Impostor syndrome — fighting it as a developer (and a human being)

I’m 30 years old. Not too much if you think about it.

But looking back, I think I’ve been struggling with my impostor syndrome for almost forever.

I admit I’m a bit of a strange animal myself, and I really hope I’m not the only one: sometimes I think that nothing could bring me down; sometimes I wonder if I’m fooling everyone.

This, just up here, is how I would explain the impostor syndrome to someone, in simple terms.

But we are men of science: what is, in medical terms, the impostor syndrome?

“The impostor syndrome (a.k.a. impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome) is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their skills, talents or accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud.”
-Langford, Clance (1993)

It’s not a mental disorder, just to be clear, but it’s an experience that occurs in an individual and that could be accompanied by anxiety, stress or even depression.

As I said above, I think I’ve been struggling with it all of my life. And now that I recently changed my job sector, I feel it coming to caress me every now and then. I’m experiencing it even right now! I’m asking myself “who am I to talk about these things? ”. But I’m a person, and I think I can speak my mind about what and how I feel.

Reading around, I found that the impostor syndrome is very common, also in the field of IT, because it affects a lot of people who have expertise in a specific field: the more skills you have in a your sector, the more you able to realize how there are multiple topics in that sector that you don’t know; in the long run, you begin to think that you’re inadequate for the task.

But if you think about it… you feel inadequate because you’re competent. So it kinda “heals” itself, right?, telling you that YOU ARE competent.

It’s a bit of a ride, but the more you think about it, the more sense it makes. But… it’s enough to think about it in that way?

What else could we do?

We can begin to think that no one is perfect: everyone of us has his own flaws. Also who we think is an expert in a specific sector.

David Heinemeier Hansson is an expert developer; he created Ruby on Rails, a framework used by millions of other developers; he’s an accomplished entrepreneur; and still he admits to have flaws in his own sector.

Isn’t it that maybe we’re evaluating ourselves too hard?

Emma Watson, in 2013, told Rookie Magazine that “It’s almost like the better I do, the more my feeling of inadequacy actually increases, because I’m just going, ‘Any moment, someone’s going to find out I’m a total fraud, and that I don’t deserve any of what I’ve achieved.’ ”

Serena Williams, instead, told Oprah Winfrey that “There were two Venus Williamses in our family. It was tough for me to stop being Venus and become the person I am. I’m Serena … I still copy Venus in many ways, but it’s not as bad.”

Howard Schultz, business man and former CEO of Starbucks, in an interwiew with The New York Times, said “Very few people, whether you’ve been in that job before or not, get into the seat and believe today that they are now qualified to be the CEO. They’re not going to tell you that, but it’s true.”

And there are many, many more.

We’re talking about some of the most successful people in a specific sector. And they have the same self-esteem issues as you and me.

So maybe yes, we’re being to hard on ourselves.

But there are some “strategies” that can help us confronting the impostor syndrome:

  • Be aware of your success: when you reach a milestone and you instinctively think “I was lucky” or “I was in the right place at the right time” stop and look at the role you have played in your success. Make a list of a skills you’ve put into play, your efforts, and the things you are proud of. Valuing our own achievements also helps increase self-esteem;
  • Boost your body language: it may seem silly but even if we are not aware of it, non-verbal signals can convey our sense of insecurity to others. There are some body language techniques that can help us! Assuming an upright posture with your shoulders back and your head held high makes us appear more resolute and increases our self-confidence;
  • Talk with other people: talking about feelings of inadequacy is surely difficult but sharing your insecurities can reduce stress. It also helps you see the situation from another point of view that you hadn’t thought of.

So, at the end of the day, the impostor syndrome is real, but it’s only in our head. We don’t have to live with it, but instead we have to fight it, as hard as we can, day by day.

You control your mind, not the other way around.

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