How to Overcome Impostor Syndrome


If you’re a human being, chances are you’ve felt like an impostor at some point in your life. One of the biggest issues with this syndrome is that is easy to get stuck with this feeling. One does not simply overcome Impostor Syndrome. It requires offering yourself compassion and vulnerability instead of judgment and self-doubt. But... how exactly do you achieve that? We'll look at techniques for achieving this and overcoming the syndrome.


If you're a human being, chances are you felt like an imposter at some point in your life. I've been there. There was a time when I felt like I was constantly evaluated, always questioning everything I do or don't do. I was never good enough. I was a fraud and soon the rest we'll find out too. When I got a job in Berlin, I panicked, thinking about having to move to another continent, only for people to realize I'm a fraud after a few weeks and take away my visa. Those were stressful days. After the meetings, I felt guilty for not participating more. If my pull requests had too many comments, I felt like I was failing. Struggling with different accents made me feel like I'm not even good at speaking English. I expected to be fired at any moment. Three years have passed and I'm still here. I don't think they found proof I'm a fraud. Hi, I am Ursula Cervantes, senior software engineer and imposter syndrome tamer. And this is Sahra, my imposter syndrome monster. She has been a companion for some years. At first, I didn't know who she was or why she was working beside me. But over time, I got to know her a little better. Whenever I feel like an imposter, I feel like someone is whispering to my ears all the things that can go wrong and all the reasons why I'm not good enough. The thing is, our primitive brain is there to protect us. That's how, after all, we managed to survive for the decades. Our primitive brain tried to protect us by listing all possible risks and the certain circumstances. One of the biggest risks we have to deal in our day-to-day life is failure. It's better if I'm scared, if I think I'm a failure or an imposter. That way, I stay away from the danger. That way, I don't risk it and fail. That's how our brain works, in a simplified way. And that's how it protects us. And so that's how I knew Sahra will never leave me. She's just scared and needs to be heard. So the next thing I had to do was to figure out how to deal with her. Here are some lessons I learned over time. But before we jump in, let's start with an example of a situation. This is Jesse. Jesse has been working as an iOS developer for the past seven years. Now they're starting a new job as a technical lead in a new company. It's the first week and the project assigned is to revamp a legacy system along with other technical leads of the company. Jesse starts to have doubts. Will I be able to catch up with the rest of the team? Starts to wonder. The other tech leads have been working in this company for over two years now. They are so experienced. They realize I'm not as good. Now let's go over some practices I found useful when dealing with imposter syndrome and I think it can help Jesse. First things first, acknowledge your feelings. To understand Sahra, I had to pause and ask as many questions as I can. What's behind this fear? Fear is just a consequence, but what are the possible reasons behind it? The first step is to acknowledge what you're feeling and then try to understand why you feel that way. In this case, Jesse says, I feel anxious. I feel that I will not be able to perform well in this project. And then the brain starts to list a bunch of reasons why Jesse won't be able to perform well, of course. I noticed that when I start to think about how I feel, my mind goes 100 kilometers per hour, thought after thought, leading me nowhere. One way to calm it down is to write down my thoughts because my hand can't write as fast as my mind goes. Start by keeping a journal. You can be reading or recording voice messages that you can review later. Whenever you experience feelings of self-doubt, register them and be specific about why you feel in this way. Acknowledge the thoughts and put them in perspective. Simply observe that thought as opposed to engaging with it. The chances are that seeing your thoughts read it out in black and white will enable you to see how harmful they really are and most importantly, to challenge them. Remember that while feelings are important, they are just feelings and do not necessarily reflect reality. Feeling unqualified, it doesn't mean that you really are. Back to our example, Jesse says, I feel incompetent. Why? Well, because I'm not familiar with the technology just in the legacy system. And as a technical leader, I should know this. I should know this. Why? Well, because the other tech leaders know it. In the meetings, they demonstrated a lot of expertise. Also, I've never worked in immigration before. This is my first job as a technical lead. I did not qualify for this job. Understanding the source of your feelings will help you deal with better with them. And I think the key points here are self-compassion and vulnerability. Self-compassion is trying to connect with what I'm feeling and with what I'm thinking in my darkest moments. It's not only about accepting our experiences as they are, but embrace ourselves with warmth and kindness. It's about accepting our humanity and that we are flawed and imperfect beings. Self-compassion is a practice of goodwill, not good feelings. With self-compassion, we mindfully accept that the moment is painful and embrace ourselves with kindness and care and response. Remembering that imperfection is part of the shared human experience. When we have self-compassion, we are aware of our own hurtful thoughts and emotions without blowing up their significance through rumination. The best way to practice self-compassion is to treat yourself as you would treat a friend. Picture a dear friend making a mistake and asking you for advice and comfort. Treat yourself with the same kindness and openness that you would treat a friend. This is also related to vulnerability because we can openly admit our weaknesses, accept past failures, and the willingness to fail. I truly believe that vulnerability is important. It's what allows us to be open to new situations without having everything under control. Which takes me to my next point. So now we know what are we feeling and likely enough, we know why. But knowing is not enough. We have to take actions. We need to develop a quick response plan. In our example, if Jesse tried to be kind with themselves, it would go like this. But why do I keep saying that I should be familiar with this technology? It doesn't really make sense to expect someone to be 100% familiar with all existing technologies. I went through the interview process, they met me, they're familiar with my experience, and they believe in me. They trust me. That's why they hired me. And I can learn a new technology that's not really an issue. I'm actually good at learning new stuff. It might take a while, but I can always ask the other tech leads with more experience. Yeah, I'm sure I can learn a lot from them. So what steps can Jesse take from here? Well, for instance, ask for the project documentation so you can learn more about it. Look for short YouTube tutorials on this technology so you get more familiar with it. Schedule short meetings with peers to ask questions. And my favorite one, order your favorite cake because let's face it, you're slaying it and you deserve it. If you feel that you're lacking something, then add it to your list with realistic expectations and goals. For example, if you detect that giving a presentation to the team gives you anxiety because you don't feel comfortable with public speaking, that's okay. But then try to prepare with enough time and practice as much as needed. Maybe take a course or practice in front of friends. Whatever makes you feel comfortable and help you to get out of your comfort zone. It's going to vary from person to person. That's why it's so important for you to understand and identify what's bothering you, what's causing the fear and then tackle that specific issue. Now moving on to the leadership side, I want to share some tips to help not just you, but your team defeat imposter syndrome. As a leader, it's important to know how to deal with imposter syndrome because it doesn't just hurt the people who experience it. It also hurts the team and the businesses that they belong to. They may turn down promotions or avoid challenging new roles or high exposure projects. So if you're in a leadership role, it pays to keep an eye out for team members who are struggling with feelings or inadequacy. Make it safe to ask for help. Not recognizing or admitting vulnerability results in us sticking to comfortable behavior without taking new challenges. It doesn't allow others to help us when we need it. Create an environment where the team understands that it is normal for them to feel that way and that they are in a safer space. You as a leader have to show you can be trusted and you have to be trusting. This means being okay with being vulnerable with your team. You as a leader have to go first. You can do this by admitting you're having a bad day, that you don't understand something or that you made a mistake. Give them credit when it's due, even the most productive and accomplished individuals experience imposter syndrome. Giving real credit to individuals is the easiest way to combat the seeds of doubt. Offer specific positive affirmation. Be honest, but name the specific strengths they bring to their role as evidence that they've earned their place. Use their triggers to set doubt and repeat as many times as needed. Leaders can help by being accessible, coaching them and being very conscious of giving them positive feedback and recognition. Let them know when they're slaying it. Show them where they stand. Giving feedback helps with imposter syndrome as well. The feedback ensures that the person knows where they stand within the company and helps them build confidence within themselves. It acts as a thermometer. The person can then respond accordingly and learn moving forward. Focus on inclusion so people feel validated. Standard validation is a must for those suffering from imposter syndrome. Not feeling included and accepted in the workplace does not help. This affects directly to minority groups in the workplace. When people are underrepresented, the risk factor for developing imposter syndrome is higher. Assign them a mentor. Finding a mentor with a similar demographic can be extremely helpful. A mentor with a similar background will help build up confidence so they no longer feel like an imposter. Reward their attempts to stretch themselves. Imposter syndrome can attack when you least expect it. When you are outside of your comfort zone, for example, running a training session out of their sweet spot. The best way to combat this is to reward the attempt. When the person knows their success is based on the attempt and not necessarily the outcome, they'll be able to relax and execute. Examine your own beliefs about your team. The first step as a leader is to examine your own beliefs about the other person and how these are translating into your leadership style. Do you treat your team as if they are wise, trustworthy and capable? If not, then don't expect them to behave as such. The nature of the human being is to survive and that implies dealing with dangers that surround us. All Sarah wants to do is to protect me from failure and pain. That's why she's not going to leave me. The best I can do is listen carefully to what she has to say, be vulnerable enough to admit that we can fail, but recognize that we are already good enough and there to try something new without knowing the outcome. Sure, everything can go wrong, but what if everything goes well? Thank you.
17 min
09 Mar, 2023

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