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Andrew (he/him)
Andrew (he/him)

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20 Ways to Fight Impostor Syndrome

"All I know is that I don't know nothing."

-- Jesse Michaels of Operation Ivy, channelling Socrates

Trigger Warning: mild conversation about death

Cover photo by davisco on Unsplash

Many people, at some point in their careers, experience a nagging feeling that they don't deserve their position at work (or their place at university, or the respect of their peers, particular awards they've won, etc.). That they somehow tricked the recruiter, the interviewers, their boss, and all of their coworkers into believing that they're adept at their job when they really have no clue what's going on. This phenomenon has been studied since at least the late 1970s and is a lot more common than you probably think:

[At a party full of influential people, artists, scientists, writers]
"I just look at all these people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They've made amazing things. I just went where I was sent."

-- Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on the Moon

"It doesn't go away, that feeling that you shouldn't take me that seriously. What do I know? I share that with you because we all have doubts in our abilities, about our power and what that power is."

-- Michelle Obama, former First Lady of the United States

"I have written 11 books, but each time I think, 'Uh oh, they're going to find out now. I've run a game on everybody, and they're going to find me out.'"

-- Maya Angelou, professional award-winner

Lots of people have these feelings at one point or another. But why does this happen? Psychologists have documented several different kinds of impostor syndrome -- feeling like a fraud, feeling like you "lucked into" your position, being unable to take a compliment, and so on. These can be caused by mixed messages from parents as a child (alternating between excessive praise and criticism), breaking the glass ceiling for women or minorities in particular fields (or at particular companies), or myriad other reasons. The important thing to remember is that you're not alone -- it's likely that lots of people you work, live, or otherwise interact with probably have similar feelings.

I myself suffer from Impostor Syndrome from time to time and occasionally need to remind myself that -- although yes, I was extremely fortunate to have been born in a particular country, with a particular race, sex, gender, religion, and sexual orientation that have afforded me quite a bit of privilege -- I have worked hard to get where I am. I spent years in college and then graduate school, combined with lots of time studying outside of class, honing my skills, reading, learning, and writing. I deserve my job because I do it well. And you deserve yours for the same reason.

Here are 20 top tips for fighting off Impostor Syndrome:

NOTE: Please do not take this advice (or any other advice on the Internet) in lieu of seeking professional help. You can use Psychology Today's search engine to find a therapist near you (works in most English-speaking countries and several other countries in Europe).

#1. Say "I Have Impostor Syndrome" Aloud

Break the silence. If you think you have Impostor Syndrome, you probably do. (It's very common.) Confide in someone close to you or tell yourself in the mirror. For lots of people, sharing on social media is easier than sharing in real life -- if that's the case for you, tweet or post on Facebook. Simply acknowledging that you're having trouble can be the first step toward overcoming your difficulties.

#2. Remember That You're Normal

It's been estimated that 70% of people experience Impostor Syndrome at some point in their lives. If you do -- or don't -- feel like an impostor, there are literally billions of other people on the planet who have felt the same way as you. Reach out to your coworkers and you may find that they're facing the same difficulties and challenges that you are. Be open about your mental health. You're not alone.

#3. Remember That Everyone Starts as a Beginner

One of my favourite webcomics is XKCD, and they have a great perspective on "things that everyone knows":

Even Albert Einstein at one point had to memorise his multiplication tables; Joan of Arc didn't know how to swing a sword at birth; Oprah was nervous before her first show. The rule of three says that's enough examples -- you get the idea.

#4. Find a Mentor

As a beginner, it can be difficult to find the correct resources or know what's expected of you if you don't have a more senior person to light the way. You might need to reach out and ask for help from someone with the knowledge or experience that you need.

As an example, I had a fantastic Ph.D. advisor, but he was often busy with other projects, teaching responsibilities, etc. The only other Ph.D. student in my research group graduated a semester after I started and no other professor at my university was involved with that same project.

For years, I was working by myself, in a laboratory, alone. But luckily, the research I was doing was part of a large, multi-national collaboration. I was able to reach out via email and Skype to students and postdocs at other universities on the project to ask for advice, help, and suggestions. I am sure that -- without their help -- I would not have had the resources I needed to graduate. I put in lots of hard work, but I relied on others to point me in the correct direction.

"If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."

-- Isaac Newton, famous apple guy

#5. Accept Some (Even Small) Praise

I know that I would not be where I am today if I had to go back and do it all on my own. I was extremely fortunate in the circumstances of my birth and I've had lots of help along the way from lots of people much more clever than myself. But I need to remind myself that I did play a significant role in getting to where I am now.

"Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes."

-- Benjamin Franklin, "Founding Father" of the United States

Nothing in life is certain. Even if there is a large cultural pressure to attend college / university, nobody forced you to sign your name on those application forms. Even if you didn't attend a university, you're still reading this article -- you're attempting to better yourself, and no one is requiring you to do that. You make lots of decisions every day, many of them quite difficult. Learning and growing and improving yourself are difficult things to do. But you're doing them anyway. Even now, you are having a hand in your own success. You own the decisions that you've made and the life that you've built is your own doing.

This is not to say that everything is the result of your actions. Many things in life are outside our control. Some people are unlucky, and some are put in uncomfortable situations by those with more money, or power, or resources. But how we respond to those situations is what matters the most. You can get knocked down, but as long as you always get up again, you'll never be down for long.

#6. Brag to a Friend or Family Member

My fiancée is my biggest fan. When we recap our days at work over dinner, even if I think I had the most mundane day with the least interesting accomplishments, she reminds me that she's proud of me. When I got my Ph.D., my mom started introducing me to people as "my son, the doctor". ("I'm not that kind of doctor", I'd have to say.)

Everyone needs a cheerleader or two in their life. Find a friend who will be proud of you and your accomplishments. Be proud of them and theirs. It's amazing how much a small compliment from a close friend or family member can mean to someone.

#7. Stop Comparing Yourself to the Best in the Field

One little factoid I like to remind myself of is that -- statistically speaking -- there is definitely a child somewhere in the world who is already better than you in your field of expertise:

It's pointless to compare yourself apples-to-apples with these people, or to other experts in your field. Everyone takes a different path through life. Use examples like this as motivation, but don't get discouraged at every small difference between you and your idols. That's a great way to absolutely destroy your mental health.

#8. Remember that Nobody Knows Everything

Linus Torvalds is the driving force behind the Linux kernel, on top of which every Android phone, Ubuntu desktop, and all of the top 500 supercomputers run. Torvalds is known for being a "perfectionist" -- which, in the tech world, usually means being a huge jerk to everyone all the time. But even Torvalds doesn't know every line of code in his namesake kernel. He can't -- it's a physical impossibility. The Linux kernel has tens of thousands of contributors and millions of lines of code. No human being could ever hope to understand how all of those moving parts work together.

Over the course of their lives, everyone becomes an expert in some small area particular to their interests. A particle physicist might know everything there is to know about neutrino oscillations but can't possibly stay up to date with new research into room-temperature superconductivity. An archaeologist may be on top of the latest digs at Pompeii but hasn't even heard about the new villages uncovered in the middle east. A stay-at-home dad may become the best grilled-cheese sandwich maker and bedtime story-teller, but need some help when it comes to consolidating his student loans.

Everyone needs help. Nobody knows everything.

#9. Stay Modest

Sometimes, Impostor Syndrome can be triggered by an inflated sense of self-importance. If you think that everyone else worships the ground you walk on, it's easy to worry about the dirty footprints you're leaving behind. Remember that everyone is the focal point of their own lives -- most people aren't thinking about you most of the time.

Remember to "keep a little Impostor Syndrome in your pocket" and stay humble.

#10. Teach or Mentor Someone Else

Just as there are people in your field of expertise with more experience and more knowledge than you, there are also those with less. Those people could really benefit from a bit of help. Explaining concepts you've mastered to those who are still learning can help to solidify your knowledge and soothe your feelings of inadequacy. Giving back to the community can be a mutually-beneficial experience.

#11. Sign Yourself up for a Talk

Sometimes, you just need to shock yourself into action. If you're nervous around people, get stage fright, or are unsure of your expertise, doing nothing to address those problems isn't going to make them disappear. If you can, sign yourself up for a lightning talk (a quick, 5-minute presentation) or a Meetup (if you've got a few bucks to spare) and give a quick talk about the thing you're most passionate about, or something cool you just learned, or share a story that helped you become the person you are today. If you're new to public speaking and need a few pointers, Ben Orenstein gave a great meta-talk at RailsConf 2013 titled "How to Talk to Developers" (thanks to Molly for recommending this video):

#12: Keep a File of Nice Things People Have Said

This is one I've seen in a few places online and I think it's a good recommendation. For some people, this may be the comments sections on blog posts. For others, maybe one or two nice emails you received from people thanking you for your work. As you build your portfolio, you'll find more and more people coming forward to thank you for the hard work that you've put in. Accept their compliments! (And file them away for later when you need a self-esteem booster.)

#13: No Regerts

"This is your life, and it's ending one minute at a time."

-- Chuck Palahniuk

If you haven't yet started to feel that the years are flying by you, rest assured, you will soon. Our experience of time accelerates as we age and while a summer afternoon as a child may have seemed to last forever, as you age, months can pass by in the blink of an eye. Death is a common motivator for artists, writers, and other creative types.

So you can cower and hide and hope to not be outed as the "impostor" you think you are, or you can grab life by the horns and take charge. I won't waste a single minute of my life worrying about not being good enough by someone else's definition when I know my skills better than anyone. I just don't have the time.

#14: Praise Your Child's Effort, Regardless of the Result

Psychology Today has a recent article about Impostor Syndrome in which they recommend a particular course of action for parents to prevent the affliction in their children before it even starts -- praise effort, rather than results or inherent skill.

If children are told they're "naturally good" at something like mathematics, music, or athletics, they'll come to expect success and be confused and angry when they fail. Having a "natural talent" means I deserve success, doesn't it?

Instead, praise the child's effort, even if the results are unwanted or unexpected. "You practiced really hard today!" communicates to the child that their effort is the deciding factor, not any mysterious God-given talent. When the child succeeds, they know it's because of their effort. When they fail, they know it was because they didn't practice enough, or the other children practiced more.

Note that this, of course, assumes a level playing field. "Effort" doesn't matter much in a ski competition, for example, when one team couldn't afford to practice because ski lessons are hundreds of dollars each. Like everything in life, there are nuances.

#15. <Insert Fifteenth Example>

Don't dwell on your inadequacies or mistakes. Even professionals have brain farts and missteps. Learn to forgive yourself and move on. If you find yourself "stuck in a rut", making one mistake after another, switch up your routine. Go for a walk at lunchtime and appreciate your environment. Have a cup of tea instead of a cup of coffee. Listen to a really unusual genre of music on your way into work (Gamelan, anyone?). Shake things up a bit.

#16. Don't Be Afraid to Ask Questions

One of the easiest ways to get up to speed with your peers is to simply ask questions. Lots of people don't want to feel bothersome and so will avoid asking questions at all costs, preferring to try to do their own research, or struggling through until they have a "Eureka!" moment. But do you remember the last time someone asked you a question? (Unless they'd asked the same question multiple times before) you probably weren't bothered by helping them out. In fact, most people get a small "kick" out of sharing their knowledge with others.

This, of course, is strongly person-dependent. If you get "bad vibes" or snark or a bad attitude from someone after asking them a question, maybe avoid that particular person. From my own personal experience, for every 1 person who doesn't want to be asked questions, there are probably 9 who would be happy to help. Reach out!

#17. Track Your Progress

100 Days of Code is a great way to track progress as a programmer. Or, you can keep a daily journal and every day write down three things you learned that day and three things you want to learn in the future. Review your journal after 30 days, 60 days, or 90 days. You'll be surprised how quickly you can advance when you commit to learning just a little bit every day.

"...compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe."

-- Albert Einstein, apocryphally

#18. "Fake It Till You Make It"

I can't tell you how many people in my life have expressed this sentiment to me in one way or another -- about their job, college, grad school, parenting, and more. Everyone is figuring it out one day at a time. When you slowly start learning, you'll slowly start feeling less like an impostor. It may never go away completely, but it will become more manageable.

Here's a great video of Dr. Amy Cuddy talking about body language and how it affects others' perceptions of ourselves, and "faking it until you make it".

#19. Understand Others' Struggles

There's a good chance that your favourite author, artist, or programmer has experienced (and maybe written about) Impostor Syndrome. Reading about and understanding their struggles can help to humanise your heroes and make your difficulties feel a little more manageable. Here are a few Dev.To-ers who have shared their experiences:

#20. Don't Take Everything So Seriously

If you can do your job, and your boss is happy, you have nothing to worry about. Take their advice, take life one day at a time, and try not to put so much pressure on yourself. Have a sense of humour and try to laugh it off.

Comic with man on couch in therapist's office. Therapist says: "Your fear of being publicly exposed as a fraud is a stress-related disorder called 'Imposter Syndrome.' It's common among people in high-profile authority positions, and, of course, in actual phonies, like you."

If you enjoyed the above article, maybe you'd like some of the other stuff I've written on Dev.To? Or the much shorter things I've written on Twitter? Maybe you'd like to buy me a cup of coffee?

Anyway, thanks for stopping by!

Top comments (13)

codingmindfully profile image
Daragh Byrne

Great stuff. I think it's really important to realise that impostor syndrome shifts and changes. There are things I do now with ease, that I once felt like an impostor at. And where I feel like an impostor today is where I'll feel competent or even excel in a couple of months or year's time.

awwsmm profile image
Andrew (he/him)

Similarly, there are things I was great at 5 years ago that -- because I haven't practiced them in such a long time -- I'd be hopeless at now. If you don't use it, you lose it.

codingmindfully profile image
Daragh Byrne

Truth! It's interesting to observe the re-learning process sometimes, amazing to see what comes back to you as you revisit something old.

navidos profile image
Navid Mirzaie Milani

Great post Andrew i still battle with this imposter syndrome. If i look around me and see what others have a accomplished in this field (software engineering) ashamed. Thats the reason why i for example didn't start a blog about my experienced, writing articles etc etc. Tnx for your great posts and i definitely will follow your advise.

awwsmm profile image
Andrew (he/him)

Every viewpoint is valid, Navid. Even if you're still just beginning, you can write about the difficulties you encounter and how you overcome them! It might help the next person who's just starting out!

taimoorsattar7 profile image
Taimoor Sattar • Edited

Don't look at the hardship you are facing at present; look for the benefits you are getting in the future. image.

gklijs profile image
Gerard Klijs

Great, lots if good points. Some are not easy through. The mentor one might be the best one, but where to find one.

awwsmm profile image
Andrew (he/him) • Edited

Dev had a mentoring program, but it's been discontinued unfortunately.

Maybe try making a post with the #help tag, requesting a mentor from the Dev community?

edit: it looks like the recommended thing to do on Dev now is to request mentorship through the listings.

gklijs profile image
Gerard Klijs

Thanks. I think the first question is what I want from a mentor. Which at this point I really don't know.

prashant profile image
Prashant Nigam

Hi Gerad, Linkedin has a feature called "Career Advice" to find mentors

nutriz profile image
Jérôme Gully

Nice to see a Fight Club quotation here :).

By the way, very interesting and clear post.

withpyaar profile image
with Pyaar

Great read and kudos to you for choosing that header image.

awwsmm profile image
Andrew (he/him)

Thanks Jamie!