure it out.  My house is messier than everyone else’s, and I think I’m a terrible cook. I can’t co-ordinate my wardrobe.

The worst part is standing at the playground, thinking that every other parent there knows what they are doing except for me.

I have to remind myself these things aren’t true. Every day. I heard some good advice recently, which was to speak to yourself as if you were your best friend. You wouldn’t say to your best friend, “You’re an idiot”, now, would you? Even if your BFF did something objectively stupid, you might tell them, “You’re not stupid. We all do dumb things, sometimes.”

How about you? If you have strategies for overcoming impostor syndrome, share them in the comments.

27 Comments

  1. Erik Rose:

    I find it instructive to remember that everybody’s Facebooks and CVs represent Awesome Them, just like my Facebook profile represents Awesome Me: it’s full of me succeeding at things and having fun all the time. Comparing my deepest insecurities to somebody else’s PR releases is laughably unfair.

    Bertrand Russell said “…the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.” If you’re full of doubt, you’re in good company.

  2. Brian Moon:

    I am so happy to have a term to associate this with. My mother and I have talked at length about how we do this very thing. If I am asked if I am good at my job, I tend to tell people I am. But, when I have to do things that require other people to believe I am good at my job, I don’t always feel like they believe it or know it. And I will back out of things because of that. Or I will not push for something because of it. Like you, it does affect other parts of my life as well. The one area I don’t feel it like you is parenting. I think that is because I have, what I think, are great parents and grandparents and I have tried to emulate them. That gives me a benchmark. As long as I am striving to be as good as them, I am OK.

  3. Ian Bicking:

    I also cannot coordinate my wardrobe, and to the degree I do I am most certainly an impostor. One of the more poisonous approaches to dealing with impostor’s syndrome is to decide what you aren’t good at isn’t important. I see a lot of people, especially among the geek crowd, who do that. For instance, I used reject fashion as a concept. Now that I don’t, I’m not fashionable, but I suppose I’m more fashionable – but in some other sense I’m worse off because now I see my failings.

    Maybe what most helps me is sympathy – when I am sympathetic towards others I feel more sympathetic towards myself.

  4. Zack:

    Back when I was a full-time code monkey, I would get squashed by impostor syndrome every. single. time. it took me a week to find the cause of a bug whose solution was a one-line code change. Then one day I had an epiphany in the shower: those bugs are hard because the solution is so small. If the problem required more code to solve, its cause would be more obvious. (My debugging process is very heavy on reading the code. YMMV.) It didn’t make the impostor syndrome go completely away but at least I felt more confident that the time spent was commensurate with the actual difficulty of the task.

    Nowadays I’m in academia and my progress is measured in publications, and the impostor syndrome rides along with the writer’s block: I can’t possibly be any good at this, it takes me all day to write one paragraph.

  5. Deb Richardson:

    I have nothing to offer in terms of strategies for coping, unfortunately, and imposter syndrome has had an incredible (and generally negative) impact on my life. I am incapable of self-promotion because of it, for example, which I’m almost certain has limited my career. I generally avoid people because there’s a constant underlying feeling of being judged when people are around. I tend towards individual pursuits rather than group activities (photography as a hobby instead of sports or what-have-you), and so forth. Imposter syndrome combined with a deep introversion is a tough combo :)

    On the other hand, it’s a lot better than the Dunning-Kruger effect — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning%E2%80%93Kruger_effect

  6. Caspy7:

    I think you hit the nail on the head for me.
    Thanks for the insight.
    Will have to ponder it some.
    It’s only been in recent years that I have begun to accept the fact that I might in fact be intelligent (and not just faking it :).

  7. Les Orchard:

    Not much to add, other than: Yeah, I’d rather have impostor syndrome than suffer from the Dunning-Kruger effect. At least then, at the end of the day, after a drink or two, I can console myself that at least I’m biased toward thinking I don’t know what I’m doing & need to improve - rather than thinking I’m awesome and blundering off a cliff. :)

  8. Elizabeth M Smith:

    The absolutely best way to beat this has been and remains for me - great friends who I think are awesome who smack me (figuratively and occasionally literally) when I get the imposter voice spinning in my head. I think a good network of people who are there to tell you that it’s OK if you’re not fashionable (and we’ll take you shopping if you need to find a great outfit) and goodness you’re fine with your kids - all kids are crazy! (do you know what my middle one did last week?) … that balancing voice of reason in chat rooms or on the phone or in person keeps that noisy little voice in the head telling you all the lies… much quieter.

  9. Peter Bengtsson:

    I’m pretty awesome. I’m a level 8 [insert choice skill or trait or wealth] and certainly better than people at level 7. And I laugh at people still on level 6. Don’t get me started on those on 5 or less. However, I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in leveling up to level 9. There, everyone is much awesomer than me and I’m relatively crap.

    My point is; we’re only imposters at what we can get better at. Shame that we can’t weigh some of “forward looking” with some past reflection.

  10. kats:

    This reminds me of a TED talk I watched recently that you may find interesting:

    http://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are.html

  11. kripken:

    I suffer from it and always have, but I’m not sure it needs to be overcome.

    Constantly thinking I am about to be found out for the unworthy fraud that I am is what drives me to work even harder. Did I just do X? If I didn’t have impostor syndrome, I’d think “hey that’s cool that I did X” and go have fun doing something unrelated. Instead, I think “I did X but it was a lucky fluke and everyone will figure that out” so I go and do Y and Z.

    Also, impostor syndrome makes you humble.

    I would say the real issue is not impostor syndrome or not impostor syndrome, but how you react to having it. Does it make you nervous and unproductive? Or does it make you the opposite? Or neither?

  12. Dustin J. Mitchell:

    One of the things I determined long ago is that the way to succeed in a field is to fake it ’til you make it. Just about everyone is getting by, and the good ones are trying to make it real. Some put on a better show (or “Awesome Them”) than others, but fundamentally we’re all fumbling along in the dark, hoping for a little enlightenment before our time is up. Keeping this in mind helps with a lot of things, actually. It’s a miracle that most human creations - software, civil society, science, cars, traffic laws - work at all. Conspiracy theories sound ridiculous - do you seriously expect more than two or three people to keep a secret? It helps me be a little more forgiving of others’ failings, and a more forgiving of mine, too.

  13. Tristan:

    I have 2 reading suggestions for you:

    1 - read Shawn Achor’s “Happiness advantage”. It will explain how to become happier and therefore mlre self-confident and more productive. It’s a great intro to positive psychology.

    2 - read Neil Fiore’s “Now Habit” if you think your impostor syndrom is making you procrastinate. This book will help you fix this.

    In both cases, reading the book is good, doing the exercises makes a big difference.

    And by the way, Laura & Deb, you are two of my personal heroes, so that you know!

    –Tristan

  14. Tristan:

    Oh, you may want to invesst 15 minutes of your time to view this TED video:

    http://www.ted.com/talks/alain_de_botton_a_kinder_gentler_philosophy_of_success.html

    –Tristan

  15. Edmund:

    I *am* genuinely an imposter. No doubt about it. Kinda.
    The more I know. The more I know I don’t know. And the more
    I think I don’t really know.

    But yeah, Laura, you definitely nailed it for me. Though
    it’s not a syndrome, but a true fact.

    Then again, I don’t know if it’s a fact. Perhaps is a
    fallacy posing as a fact; or a fact posing as what I
    think is a fallacy?

  16. Dafirestar:

    Congrats on being so honest with your feelings of inferiority that is courageous. And thanks for allowing me to feel human as I feel my work especially my writing is horrible, I do more rewrites and editing than one could imagine, but it still sucks. Lol.

  17. Tjorriemorrie:

    I wanted to comment, but now I can’t as my comment won’t be as good as the others :(

  18. Gervase Markham:

    I would suggest that impostor syndrome is a consequence of buying into a system of finding your value and worth by comparison with others. It is exacerbated by the fact that today, due to the general shallowness of relationships, people are often making comparisons with someone’s “Awesome Them” (as Erik put it, well) as presented on Facebook or some other site, rather than reality. And strategies which have you telling yourself “you’re awesome too, really” or “it’s not so bad” won’t deal with that knawing feeling of inadequacy, long term.

    True value and worth lies in being a child of God, an irrevocable status which does not depend on personal performance but on God’s grace. If only God’s approval matters, and you are clothed in the righteousness of Christ rather than your own shabby deeds, then you can be free of the tyranny of comparison with others. :-)

    Matthew 6:25-34 is only one of many relevant passages: http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+6:25-34&version=NIV

    Gerv

  19. Patrick Schwisow:

    I had an interesting revelation reading Zack’s comment. Although many of us suffer the same symptoms of Imposter Syndrome, the triggers may be completely different. He said he gets that when debugging code and looking for a one-line bug. That is a scenario where I generally feel at my best (assuming I know that code fairly well). What gets me feeling like an imposter is managing projects and people. When the boss asks a tough question about why a project is behind schedule, I just want to run away and bury my face in the code! I think that realizing that Imposter Syndrome hits different people differently will help me be more sympathetic to others who may be fighting it in a situation where I would not.

  20. Sean Prunka:

    I’ve suffered from low self-esteem since I can remember. Impostor Syndrome strikes me in all areas of my life. Like you, I can rationally dismiss the idea with empirical evidence to the contrary…but there is always that little voice in the back of my head telling me that my evidence is flawed, that it was just luck or a fluke, or the stars happened to align just right…and that voice also throws every failure back at me as anecdotal evidence of just what a miserable failure and poseur I really am. I wrote my own blog post on it almost a year ago. ( http://j.mp/NNhX0d )…I’ve turned that post into a concept for conference sessions, and will be giving a “lightning talk” version of it at the Mentorship Summit at php[tek] 2013 in May… It is reassuring to be reminded that I am not alone, and that all of us have moments of Impostor Syndrome. Thank you for reminding me.

  21. Dan Scott:

    I feel at my most impostor-ish when I’m trying to join a new community. I’m quite aware of that right now as I’m stepping slightly away from the communities where I’ve built up a great deal of credit (whether that credit was deserved is another story) and into ones where I feel graceless and clumsy while trying to show that I really belong. Editing wiki pages and learning the project style guidelines and norms; I know it’s a necessary stepping stone to successfully helping out, but at the same time I fear that people are going to think that these earnest efforts are trivial, and I want to shout “No really, I’ve co-authored books and once led a team of 40 writers in (successfully!) rearchitecting a complete set of tech docs and I hack code and teach university students git and JavaScript and Go!”… but then I question how _well_ I really did all of that, and find all of the flaws, and I’m back to wondering if this is the time when the mask is going to be ripped off and my real incompetence visible to all.

    Thanks for sharing, Laura. You know I totally look up to you, right? One day maybe I’ll get to actually work with you :)

  22. Robert Kaiser:

    I have learned to mostly deal with it in the way that somehow I realized it doesn’t matter if someone else is better or if I am bad or mediocre at some things. What matters is I’m doing the best I can and try my best to improve where I can and in those areas I find important. What matters is the impact I make - on myself, the people I care about, the world. What matters is that even if what I do could be done better, the important thing is that I’m doing *something* and making at least one step in the right direction, and that I try. To go to the extreme, the question is not “What if I could change the world?” but the question is “What step can I take in the right direction to change the world?” - and it’s not “Am I good enough?” but it’s “Is the direction I’m going a good one and am I trying my best to move in that direction?”

    I know that society is pressuring us to be the best in everything, but the real problem isn’t that we aren’t the best in some abstract category of things. The problem is that we make ourselves believe in such abstract comparisons. Even the “IQ” doesn’t matter, it’s an artificial comparative measure against some abstract kind of tests. You know, stupid is as stupid does. What matters is that you’re giving your personal best, trying as hard as you con on those things that matter to you. Who cares if you’re the best parent in objective comparison against millions of others, it counts that you’re the best parent you can be to your children. Who cares if you’re a good cook, it counts that you’re good enough for the people you cook for. Who cares if everyone finds your book great, it counts that there are people who do, and that alone makes it great.

    Constant doubt is of course the main cornerstone to improvement, but don’t let it become large enough that you don’t appreciate what you are doing and excel in your little corner of the galaxy. After all, you’re the best horse-riding fiction-writing parent Mozilla webtools manager I know… ;-)

  23. luke crouch (@groovecoder):

    Everyone here has great points and advice. Scott Hanselman also has a great post about Imposter Syndrome in our industry: http://www.hanselman.com/blog/ImAPhonyAreYou.aspx (He was writing about it before it was cool.)

    My trigger for imposter syndrome is - like most - looking at other peoples’ Awesome Selves (perfect term Erik); especially other open source developers with very popular open source projects.

    My advice is a bit personal and maybe a bit weird … I try to recognize my - and others’ - Real Self and Awesome Self. I know I get into trouble when I spend time and energy feeding my Awesome Self - my “false self”, to co-opt a term from Thomas Merton. “I use up my life in the desire for pleasures and the thirst for experiences, for power, honor, knowledge, feeling loved, in order to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real. And I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface.” Martin Laird calls those experiences and pleasures the movie we play for ourselves inside our own heads. As much as I can, I practice meditation and contemplation every day - typically while or after working out. To remind myself that the movie is just a movie; what’s real is the [Dd]irector.

    So when I face doubts, I have a bit more awareness to ask what’s *behind* them? Is it a real motivation to learn more, or am I worried about my Awesome/False self?

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  26. Mary Lou Savage:

    One big source of trouble for me is when I start comparing my insides to someone else’s outsides. I make all kinds of assumptions about others’ thoughts and feelings and always endow them with relentless confidence, courage, insight, etc. While I am intimately aware of my own insecurities, fear, and failings I forget to allow those feelings to others.

    Focusing on common humanity and shedding assumptions is a helpful tool.

    And, Laura, I think you ride well, and exceptionally smart, a wonderful parent, and have accomplished noteworthy things. While I do/am none of the above.

    See how it works?

    Hope to see you soon!

  27. Mary Lou Savage:

    “Are” exceptionally smart.

    And, I make typos and do not proofread carefully because I am impatient!

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