Four Ways to Deal with Impostor Syndrome

A friend of mine wondered recently why so many people at my school suffered from impostor syndrome, also known as the feeling that you secretly don’t know anything and that you’ve somehow been fooling everyone into believing that you’ve got your shit together.

Although I do attend a school where impostor syndrome seems to be quite prevalent, I think that it affects almost everybody at least some of the time. When I first took college-level economics courses, and later, when I started learning computer science theory and how to program, I struggled constantly with feelings of inadequacy and incompetence. Whenever those feelings come up now, I use one or a combination of the four methods below to make them go away.

1. Acknowledge that feeling like a fake may not be your fault.

Society has an obsession with “natural intelligence” and “smart people”. Many of us are led to believe that brilliant people who are good at what they do were born that way, and that they don’t mess up as much as we do. That’s such BS — everyone struggles sometimes. True intelligence is having the desire to acquire new skills, troubleshooting and problem solving from different angles when issues arise, and having the drive and motivation to keep going. At the risk of sounding like a corny motivational poster, you’re not a failure if you don’t get something right the first few times; you’re only a failure if you give up and refuse to learn from your mistakes.

The next time that you don’t feel like you’re gifted enough to be where you are, remember that no one is automatically good at anything — even those with so-called “raw talent” have to practice.

2. Admit that you suck and show your imperfect work to the world

I used to dread posting my work on a public GitHub repo, doing code reviews, or working with others who I perceived to be “better” than me at the task at hand. I thought I’d have a better time if I made my work perfect before letting anyone else see it. Unfortunately, the world doesn’t work that way. Perfection is unrealistic; even “good” and “bad” are relative terms. A 50% on an exam suddenly isn’t so bad if everyone else got a 20%.

A somewhat unintuitive fact about learning is that you’ll learn better and faster when you put yourself out there and gain knowledge through improving. Expose your ignorance and don’t get discouraged when others tear your hard work apart. A trick I use is accepting that I suck: once I know that I’m far from perfect, I stop focusing on trying to look good and start working on how to get better.

3. Ask questions when you don’t know something.

Have you ever talked to somebody who obviously didn’t know what you were talking about, but pretended that they did because they didn’t want to admit that they were clueless? Don’t be that person. If anything, faking knowledge will contribute to your feelings of impostor syndrome even more, because you’re literally deceiving others when you do it. The next time you don’t know what someone is talking about, ask them for a clarification. Even if you look stupid for doing so, it’s a few minutes of mild ego damage, versus new knowledge that you’ll carry around with you for a lifetime. That’s a tradeoff I’m willing to make.

4. Seek concrete validation of your abilities.

A great way to be assured that you do in fact have your shit together is to be validated by someone else. Don’t seek out people who tell you that you must be good at what you do because you’re a good person, friend, partner, or other role unrelated to your actual abilities — while that type of validation is important in its own right, it won’t help your impostor syndrome go away. Instead, seek out feedback that gives you measurable, real evidence that you’re doing good work, such as a professor’s comments on your last test, a narrative evaluation of how well you did in a certain course, or a review of something you published. The more specific, the better: think of “X’s final project was elegantly built and demonstrated mastery of core object-oriented design principles through use of the Factory pattern in part Y” versus a vague “X did a good job in the Object-Oriented Design course.” The former eases doubts that you BS’ed your way around the class and serves as proof that you have legitimately accomplished things.

If All Else Fails, Talk About It

The first time I told someone else that I suffered from feeling like a fraud who had somehow stumbled into the computer science department, I was shocked when they told me they felt the same way. I was surprised because I’d always regarded them as one of the most resourceful and dedicated people I knew — what did they mean they felt like they barely knew how to code? It turned out that we both thought we didn’t have enough experience and resolved to program together in the future. Sharing your concerns with others can yield surprisingly good results. After all, they’re not you, and they can often provide some much-needed outsider insight on what you really can accomplish.

It’s okay to feel like you don’t know what you’re doing sometimes; the important part is to not let that feeling control you or what you do. A big part of overcoming impostor syndrome is recognizing that it’s just a feeling — it doesn’t reflect who you are or what you’ve accomplished.

mimi chenyao

P.S. If you have your own ways of dealing with impostor syndrome, I’d love to hear them. We’re all in this together, and the more voices we have addressing this, the better. Comment below or contact me here.

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