The “imposter syndrome” is one of those industry terms we’ve all probably encountered—that over-sensationalized claim that people feel a degree of falseness within their jobs; the idea that we’re just winging it, unqualified, waiting until we’re discovered as fakes.
I first discovered the imposter syndrome early in my career. It was an eye-opening experience. I exclaimed to myself, “that’s me!” I felt validated that my internal sense of incompetence was normal. I could continue down my path, discarding any negative thoughts as just another bout of that pesky, self-loathing imposter syndrome.
The imposter syndrome served as my safe haven for a long time. It was my excuse, my reasoning, my blanket I could hide under when my mind was venturing into negative zones.
It wasn’t until recently that I challenged the notion of the imposter syndrome. It’s a popular subject. In 2017 alone, almost every major online publication has written about it. Here’s a small sampling:
- The Five Types Of Impostor Syndrome And How To Beat Them
- Imposter syndrome
- Feeling like an impostor? You can escape this confidence-sapping syndrome
- The One Thing You Need To Do To Overcome Impostor Syndrome
To quote Seth Godin’s post, the imposter syndrome is indeed “rampant.” The software and web development industry has fully embraced the idea, too. Conferences often visit the topic, and there’s always a post about it on industry blogs.
The imposter syndrome has become a contagion. And it needs to go away.
What is the Imposter Syndrome?
The imposter syndrome was identified in 1978 by Pauline Rose and Suzanne Imes of Georgia State University. In a paper titled, The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention, the authors open with, “the impostor phenomenon is used to designate an internal experience of intellectual phonies, which appears to be particularly prevalent and intense among a select sample of high achieving women.” The paper focuses on women, noting on the subject of men, “we have found that the phenomenon occurs with much less frequency in men…”
I cannot comprehend how a 40-year-old phenomenon has spiraled into a widespread issue that now affects so many people, including men, women, high-performers, and under-performers. A syndrome that was once specified for a select group under culturally different norms has suddenly morphed into this contagion that has no bounds. Every working person is susceptible to this condition.
This is why I cannot take the imposter syndrome seriously any longer.
If not the Imposter Syndrome, then what?
My primary beef with the imposter syndrome is that it’s an easy cop out. When you feel like you’re failing, it’s simple reasoning to tell yourself it’s just that imposter syndrome making you feel like a fraud. This isn’t a solution, and the imposter syndrome is a misnomer built under the false pretense that you have a special condition.
We need to wipe away the imposter syndrome from our logic. It’s not a real thing.
Here is what’s real:
- You feel like you’re failing because you might be currently failing.
- You feel like an imposter because you don’t yet belong.
- You feel like others are better because you’ve biased your perception toward them.
These sound like brash statements because they are—and they’re the truth. The imposter syndrome gives us cover for these real reasons. I’ve identified these feelings myself, and I’ve forced myself to confront the truths behind them. What I’ve discovered is that these negative feelings are healthy and have simple solutions.
Combatting the failure mindset
What I’ve described above is the failure mindset. This is not a term I’m trying to coin—it’s direct reasoning to a set of feelings we all experience from time to time.
With the failure mindset, we sometimes identify with the idea of the imposter syndrome. The imposter syndrome tells us that we believe we’re frauds. This is a falsehood we’ve accepted as it’s an easy out. Instead, the failure mindset confronts the reality that we feel like imposters because we’re not pushing hard enough. This is a strength—it’s a good quality.
Here are some methods to channel these sour thoughts into productive solutions.
Learning is the key to keeping your mind fresh. With a fresh mind, you can rejuvenate your creativity and tackle problems from different angles. Experiencing or feeling failure is an indication that you need to slow down and study, whether it’s reading a book, enrolling in a workshop, or tackling a personal project.
Develop new skills
Hand in hand with learning is developing new skills that broaden your capabilities. Acquiring a new skill helps to evolve learning methodologies, keep you apprised of new technologies and ideas, and make you more valuable in the marketplace. And in our industry, developing a skill has a low barrier to entry. You can learn a new programming language by reading tutorials and building your own application, you can invest in an immersive skill-driven bootcamp, or you can start a new hobby in an area you’ve always held an interest.
Be with others
We often feel down on ourselves when we make wild comparisons against coworkers, friends, and family members. These unrealistic comparisons magnify the good qualities of others and the bad qualities of the self. Surround yourself with people you think are smarter and open a dialogue. You’ll find that your intelligence is not lacking and that you indeed have much to offer. Attend more work happy hours, industry meetups, and one-on-one coffee outings to diminish the comparative bias.
An imposter is a foreign entity that doesn’t belong. When we feel like we’re imposters, it’s because we don’t yet entirely belong in a setting. This is a normal mental state in any new environment, be it starting a new job, moving to a different town, or interacting with a group of people you don’t know well. Put your foot forward in these cases and make an effort to embrace the setting. This means volunteering for projects that give you face time with coworkers, attending events in your area, and keeping in touch with new friends.
The imposter syndrome is an excuse. We use this term to hide the real reasons why we’re having negative feelings. Remove the “imposter syndrome” and any other psychological language from your reasoning and instead focus on the root of the problem. When you feel negative, ask yourself why. Get to the issue and then develop a plan of action for transforming that feeling into positive momentum.
Get over the Imposter Syndrome
A new year is approaching and I challenge you to drop the concept of the imposter syndrome forever. There is no term for what has been described as the imposter syndrome. When you remove that veneer, you’ll find ugly reality staring back at you—feelings of failure due to a gap in skills and knowledge, feelings of not belonging because you’re new to an environment, feelings of stupidity because you’re making unrealistic comparisons.
This reality is why you feel bad sometimes. Use the solutions outlined above to quash the negative and to turn it into a positive. These negative emotions are your strength—channel them to improve yourself, to gain new skills and experiences, and to tighten the bond your have with friends, family, and coworkers.