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Why Am I Here? Struggling With Impostor Syndrome

sarahscode profile image Sarah Katz Originally published at sarahlkatz.com on ・5 min read

It's always been hard for me to adjust to new settings. If I'm going into an unfamiliar place or situation, I have a hard time acclimating and I struggle to feel comfortable. This is something I've dealt with much of my life, and I'm somewhat used to it. I've gotten to a point where I know I'm going to struggle in certain situations ... but I didn't expect to feel this struggle when I started my new job. This isn't my first job as a software engineer, and I thought that having experience would have bolstered me going into this new position. The first few days were okay, and despite the large amount of information being thrown at me, I felt like things were going pretty well. But as I started to get into a more normal routine, I realized that I didn't belong. I didn't know why they brought me in or what my place was.

It took me a while to realize it, but eventually, I became aware that I was struggling with a common (but still terrifying) problem in the industry - impostor syndrome.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines impostor syndrome as "the persistent inability to believe that one's success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one's own efforts or skills" (draft, June 2018). For me, one area where this manifested early was understanding why I was invited to join the company. For a few weeks, I tried to work up the courage to ask if I could see the notes and feedback from my interview, because I wanted to see what (if any) skills they thought I had and how much they felt I needed to learn to be able to actively contribute. It was particularly hard for me to believe that I got the job on my own merits because this was the first (and only) offer I received in a very long job search. Thankfully, I was able to get past this fear, but after a comment from one of my interviewers (which I think was meant to reassure me but in truth had the opposite effect), I realized that I wouldn't necessarily be against seeing my interview feedback (although I'm not actively looking for it).

While I have somewhat come to terms with the idea that I was offered my job because my interviewers felt I was qualified and a good fit, I still live in fear of the possibility of being "found out." Of my teammates discovering that while I can do the "basic" (for lack of a better word) things I was asked in my interview, I'm not at all good enough to do the caliber of work that is required to contribute at the company. Whenever I start working on a new task or have to dive into a part of the codebase with which I'm unfamiliar, I start to feel like I don't belong at this job and I'll never be able to do the things I'm asked to do. Most days I know I'm the least qualified person at the company, and it's disheartening to feel that way. There are days when I'm convinced that I don't belong at my current job and I don't know (and can't learn) how to do the things I need to do.

I have to admit, not every day feels like this. I have my good days too. When a PR I worked hard on gets approved, or I help out a teammate by reviewing their PR, or I solve a problem that I was struggling with, sometimes I feel like I'm on top of the world and I know that (even though they may be small) my contributions matter. One of my recent PRs was a bugfix that involved me working with a library and concept that was very new to me, and the day I was able to merge that work into the codebase was a huge moment of triumph.

But there are also a lot of days where I feel like I just can't do anything right. I was recently assigned a task with a higher level of difficulty than what I've worked on previously. I struggled to complete the ticket, and when I finally had the task completed to the best of my ability and put in a pull request, I was far from confident in the work I did. I received some comments on the PR which were very helpful and relevant, but in my mind, those comments somewhat reinforced the feeling that I'm not good enough or capable enough to do my job. I know that comments and changes and collaboration are a big part of being part of a team, but when I'm not confident in my work, it can be difficult to acknowledge that the comments I'm receiving are a normal part of the work I've done and not an indictment of my lack of skills.

As happy as I am working for an amazing company, I still spend a lot of time waiting for the other shoe to drop. I keep wondering when I'm going to be "outed" as an impostor and how my team will respond when they discover that I have no idea what I'm doing. I know this is an irrational fear and that my managers are aware of what I know and that I have a lot to learn, but it's still discouraging to feel like I don't belong and like I'll never be capable of doing the things my team needs me to do to contribute.

While putting a name to this feeling and identifying it as impostor syndrome has helped, I've found that there are other actions I can take to further help me feel more comfortable with my work. One of the biggest confidence boosters I've discovered is working together with a teammate to solve a problem. I've had a few opportunities to pair program with a teammate, and I've found that learning more about the codebase makes me feel a little more confident in my knowledge. I've even had a few situations where my teammate suggested doing something that I had already contemplated trying, which always makes me feel like I'm on the right path and confirms that my instincts about how to solve problems are usually pretty good.

Another way in which I've helped myself feel more comfortable at the company is by allowing myself to be myself. When I first started this job, I put a lot of pressure on myself to "fit in" (which is a ridiculous concept at a company where everyone is different). Lately I've been better about letting my personality "shine" - I talk about the things I love (baseball mostly), I crack jokes, and last week I even baked cookies for my team (and they seemed to like the cookies, which means I probably will be doing more baking, which excites me). Allowing myself to be myself has helped me feel more comfortable, and while I still sometimes feel like I don't belong, I do feel more like myself, which has been a bit of a game changer.

I'm still dealing with impostor syndrome. I still feel like I don't belong, like I'm not good enough to be where I am, and like I will never be good enough to accomplish anything. But some days are better than others, and if I can hold on to those good days, I know that eventually I'll get to where I need to be. I may never feel 100% confident in my skills, but I can get to a point where I know I'm contributing to my company's work, and when I reach that moment, I will finally feel like I deserve to be where I am.

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Yes yes yes! I feel this exactly in my job daily - some days worse than others. One project I'm on, I've taken for this production release from a woman who has been working on it for not kidding, 20+ years. So when there are technical questions asked and I'm expected to know it and I don't, I feel like a failure. But I have to remind myself I'm not her. Luckily she's stepped back in to help with it, but so often I feel like I'm going to be found out and fired (which wouldn't happen but still).

I just never feel like I know anything, when I'm surrounded by people who seem to know everything and it makes it hard to believe I can do a good job.

 

Comments on a PR can be very overwhelming. The commenter might not have the intention to be harsh, but the commentee can perceive it like being harshn due to the written nature of comments.

StackOverflow made a nice blogpost about it: stackoverflow.blog/2019/09/30/how-...