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Cover image for One Useful Advice To Fight The Impostor Syndrome

One Useful Advice To Fight The Impostor Syndrome

ice_lenor profile image Elena Updated on ・6 min read

This advice has originally been published in my blog smartpuffin.com.

Lately I've been trying to give this small advice to people with impostor syndrome, and I think it seems to work - so here it goes.

Impostor syndrome damages your reputation

People are generally going to believe what you tell them. (Unless much much later they disprove it and change their minds.)

Many things happening around you depend on what people think of you. Job promotions, relationships, people helping you.

If you have an impostor syndrome, you are trying to create the wrong impression of yourself in their eyes. And why would you be doing that so actively?

Don't belittle yourself and your achievements.

For example, consider how I can tell people about my app.

"I wrote a small app as a pet project, just for fun; didn't expect many users, but for some reason they seem to like it, dunno, just pure luck, I guess. Nothing really interesting, just a small simple app."

Or:

"I created this app. I have almost 1 mln users already, and they love it! I have recently implemented in-app purchases and a nice webserver for validating them. Lots of people are buying these addons! That means they like the app and are ready to pay for it - to get more features and to support me! They email me a lot saying thanks and sharing their ideas. I learned Android development, Python, and some sysadmin skills while working on it. I'm so happy and very proud of my work!"

Both are 100% pure truth. But guess which one makes people think of me as of a great professional, and which one... doesn't make people think of me at all.

Impostor syndrome lowers your self-esteem

Yes, even more.

When you behave like you are not important, you make people think you are not important. And it is going to reflect back on you again. You will see that people are not taking you seriously, don't listen to you, don't ask you for advice, and you will think: well, maybe it's true. Maybe I'm not that interesting, not very smart, and my achievements are not exactly something to be proud of.

Then, of course, you show it. You become even more critical to yourself, even more shy about your achievements, you share them even less.

Because of all that, now you feel disturbed, anxiety overcomes you, you worry a lot.

And this is an infinite loop. Every time you diminish yourself because you are very unsure, it is going to make you even more unsure.

When you persuade your friends and colleagues that you are not so good, they still may figure out later you're actually very competent and achieve great things - but you're losing time and making them do lots of work to investigate, process the information and change their minds.

They will not be always willing to do so.

Fight! Fight! Fight!

Okay, I hope I persuaded you it's not good for your reputation to have an impostor syndrome. Moreover, it is not good for your mental health!

Now, how to fight it?

I have a recipe that helps me.

Don't say or write anything that looks like you doubt your own expertise.

When you write a message, reread it before sending and remove bad words. When you speak, it's harder, but very much worth trying as well.

For example, hold yourself back from saying "I don't know, but I think..." when you know for sure.

Hold back from saying "I'm just a beginner", when in reality you have several years of experience and many completed projects already.

Stop saying unnecessarily "well, I may be wrong, I'm not sure..." - this is your professional area, you have the right to be confident about it.

Call that thing you did an "achievement". Not just "a thing I did".

Delete jokes that undervalue you. There are other fun things to add that will not mess with your self-esteem.

No self-judgement! Remove all this:

  • "It was very easy actually."
  • "Anyone could have done that."
  • "I think it's not the best, but..."
  • "It's just luck!"
  • "It's a coincidence."
  • "I didn't do much."
  • "I am actually bad at it."
  • "Just didn't know how to do better."
  • "I guess more was expected from me."
  • "I am clumsy, unorganized, ugly, lazy, stupid."

Simply to speak, let other people decide by themselves if it was easy or not, if it could have been done better, or if you are wrong.

Consequences of fighting

You will feel like your self-esteem slowly but surely crawls back to the normal level. You will notice how people now believe in you, respect you, and notice your achievements. This, in turn, will improve your self-esteem, and it will be easier to speak positively about yourself next time.

Look at how my friends did it.

My friend was speaking of herself as of a "fake product owner". It was not her primary role, and she was very unsure if she does it well. From her colleague she got some feedback - why was she saying this about herself? She was great! Now she calls herself an "acting product owner", which is closer to reality, and she feels much more confident.

My colleague - an amazing professional with a rare specialization - was feeling bad because he thought he is not so good in other specializations. Then he gave a short talk about his area, and everyone was super impressed. Now all his colleagues want him to give a series of lectures about his tools, methods and approaches.

My other friend, a brilliant designer, is often asking other designers what they think of her idea. She used to ask like that: "I created a quick mockup, nothing serious, don't know if I like it, can you maybe have a look?". She wasn't being noticed very often. She stripped off all bad words. Now she simply asks: "can you have a look at my idea?", and she gets more feedback, and it is much more positive and constructive.

Important note

It is important to understand this: you are not lying when you list your achievements without undervaluing them. You're not bragging, not arrogant. You are not being "not humble enough". You are rightfully proud.

Homework

How many mistakes did I make in the very first sentence of this article? How to change it so that it doesn't sound like, I don't know, maybe this is really not worth reading?

But I really hope that maybe someone will find it useful. Although I'm not sure this advice will work for everyone, maybe it's just me. And actually, I'm not that good of a writer, so I'm sure I made lots of mistakes. My examples are very bland and unrelatable. And overall, it's not a new topic, there are a lot of very good articles written about this, by people much more competent than me, and I really didn't invent a wheel here. So why don't I just delete it all?..

Advanced homework

Think of the last time you spoke about yourself or on your professional topic. Did you use the "bad" words? Did you precede or conclude your story with some "I-am-not-sure" phrases? Did you let your self-doubts to creep in?

Think about how would you say the same thing without diminishing yourself. Memorize it like a poem.

Next time you are asked, use your new prepared story. Fight the passionate desire to immediately insert something belittling in your speech. Simply list your achievements or ideas and stop. No friendly self-deprecation! No confessions about how deep down you feel incompetent! No excessive modesty!

You may feel naked without these disparaging phrases you are so much used to. Do not add them at any cost.

Punchline

Don't try to tell people you're incompetent - they will believe you. Tell them you're competent - they will believe you.


This advice has originally been published in my blog smartpuffin.com.

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Discussion

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Great post.

Don't belittle yourself and your achievements

I still do this. But it also reminds me of someone I used to know who would always belittle my achievements if I told them about something. They were a friend of a friend who was a much more experienced developer than me and they were (and I presume still are) such an ass.

 

1) Don't! You have created this awesome website and a great community, it is a thing to be proud of!
2) Jeez. I'd think "don't belittle someone else's achievements" should be a quality of any decent person, shouldn't it? Don't listen to that person :)

 

Fantastic post! I second all of the tips above, having been following them myself for many years with great success.

However, I do want to point out one interesting component that I think has been overlooked.

In my experience, a lack of imposter syndrome is actually just as much of a career liability! Imposter syndrome, when managed, keeps our egos in check. In its place, it keeps us from viewing ourselves as "God's gift to programming." It reminds us we always have further to go.

I've learned to tame mine, but keep it alive and controlled to that aim. Every time I start to think "I have arrived," it kicks in and reminds me "you still have a long way to go, Mr. I Don't Know SQL Yet!"

Humility is the key here. Humility is, as one person put it, having an accurate view of yourself. As you said, we need to be proud of our accomplishments; embracing them and even showing them off a bit is completely congruous with humility. At the same time, we must remember that we've never Arrived, we're never Finished, we always have further to go. It has been observed before that self-denigration is the flip side of arrogance. In reality, we are neither the worst nor the best. Holding either extreme view will tempt us to tear down others to elevate ourselves.

Or, as C.S. Lewis puts it...

Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.

In an industry rife with opportunities to view ourselves as demigods, a well-controlled case of imposter syndrome actually helps us to keep the delicate balance that is humility.


By the way, in practice of all this, my recent article Anatomy of a Bad Idea demonstrates both components of this: I can recognize that I came up with a really stupid idea, but I can also see that I had the intelligence and experience to examine it and break it down in a really cool way. So, the end result shows that I am a talented programmer who makes really spectacular mistakes! (Note what's getting denigrated here - the IDEA, not me).

 

Hi Jason,
Here in this article I am trying to help people with unhealthily low self-esteem to think better of themselves.

Impostor syndrome, in my opinion, really messes with people. To such people, a tiny bit less humility and a pinch more ego wouldn't hurt. I doubt they will turn into selfish egoists overnight.

There are, of course, people with too-high self-esteem, but I'm afraid I wouldn't know how to fight that:).

And I like the quote!

 

Hi Elena,

The line between unhealthily low self-esteem and selfish egotist is actually quite thin, and it makes it quite a tricky balance to strike. In fact, you will note that most people who operate as egotists have an almost non-existent self-esteem. The reason for this is, to cope with self-esteem issues, some people will latch onto an inflated self-image.

I am actually speaking out of experience on this, being someone who has struggled with chronic low self-esteem, and even self-hatred, and who has "self-medicated" with egotism in my teenage years. I know both extremes all too well. In this state, while it is hard to generate healthy positive messages, it is even harder to generate healthy negative messages (such as "I made a mistake" or "I don't know this subject"); instead, we generate destructive negative messages.

Remember - I am wholly supportive of the tips you provide. Building a positive self-image is a critical half of dealing with this problem. Yet being able to have a healthy recognition of mistakes and areas of weakness are the other half.

In the end, "imposter syndrome" is simply an automatic reminder that we haven't arrived yet ("I am not a true coder until I know X."). Its destructive tendency comes from it running out of control, ungoverned by a recognition of what we currently know and can do ("But I am still a coder because I can do X."). When controlled, it keeps us ever reaching for the next goal, continually seeking to grow and improve.

This is why I say that a controlled case of "imposter syndrome" is actually helpful when dealing with either low self-esteem or egotism (again, flip sides of the same coin). It serves as a set of brakes against over-inflated ego. This is actually more important than it sounds; overcompensating with an unrealistically positive self image sets one up for a dangerous letdown. As soon as the person with low self-esteem is reminded of a weakness or flaw, they come crashing back to earth in a bad way, and wind up LOWER than before.

To put it another way, controlled "imposter syndrome" acts as a cap on our self-image inflation. By "controlled", I mean that we use the imposter syndrome's negative-message-generation, and keep it FIRMLY in check with the positive messages we tell ourselves. This mutual check-and-balance keeps us centered, to where we can safely say things like "I made a mistake, and I am intelligent, so I can learn from it."

I once had a camp director at a camp I worked at for a summer explain to me that there was a form of pride that many don't talk about, and it's the form that beats itself up in hopes that others come and give you compliments. It's still wanting attention, but using negativity as your bait instead of thinking highly of yourself. I really appreciate that you bring this to light, I too have struggled with both forms of pride. Where you find your identity is vital. For me, I have to fight against comparing myself to others.

 
 

I agree there are probably many people who think too highly of themselves. But there are also quite a lot of very smart people with impostor syndrome. I think they do deserve better!

I respectfully but strongly disagree with "not belittleing = bragging". This is exactly what people with impostor syndrome think: "if I tell anyone about what I did, they'll think I'm showing off". Following this logic, they tend to, for example, not list their achievements for the yearly performance review, and are bypassed with promotions and raises. I really do not see simply listing your working and personal achievements as a bad thing.

If you are a guru and you know it, you don't have a impostor syndrome. This has two consequences:
1) you already know how to behave and don't need this article:)
2) you strive to help other people, especially the beginners, by showing them you are human too, and can be insecure too.
This is a very nice behaviour. However, again, probably these people wouldn't need this piece of advice.

 

I'd say this post is very thought provoking. I wonder why this impostor syndrome actually appears. And it is my observation that this is very convenient for management. They can have all the workforce they need, trying to do their best and getting very little in return. When people sincerely think they are not that good, they will hesitate to ask for a raise, or won't try to find another job. Ideally, they will just work forever asking for nothing. :) Very depressing thought, I know.

 

As a side note: I've analysed my own situation, got very depressed, and than got very drunk. Getting drunk helped, but If I write any more comments today, just ignore it please. :)

 

Oh no! These managers would be very cunning. Hope there are not a lot of them:)

 

Very great post! I thought I was better with Imposter Syndrome, at least in a professional context. After reading this I realise I still say "maybe I am wrong" or stuff alike every now then. Now I can see a path to improve myself and I feel super happy, thanks for reminding we to keep my head up!

 

How did I miss this? :/ This is such a wonderful post! Great advice on trying to overcome it as well. I think some (if not most) people think little of themselves because they don't want to cross the line and be thought of as someone who "brags".

 

This is great, just what I needed today. After nearly 18 years in the web industry, I still have times when imposter syndrome is affecting me (as it is today). I'm going to write a positive list of all the things I've achieved to read if this happens again.

 

Now, Stephen, come on! You're a great professional, and you know it. Don't let an occasional doubt bring you down.

 

Awesome post Elena. This is great insight into a hindrance that has plagued brilliant minds for decades; however, imo low self-esteem in the tech/programming space arose out of a culture that glorifies complexity of a concept(code) as a measure of "badassery". This led(still leads) people to undermine the basic or "simple" foundational knowledge and concepts that are equally as important.

 

Great post! For added benefit, you can also add to or just browse our list here:

impostorroster.com/

(extra bonus, you'll be participating in a fellow dev.to user's project (that'd be me))

 

Thank you, Finney! Will definitely check it out.

 

I love this post! I have always suffered from imposter syndrome for example: I have wanted to write an article on DEV but my thought is always "What does someone with limited experience write about that would interest people?"

I'll be certain to use this post to refer back to as a sort of prep talk.

Thanks again.

 
 

Great stuff - lots of practicable advice that really highlights the power of our words - both to others and to ourselves. Thank you for posting this, really helpful!

 

Thanks for that Elena.

I've been thinking a lot about IS, it's been affecting me greatly since I've decided for a career change a few months ago.

A big problem appears when trying to tackle IS by deliberately talking yourself up, and that is Cognitive Dissonance. It's that pain you feel when you say something you don't believe in.

Do you really believe your pet project is that amazing? If you're not convinced yourself, you'll have a hard time trying to convincing others.

I totally agree with you that people believe in what you tell (and show) them, but I'm not so sure it translates back into your own self belief. I hope it does. Those feedback loops should work at some level.

I know that I know nothing, said the greatest man. How do you escape from that? I found Jason's insight above fascinating.

The current thread I'm working on is to really understand what I believe in, backed up by actual work I've done. Then change myself, do more, walk the walk so when I talk the talk CD doesn't kick in.

 

Takes a look at own projects

  • simple-math
  • crappy-chess-minimax

Huh, maybe I have the impostor syndrome :O

 

Haha!))
But seriously. Next project you work on, please name it without these words. I am sure it, and you, deserve much better!:)

Besides, imagine you are a user of your product. Would you want to use it, when even the author isn't sure if it's any good? Give the users a chance to decide for themselves:)

 
 

Wow. I really appreciate your article. I realize I do some of the above, the use of "bad words" at work and wonder why I'm not taken seriously at times.

 

Really great post. I have also imposter syndrome. Now I got hope. Thanks a lot.

 

Thank you:) good luck

 

Thanks for these simple words of wisdom, just what i needed !

 

Yay! Hope it helps you in your career or personal life:)

 

Great post. At my case, I was fired based on personal problems with my boss and got confused about my value even getting new job proposals and starting on a new one.

 

Very good article! Thanks for sharing it!

 

Thank you for sharing.. the cyclic loop you mentioned... it is so real :(, but I'm working on correcting my way of thinking :]

 

Start with saying, and thinking will slowly come:). It's like developing a habit, takes some time.
I know you can do it!)

 

Thank you for this article! It helps me to it read over and over again!

 

Thank you, Liz! Hope it will make a difference :)

 

Damn you are a good writer! This was a combination of good content + great writer => Boom! Any secrets tips for a normal non-state of the art writer like me? omg, I just had the imposter syndrom! ;)

 

Ooh, what a high praise, thank you so much!:)
I never thought I'm good though... so thank you, it's really a boost for my confidence:)).

For secret tips, hmm, let me see. I write in simple words - partly because I hope it helps to deliver the message more clearly, and partly because I'm not so smart to use complex words. I reread the article several times to see if the flow of thoughts makes any sense at all. If I get a surge of doubts, I hide the article until I'm embarrassed that I havent published anything for so long.
The last one is probably a bad advice. Publish sooner!))

 

Your punchline - people will believe anything you say to them as long as you repeat it enough times :D

I've seen horrible employees convince their superiors they are amazing x.x

 

Disclaimer: don't use it for evil.
:)

 

Crashing and burning on technical interviews and seeing the people you went to school with all land awesome jobs does not help in any way to alleviate Impostor Syndrome. :|

 

I wish you the best of luck, Mario! Don't give up!