What is impostor syndrome?
Impostor syndrome is the feeling that you don’t deserve our own success. For some people, it arises in very specific circumstances, like at a new job or when you’re learning a new skill (like coding). For others, it’s a continuous mindset—always present in the back of your mind, no matter what you’re doing. If you’re experiencing impostor syndrome, you might feel like you were only able to achieve something because you were in the right place at the right time or because there wasn’t much competition. You might feel like your accomplishments are a fluke—you were just winging it—and, next time, someone will catch on. You might be afraid to be outed as a fake or failure.
Who experiences impostor syndrome?
The short answer: everyone. Impostor syndrome can affect anyone who feels like they’re in a situation out of their depth. That said, there are a few groups who are more likely to experience impostor syndrome than others:
When you’re in an environment where your knowledge is constantly tested—and graded—it’s easy to start doubting yourself. You’re constantly out of your comfort zone because you’re always learning something new.
Similarly to students, teachers and professors spend most of their time in an environment where their knowledge is constantly being tested. And teachers—more so than students—may feel pressure to be on the cutting edge of knowledge so they can evolve their curriculum. They always have at least one foot out of their comfort zone.
People who are in the minority in any group
Impostor syndrome has a tendency to pop up whenever you feel like you don’t fit into a larger group, and that can take any number of forms—like being the only young person in a room of elders or being an immigrant in a new country.
For immigrants specifically, it can be difficult to understand the cultural cues of a new country, which makes it hard for your brain to properly categorize all the information it receives. And if there’s a language barrier, that can be even more problematic. For example, if you’re a decorated scholar in your home country but you can’t communicate your knowledge to people in your new country, you may start to feel as though you’re not actually qualified.
People who work by themselves
Part of how humans understand being human is by observing other people and taking cues from them. When you work by yourself and don’t have any feedback coming in from other people, it’s difficult to know how your work fits into a larger landscape, and this can make you feel vulnerable and fearful.
People in highly competitive environments
Environments where asking questions and teamwork are discouraged present the ideal conditions for developing impostor syndrome. While the groups outlined above have the opportunity to overcome their impostor syndrome—it’s all about reframing your mindset—it’s out of your power to change a toxic environment. The best thing you can do in that case is to leave those conditions.
What personality types experience impostor syndrome?
While anyone can experience impostor syndrome, there are four main personality types that lend themselves particularly well to self-doubt:
There are two types of perfectionists: those who revise things over and over (this generally turns into a form of procrastination) and those who work so hard they endanger their health. Either way, trying to be perfect is a trap for falling into impostor syndrome because you’ll never meet the impossibly high standards you set for yourself.
The natural genius
If everything came easy to you when you were younger—school, sports, arts—you fit into the natural genius category. Because natural geniuses never had to struggle when they were growing up, if they try something new and it doesn’t work on the first try, they get discouraged and doubt themselves. They think they can only be good at things they’re naturally good at—if it doesn’t work immediately, it’s not for them. In reality, though, there’s no way to know if you have a talent for something if you’ve only tried it once.
Soloists think if they haven’t completed a project entirely by themselves, it’s not an achievement. Especially in today’s world where everything is connected and specialized, it’s almost impossible to do a project without the help of others. Remember, soloists: team efforts (and your personal contribution to the team) are great accomplishments.
Experts are people who feel like they have to know absolutely everything about their field of expertise. If you’re someone who takes class after class or attends conference after conference without putting your knowledge to the test, you’re an expert. Similarly to perfectionists, experts end up spending a lot of time procrastinating because, instead of utilizing their knowledge, they spend all their time learning.
How do you overcome impostor syndrome?
Now that we’ve identified the types of people most likely to develop impostor syndrome, let’s discuss methods for overcoming it. It’s important to identify which traits above contribute to your impostor syndrome, because finding the root cause is the first step in being able to overcome it. When you’re ready, dive into the methods below:
Break the silence
The underlying factor of impostor syndrome is the fear of failure, and the first step in dealing with any type of fear is talking about it. Find someone you trust, and have a conversation with them about your fears. More than likely, they have some of the same feelings, and you can help each other by getting them out in the open.
If you don’t have someone you feel comfortable talking with, talk to yourself in the mirror. It may feel goofy at first, but you’ll get used to it. Trust us, it works.
Separate fact from feeling
Most of the time, you’re the only person who doesn’t see your accomplishments as accomplishments. Acknowledging our own success takes time. Set a timer for 10 minutes, and make a list of all your accomplishments you can think of, no matter how big or small. It doesn’t matter if it’s taking a few minutes to learn the definition of HTML or building an entire website from scratch—it’s still something to be proud of.
In making your list, though, make sure you only list the facts. When your doubts start to creep in—“learning a definition isn’t much of a skill” or “anybody who worked hard enough could have built that website”—leave those off. Keeping your accomplishments strictly as facts will help you start to see them as achievements.
Visualize your success
Ask a successful person what helped them achieve their goals, and chances are they’ll say they pictured what they wanted in detail—the process of visualization. Often, professional sports teams build this into their practices. Close your eyes and let a movie of your triumphs play in your mind. Do it every day if you can—even if it’s only for 30 seconds. If you’re having trouble visualizing, tell yourself the story of your success in words instead. “Visualizing” can take many forms, and the most important part is that you find a system that works for you. If you can see it, you can do it.
People who experience impostor syndrome immediately discount their successes: instead of saying, “I did it,” they’ll think: “I scraped by this time, but I really didn’t know what I was doing. I bet someone will catch on next time.”
Stop the cycle by rewarding yourself. When you accomplish something, take time for yourself—do something you want to do with your time. Material rewards are useful, but when you take time for yourself, you’re giving your brain a rest. As you reward yourself more, you’ll start to rewire your brain to recognize your successes instead of discounting them.
A great way to get out of the cycle of self-doubt is to focus on other people. Find a cause that’s meaningful to you, and spend time volunteering. No matter what you do, you’ll find value in helping others, which, in turn, will help you find value within yourself.
When all else fails, fake it ‘til you make it! If your fear stops you from trying new things, you’ll miss opportunities for growth. A good rule of thumb is to act how your version of your ideal self would act. Even if you try something new and fail, you’re no worse off than you were before. If you try something new and don’t enjoy it, you’ll have learned that it isn’t for you—which is still growth. And, who knows, you might find your brand new passion.
Overcoming impostor syndrome is a process, but every little step you take is a step in the right direction. It’s really challenging to leave your comfort zone, so don’t be afraid to take it slow. Eventually, you’ll get there. And know we believe in you—and we hope you do, too.
Ready to take the first step in overcoming your impostor syndrome? We’re here to help. Check out Code 101, a one-day workshop where you’ll learn the basics of what it means to be a software developer. If you have questions before jumping in, don’t hesitate to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.