loading...
Cover image for I am an imposter. You too?
MyOnlineStore

I am an imposter. You too?

dreamdealer profile image Johan van Tongeren Updated on ・6 min read

Do you recognize this situation?

I have completed a coding task. I am a senior developer and I've been doing this for the past 15 years. I've written millions hundreds of thousands of lines of code.

So, these lines of code perfectly meet requirements as described by the product owner. I functionally tested the code. The new page works flawlessly. I doublecheck it by doing some monkey testing and I try to break stuff. Nothing bad happens.

The code is written to spec, there are no linting errors. Pre-commit hooks with some code quality checks succeed.

I've written some unit tests and an E2E test and wondrously these new tests and the existing tests don't fail. Every checkbox on my todo-before-pull-request-list is checked.

I open GitHub and create a new pull request and ask my co-worker Charles for a review and wait for Charles to review my new addition to the codebase.

"Hopefully Charles doesn't think I am a bad developer...", my brain thinks.

Not that Charles is a dick or anything. Actually he's a great guy. Really considerate. He never yells at anybody or calls out co-workers. But still, this thought crossed my mind.

After a while I get a notification:

@Charles approved this pull request

And 2 seconds later:

Merged #1337 into master.

And then it happens: some weird feeling takes over. Your brain explodes of the sudden stream of thoughts like "Did Charles actually look at the code? Is something wrong with Charles? Is he having an off-day? Why did he not see this code is crap? Help! I can only write crap code!"

And one question always returns:

"When will they find out I'm a fraud? I've been fooling them for years now..."

Another example

Last year I was curious about my position in the job market. So I decided to go look around for new job opportunities. And I got a lot of messages on LinkedIn from people that were impressed by my history and skillset. The only thing I could think is:

"Wait until you hire me... you'll find out I really suck!"

I event went on a few job interviews and the companies were really enthusiastic about me. So much that they kept stalking me after I already declined their offers. Instead of thinking "wow, I am good" I thought:

"Shit, I must accidentally be saying the right words to make them so enthusiastic... It can't be my actual skills, because I suck... Why didn't they see that??"

What is happening?

It might sound like low self-esteem, but actually I have been struck by something that's known as The Imposter Syndrome. And if you recognize this, you're probably familiar or even suffering too.

Impostor syndrome is a psychological pattern in which one doubts one's accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a "fraud". Despite external evidence of their competence, those experiencing this phenomenon remain convinced that they are frauds, and do not deserve all they have achieved. Individuals with impostorism incorrectly attribute their success to luck or interpret it as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent than they perceive themselves to be.

If you've recognized yourself in the previous examples, you're probably thinking "I actually am an imposter!"

But what if I told you that a lot of very smart and/or successful people also have had thoughts like this? Like Serena Williams, David Bowie, Michelle Obama, and Albert Einstein?

You can even take an online test to see how high you score on the Clance Imposter Syndrome Scale.

Where does this come from?

It is called a "syndrome", but it's not a mental illness and not per definition related to things like depression or other mental conditions.

I think the most important cause of these thoughts is a combination of these factors:

  1. You don't know what other people think. Others might seem very confident. But they probably have similar doubts.
  2. It's hard to compare your own skills and abilities to others. Even more, if you master rare skills. It feels like others are always more skilled than you are. This is often not true.
  3. Social media makes it look like the world is full of skilled people. But you probably only follow that hand full of people in the world that are actually as skilled or sometimes better than you are. There are still about 8 billion more people that are less skilled...
  4. You stop listening to positive feedback. You might physically hear them, but you don't actually hear them. Either your mind immediately refutes them or is so numb that you actually filter them out. Like you don't see ads on websites anymore.

In my case, the last one was the worst. I had a lot of therapy since my burnout a few years ago, and one of the things I figured out was that I didn't accept and process positive feedback. This happened so automatically that I didn't even realize it.

Even worse, my mind immediately comes with a lot of "proof" to refute the positive feedback I get. For example, this happened when I was fueling up my extensively modified Volvo at a gas station and a car enthusiast came up to me:

"Omg, did you build that yourself? 😲 It's so awesome!! 😊"

Then this happens in my mind:

setTimeout(() => {    
    console.error("Ahhw thanks...");
    console.error("Wait what?");
    console.error("Is he blind?");
    console.error("He doesn't see that one crappy weld I effed up!");
    console.error("Look at that corner of the wrap that's peeling!");
    console.error("Everything I build is shit!");    
    console.error("I am not worthy!");
}, 100);

So after 100ms, my mind bent the compliment to a confrontation with my shortcomings (which only exist in my mind).

What can you do?

In my particular case, the Imposter Syndrome really went hand-in-hand with lowered self-esteem. These two are like twins, they look alike, but they are really different on the inside.

I am still struggling with these negative thoughts from day to day, but it greatly improved. Hopefully one of these following experiences can help you too if you recognized yourself in one of the previous examples.

1. Realize you're not alone.
Read about it. Google for "imposter syndrome". Or what you're feeling. Literally type in "I don't know what I'm doing at work" and you'll get numerous articles that relate and refute your feelings.

2. You're not wrong.
When somebody has commented on something you did does not mean you're wrong. It only means they do not agree with your view on something. They are entitled to their opinions, but so are you. A healthy discussion will result in a choice on what solution will be used, but even if the solution is not yours it does not mean it was a bad idea.

3. Talk about it.
This is one of the best advice I could give about anything that goes on inside your head, and it's certainly true in this situation. If you are insecure, validate if your thoughts are just. You will find that often, if not always, your thoughts are unfounded.

4. Never belittle yourself.
When talking (and even better: when thinking) do not belittle yourself. Never ever. Phrases like "If I can do it, everybody can do it!" are killing for your self-esteem and fuel for the Imposter devil on your shoulders. I've read about this a while ago and since then I try to practice it and I feel much better about myself since.

5. Actually listen to what people say.
This might be the hardest one. When somebody gives you some positive feedback on something, try to accept it. If you struggle with this, this will be the hardest to do. But remember, Rome wasn't built in one day. Big changes like this come in small steps. Realization is the first one. So if you notice you discard positive feedback don't think "See, I can't do this!" but remind yourself that you've noticed it. That's the first step. Knowing what happens. Next time you can try to stop the negative thoughts that follow. Even if they only get a little milder is a big step forward. Keep it up and keep practicing!

Conclusion

So, these fraudulent feelings are more common than you might have thought and I hope that if you have them too you've found some comfort in reading this and knowing you're not alone. I also hope I gave you some tools on how to start minimizing these feelings.

If you have any tips or just recognize yourself in the examples, please comment below and tell me about your experience!

Video

Before writing this blog I did some research and found this awesome video which explains the effect very well:

More videos on this subject:


Posted on by:

dreamdealer profile

Johan van Tongeren

@dreamdealer

Frontend Developer @ MyOnlineStore || Owner @ Bad Decision Works

MyOnlineStore

Making E-commerce easy and fun

Discussion

markdown guide
 

I don't know about your imposter syndrome but I was flabbergasted by your millions of lines of code in 15 years. If it was only two million, you were able to write about 365 lines of code a day. It is on par with a successful novelist. Congrats.

 

Thanks. But that was a "slight" exaggeration to make a point, which is: even as a senior developer I have these doubts. To prove that it's not experience-level related.

 

I was nitty-picking, wasn't I? :)

Yeah, quite. But I forgive you. To be honest: I was exaggerating but didn't realize it was that much. Thanks for pointing that out to me.

Also it did make me curious if I could find some stats on Github and nerd out... At MyOnlineStore we have multiple repo's and the biggest three said this about my contributions:

  • monolith (9 yo): 277,708 lines added, 168,737 deleted, 1890 commits
  • react repo (2 yo): 26,959 lines added, 24,266 deleted, 97 commits
  • comonent repo (2 yo): 5,488 lines added 2,376 deleted, 29 commits

That's a total of 310,155 lines added. Not quite millions but hundreds of thousands. Let me edit the blog.. 😝

That's a fine answer. I am used to performing similar reality checks constantly. If I see numbers, I have to verify them. πŸ˜‡
Glad you take it so well.

 

This is a topic that can never be discussed too much. I cannot explain the psychological changes that occurred in my head when I discovered this concept. They were nothing less than transformational. I spent decades comparing my work product to those who I just knew were smarter, faster, and had more experience in my field than I did. It affected my performance, my confidence, and my credibility as a software developer.

Then, during the course of reading my industry articles a few years ago, I read about imposter syndrome. I was floored. It had my name all over it. Imagine a fantasy movie where the protagonist inserts the key into the amazingly complex lock. The giant gears start spinning noisily and all fall into place with a satisfying, resounding thud. That was my epiphany.

Since then, I learned that no one has any more or less knowledge about my particular task at hand than I do. People aren't withholding my solution in hopes that I fail. I'm not being secretly judged as inferior. Everyone on my team is just as invested as succeeding as I am. It's ok to ask questions and not have all the answers.

What freedom! Such relief. The years of anxiety just melted away. My whole approach to my daily work changed nearly overnight. I still make mistakes and have a great deal to learn. But I no longer judge myself lesser than anyone else. I hope everyone can reach a similar level of personal acceptance. We all have valuable contributions to make. Best of luck.

 

Thanks for the extensive reply, Michael! And so well written too!

I completely recognize the unlocking feeling when first reading about Imposter Syndrome. I was already a few years into therapy after my burn-out and I wish I learned this before. It would have helped me put things into perspective so much more.

For me it doesn't feel like it's completely over yet, but your reply surely helps me get there!

 

Volvo and coding. <3
Damn, it is me, but I don't have so much exp as you. As a junior I face the impostor syndrome every day. I had the same situation today when one of the most skilled devs in my team merged my PR. But I have to admit that, the PR was made with big help one of the devs in my team. Guys are great and always help me. Good post. Good luck man!

 

I ❀️ Volvo's too. I've collected three of them over the past years. One V70R, a lifted 245 and a slammed widebody 245.

Anyway... on-topic: be grateful for such a great team!

 

v70R, wow. Very rare vehicle. Maybe someday I will be the owner of 850R. Good luck!

 

Thanks for the read, Johan!

I also suffer from imposter syndrome, both in dev and my freelance copy editing side gig.

It's funny... I've been freelancing for over three years now and have not had a single client leave me a bad review. I get referrals and am always told how talented I am at what I do... And yet every single time I receive a compliment, I can't help but revisit the document I was editing and scan it one more time because that part of my mind insists that I must've missed something or slipped up somewhere.

I wonder if the biggest reason for imposter syndrome really is social media. It's the one thing that's become more prominent over the past decade; meanwhile, we're hearing more and more about people who are affected personally and professionally by imposter syndrome.

 

Yep Johan, "fake it till you make it" ain't brought out of nothing after all.

I actually believe that people who don't feel like imposters (every now and then) are mostly actual imposters.

 

I completely agree with that!

 

My theory: Everybody is an imposter, and if everybody is an imposter, then no one is an imposter.

Congratulate me, everyone. I have eradicated imposter syndrome from this world! /s

 

Haha! It's true, but sadly I don't think this will actually eradicate the issue ;-)

I do think that if we talk and write about it, it will help. I think many people don't even know their thoughts about themselves are unfounded and the first step in doing something about it is acknowledging it.