Impostor Syndrome: thoughts and tips

Recently a dear friend of mine is struggling to enjoy work. As this is their first “job”, a lot of pressure, imagined or not, has become a source of great anxiety. After discussing the mental hardship during these tough moments, I can’t help by remembering how I felt in my first job. Today I want to identify this problem, explain why it exists, and what we can do to mitigate it.

Before I begin, it should be pointed that I have not taken a full-time job either, and all my experience came from previous internships. I do believe my thoughts and pointers are valid, but take it with a grain of salt just in case.

What is Impostor Syndrome

Rather than giving a formal definition about the term, which you can find here, I want to give an example to start with. Imagine you are at a party, standing in a circle of discussion. Weirdly you know all the people in the group, but just cannot understand what they are talking about. You feel a bit embarrassed to ask, so you just listen quietly, and throw in a few “that’s interesting”s. When you are on the way home, you question your intelligence and if you looked stupid at the party, and you end up hating yourself for being an idiot.

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Sounds familiar? Now switch the context into an office, and you are having Impostor Syndrome now. Often times, people feel bad for themselves for not performing well at work, or not following others’ train of thought, and they feel like they are frauds, pretending that they understand things they don’t; and they are Impostor(that’s where the term comes from).

Why we have it?

First of all, looking back at my earlier jobs, it is so viscerally understandable to have the feeling that you are not as good as you think, or people expect you to be, especially for me and my contemporaries, just entering, or about to, the industry. This is not a singular problem in tech, but across pretty much any industry. Let me walk you through how a new grad walks into the trap of Impostor Syndrome, and sometimes ironically rational.

You begin your first day, surrounded by people who all have more experience than you do. You want to “prove” that you are just as good, and you start your work with the determination of “I can figure things out by myself”. Not after long you get hopelessly stuck, and after a few hours of intellectual and mental battle, you got into a position where you have to ask someone for help, but simultaneously ashamed of showing weakness. When you finally solve the problem after possibly extensive help, you escape from work, wishing people had forgotten how stupid you were today. You get home and cry in the shower, thinking “maybe I am just a fake”, and you dread showing up at work the next day. Voilà?

In my opinion, Impostor Syndrome roots essentially from a lack of confidence, specifically in the workplace. Being fresh out of college, we may sudden realize just how much we don’t know that goes into our work, and that makes us nervous, worrying others may disapprove us. I totally had a mental phase like this, and I think many people have it too. And the worst of all is, you can’t really tell anyone about this, without admitting your unreadiness for work.

Removing the mental block

I want to introduce a different way of thinking about this, which helped me to deal with Impostor Syndrome. Instead of trying to resolve it, try to admit and embrace it.

People around us at work have worked for years, if not decades, to horn their skills in real life situations, which makes them competent when we look at them. They didn’t get to this point in a day. We must understand when starting a new job, most people would objectively struggle, due to inexperience. Most importantly, there’s nothing to be shamed of for not knowing. What matters is how you deal with that.

Also you need to see your career as a process, not a static view(pardon the pun). Right now you are not good at what you do, that’s for sure; so just accept it. What keeps you moving forward is the belief that EVENTUALLY you will be good at it, as long as you put in enough effort.

You may feel that “eventually” is too far and impractical, and that’s reasonable. I cannot predict when I will become a “strong” developer, but I can make sure that I work towards it everyday. In the end, the result doesn’t matter; what matters is the journey you take, and if you enjoyed it.

Some practical tips

If you have something like what I described before at work, try this tomorrow. Forget you are an employee, and think of yourself having a “behind the curtains” look into what smart people do at work. Simply observe and appreciate their work process, and absorb a bit to improve yourself. The trick here is you remove yourself from comparing against your colleagues, and move to appreciate them and in term you will appreciate too.

There’s a more readily applicable tip about Impostor Syndrome I feel like bringing up, and that’s talking about it. Yes it is embarrassing, but honestly talking about it with people you trust helps a lot, even if they just simply listen and nod. I am very lucky to have someone to share my fears and anxieties. And guess what? I can return the favors in the same fashion. Find a friend to talk about it, and offer to listen when they need too. When one mind can’t take, find another one.

Conclusion

I hope this helps you in accepting your weakness and finding ways to improve it. If you want to discuss the details, PM me on twitter and we can talk about it more in detail.

Tl;dr. Trust that you are awesome!

1y1wg5

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