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Harry Matvis
Harry Matvis

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Why devalue yourself: impostor syndrome

Disclaimer. Plenty of material has been written on this subject, so let's say, up front, we do know that not everyone recognizes the efficacy and necessity of psychotherapy. But everyone has their own truth.

The only thing more often mentioned now than imposter syndrome is probably burnout. Far too many people think they don't deserve their success — seven out of ten people have experienced this feeling.

Due to the fact that technology is constantly evolving, and the competition is enormous, the problem is also relevant for the IT sphere. This is where self-proclaimed "impostors" are overflowing: not all directions will succeed, for sure, and not all high-tech companies will become the new Facebook or Apple.

"Who are you anyway? You're just lucky! Soon, everyone will realize that you're nothing. You'll be fired, for sure; you don't belong here. Who are you trying to fool anyway?", and all that.

How to recognize it?

People with impostor syndrome believe that they are lucky enough to be in the wrong place. Their entire careers are not the result of their skills and performance, but merely the coincidence of circumstances. They also get paid for something they know absolutely nothing about. Are you doubting yourself too? Here's a test for impostor syndrome.

This kind of ambivalence is especially common in the intellectual professions. This is due to the fact that the cycle of product creation, or, conventionally, strategy development, can be stretched over time.

John, for example, is a network architect. A large company comes to him and says, "We want everything to work properly and not to slow down. We also want it to be easy to maintain and for YouTube videos to load quickly."

John first needs to survey the current network, collect feedback, figure out the details, form the ToR. Next, he needs to start the design stage, i.e. development of the engineering design. Then, implement it. It may take several years until the final stage, when everything works at the company.

The result is forward-looking and cannot be quick or tangible. John has plenty of time to feel like an impostor.

How does the syndrome manifest itself?

The syndrome usually manifests itself through three fears: failure, success, and exposure. Fear of failure is when you feel like a pretender and don't think you deserve your position, salary, and bonuses. It feels like those around you are mistaken.

The second fear is of success: "If I win or achieve something, I have to keep the bar high." It is because of this fear that there is a habit of justifying all of your achievements with trivial fortune. Next time, though, you might not be so lucky, and that's what's scary.

What fuels it all is another fear — exposure. It is when you think that sooner or later your colleagues will realize that you are incompetent.

Because of these fears, it can be difficult to accept compliments ("It was all Kate; I almost didn't participate."). Achievements are devalued: they say that the case was too easy and did not deserve attention ("Any fool can do that."). You are constantly comparing yourself to others ("Shane could have done better than me.").

Ma Sha Zo, Product Manager at Osmi Pro company

I still sometimes think all the good things that happen in the product are a credit to the team and everyone around me, but not mine. I, instead, was just standing on the side, saying not particularly clever thoughts out loud, so other clever people finished them, the team implemented, and all was done!

Where does the term come from and who does it refer to?

The term appeared in 1978. At that time, psychology professor, Pauline R. Clance, and clinical psychologist, Suzanne A. Imes, investigated the complaints of female college students, and then published an article "The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women". The bottom line is this: many successful women believed that they were not smart and that those around them overestimated them.

Until the nineties, it was thought that it only affected ladies, supposedly because of innate hypersensitivity. Later, it turned out that men also suffer from impostor syndrome, but they are less likely to admit it in public. They reveal themselves only in anonymous interviews and psychotherapy sessions.

Minorities, people with disabilities, and other groups exposed to affirmative action are also worried. Many of them think they got the job because they belong to a special social group, not because of their skills or abilities.

Two-thirds of the students who get into Harvard are convinced that their enrollment is the mistake the admissions office made. This is also often the case for students in postgraduate study, such as internships or retraining, and for beginning teachers.

The feeling that you don't deserve your success torments you, regardless of position, merit, or popularity. For instance, the founder of Atlassian (Jira, Confluence, Trello), Mike Cannon-Brookes, says that for him impostor syndrome is "a feeling of being well, well out of your depth, yet already entrenched in the situation." It is as if you lack knowledge and qualifications, and there is no way back and you have to look for a way out. It feels like something got away with it and is about to come out.

Many actors and actresses have experienced the syndrome: Tina Fey, Meryl Streep, Jim Carrey, Emma Watson, Tommy Cooper, Mike Myers, Kate Winslet, Penelope Cruz, Jessica Chastain, Natalie Portman. There are also screenwriter Chuck Lorre and writers Neil Gaiman and Maya Angelou.

In addition, Albert Einstein, who felt he was a fraud near the end of his life; COO and the first woman on Facebook's board, Sheryl Sandberg; ex-CEO of Starbucks, Howard Schultz; U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor; and former First Lady, Michelle Obama.

What is the reason?

The roots of the problem stem from childhood, of course. For example, in one family, parents label their children ("Stephanie is beautiful, and you, David, are smart.") and judge them differently. Then, they do not change their views, even though the "beautiful" Stephanie has opened her own pharmaceutical company by the time she is thirty, and the "smart", forty-year-old David works as a cashier in a supermarket.

In the second family, the relatives constantly idealize the child. As he grows up, he encounters difficulties and begins to doubt his parents' truth. However, he does not tell them about the difficulties, so as not to upset them, and constantly considers himself to be mediocre.

The syndrome may not manifest itself immediately. For example, Tom makes good money, has a wife and children he loves, and has his own apartment in Sidney. His boss is happy with him and regularly praises him, and his colleagues tell him how great he is. Then, his wife suddenly files for divorce.
Tom feels that he's not good enough, so he begins to look inside himself. He still works just as effectively, but he constantly thinks that if he loses his wife so easily, he might lose his job, too.

This is made worse by the social networks, where Tom's friends post everything positive. One got married, one became the boss, and one lives in the Maldives.

What is the danger?

Tom may have two reactions: either he will drop everything and stop presenting himself as successful (probably even start sabotaging his success), or he will try even harder and start working non-stop. Both are a great stress to the body.

So, for example, if Tom is an IT guy, he is aware of the risks, sees the vulnerabilities and weaknesses of his company or product. He is increasingly afraid to take on new tasks: he either postpones starting work, or he sets deadlines, trying to bring everything to perfection. He sets easier goals, no longer takes the initiative, leaks interesting proposals, and expresses his opinion less and less frequently. Sometimes, he can let go of the salary situation and ask for less than colleagues.

In addition, Tom may have addictions. Well yes, he procrastinates more often, smokes, and has a bottle of red before bed almost every day. He's just really tired. Chronically.

Constant nervous tension, fear of disclosure, thinking out moves for retreat, and living through imaginary failures inevitably lead to burnout. Additionally, there are frequent illnesses, apathy, problems in relations with colleagues and relatives, and withdrawnness. Tom can get to the point of sociopathy, neurological disorders, and even manic-depressive psychosis. Not the best prospect, is it?

What does it lead to?

It can also result in a regular thirst for approval, when you have to prove that you are really entitled to everything you have.Someone big and powerful — a boss, for example — has to praise or give positive feedback all the time. "Yeah, man, you did great! Such a project accomplished!".

Shi Fang,Producer of the Data Analyst course at Osmi Pro

Every time there are mistakes or flaws at work, I think, "I'm a bad producer. I'm not good at anything. Soon, everyone will realize I'm incompetent, and I'll get fired." After that, a period of hard and diligent work begins, in order to get rid of these thoughts, at least for a while. Strangely enough, positive cases do nothing to rid me of my "status" as an impostor. Sometimes, the approval of my colleagues and a constant desire to learn help. It is comforting to think that this is not with me forever. Soon (I hope it will be soon), I will learn to praise myself and respect my knowledge and skills.

Positive feedback is not particularly satiating, but only temporarily relieves anxiety. Soon, it returns, and the cycle repeats itself. It will be like that until you become perfect, so that no one will be able to complain.

"Imposters" are sure that it is possible to become perfect, in theory. They are obsessed with it. They're driven by the eternal pursuit of perfection, even though they're constantly praised and insisted upon by everyone around them for their awesomeness. Yet they believe that they are told all this, either because they are pretending to be perfect or out of pity.

You can get rid of the syndrome by seeing a psychotherapist. Therapy will help you begin to appreciate yourself and allow you to do what you love without endless worrying.

This syndrome, however, does have some advantages. "Imposters" are intellectually modest: they are aware that they don't know everything, and that's okay. They look at many situations through the eyes of a dilettante: they ask questions, try to improve and catch up. This is constant personal growth. The syndrome also controls the ego and keeps it from bloating.
App and website developers most often know that their product is not perfect, and are only committed to its release. Bugs can be fixed, but only in a product that has seen the light of day, not stuck in the polishing stage. Keep doing what you're doing is the best strategy.

In 2017, there was a crisis in South Australia. Elon Musk tweeted that Tesla could beat it with a 100-megawatt battery. Mike Cannon-Brooks responded, "How about launching the project in just a hundred days?". And all of a sudden, he started getting calls from reporters asking for his opinion as an energy expert.

Cannon-Brooks did not make excuses. Instead, he immersed himself in the issue and studied it in such a way that he was able to reason, calmly, about the capabilities of Tesla batteries. The battery system went live that same year..

Rita Aziz, Content Marketing Team Leader at Osmi Pro

When I fall into devaluation (which, in fact, is "imposter syndrome"), I remind myself that this is just a thought, just a way for my mind to protect itself from the fear of being judged by others. I realize that it's an illusion. I'm actually good and I have something to be proud of. So, I let it go. I also keep a separate photo album on my phone of commendation screenshots from employees, supervisors, partners, and contractors. In moments of doubt, I look through this archive. It's a great way to support myself.

It turns out that impostor syndrome can move forward, if it does not paralyze, but motivates. It is most prominent when you leave your comfort zone. Scared? Good. If you are scared, it means that something really important and weighty is happening.

All that matters is that you do something. Because many people do nothing, except suffer. Life is constant development, and stagnation is not OK at all.


The crucial thing is not to confuse impostor syndrome with the Dunning-Kruger effect, a cognitive distortion. Silly people do not have enough experience to assess how low their qualifications are. This is why they are convinced of their genius, even if they are not.

People with experience, by contrast, understand that they may have been wrong before. This causes them to think others are more competent, so they underestimate their abilities, even if they are right. Simply put, the less competent are more convinced that they are right, and vice versa.

Book on the subject: Why Do I Feel Like an Imposter?: How to Understand and Cope with Imposter Syndrome by Sandi Mann.

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