My experience with Imposter Syndrome, and how to cope
I have a confession to make: Sometimes I feel like an imposter. I feel like I might lose my job any time soon. I feel that I suck at it and someone is going to find out.
I did not use to feel this way. I started programming when I was 11 years old, and I never doubted that I would be working with computers. I was pretty sure that I knew enough programming to cruise through engineering school. It wasn’t that easy, but I never lost confidence in what I wanted to do, or that I would get there.
In 1998, after I got my degree, I worked at two small companies. The first one got closed down after a few months, and at the second one I was the only technical guy. For the first year or so I setup Linux servers and did all the programming, and the other employees did web design.
While I was working there I was getting ready to start a company with some friends. In July 2000 we started a game company that went on to make Darkfall, a hardcore PVP MMO that we released in 2009.
I didn’t really have any issues with imposter syndrome during this period. For the most part I felt that I was doing a good job. There are always some down-periods in game development, and being a start-up we had some rough times, but we always pulled through. The cult mentality that we developed in the company help keep us on track to rule the world. 😀
In 2009, after releasing Darkfall, I went to work as a consultant doing regular IT development. Coming straight from the gaming industry I was pretty burned out, but felt I had been through fire, and whatever an IT consultant does, it couldn’t be harder than game development.
That turned out to be true in some sense. The job was challenging, since I had to learn tons of new stuff, but I still felt I was on top of it. And the working hours were great compared being a game developer.
Fast forward to 2016. I had been 7 years on the same contract, and started working for a new customer doing back-end development for a machine learning cluster. Lots of new tools and languages, and after 7 comfortable years I felt like I was thrown into the fire again. I think I did a pretty good job, but as I was floundering and trying to learn new stuff I started doubting my skills.
Then I was given the opportunity to start developing a VR digital twin collaboration-tool for displaying real-time data from the cluster I had helped develop. This was using my game development skills in a business environment, and pretty close to my dream project. I jumped at the possibility, and was lucky enough to have a brilliant young guy who knew VR development on our team of two.
This was when I started feeling like an imposter for the first time. Here I was, this experienced game developer supposed to know what to do, but I felt like I was stumbling around in the dark looking for good VR solutions. We developed a working prototype, and as the project funding started dwindling I got pulled off the project, and the young guy finished it without me. Was I pulled off the project because I sucked?
The next customer I worked for was doing cool stuff in the media business, and I was allowed to work with AWS Lambda and other cool tech, on top of fixing bugs in a Java monolith. After three months I was let go because they suddenly had to downsize, along with other consultants that had been there for longer than me. Was I starting to lose it? Didn’t I do a good job?
Next one up was another media company. One of the larger ones in Norway. I had a good time learning Go and was on a great team. After a year or so, I volunteered to help another team add a feature to their product. The new team did not have the resources to make the feature we wanted because they were refactoring and migrating their product to a new language at the same time.
I spent almost three months adding the new feature, because I had to learn the new language, the new architecture of the product, and find out how the feature would fit into the product. I gave myself a hard time because I was reluctant to ask too many questions, and after a while I felt overwhelmed by the task.
While I was away from my original team they found out they had more need for a data-science expert than a programmer since we already had a working solution, so I was let go. The last few weeks I spent completing the feature I was there to fix, and then the contract was over. I had landed a new gig, but I added a few days extra vacation just to give myself a break.
The last couple of months at my former customer broke me in ways I never though possible. And I still think it is mostly my fault. I was so sure I would just be able to read the code and fix the issue quickly, that when it didn’t happen, I hit some kind of mental wall. The result was that I developed severe imposter syndrome issues. This is the first time I have told anyone about it.
I had a nagging feeling back in 2018 when I was let go from the VR stint. Somehow I started convincing myself that I was getting old and less good at what I do. And it started growing like a tumor inside me the last couple of years before almost completely consuming me when I left the last customer.
Luckily there was a little voice of reason in the back of my head that tried to calm me down and set things straight. That little voice knew that what I was experiencing was Imposter Syndrome.
Before I continue, I want to explain what Imposter Syndrome (IS) is: It is a condition where a person feels like he or she is a fake. The person feels like they a fooling everyone into thinking they are something that they are not.
Apparently IS is pretty prevalent in high performance careers, like programming. It used to be thought that mostly women were affected, but modern research shows that it most probably affects both genders the same. The biggest difference is that men don’t like talking about it, or even acknowledging that they have a problem.
This mental condition happens when you have low self-confidence over time, and start thinking that anything good that happens to you is luck, and anything bad is your fault. You don’t think you will succeed at anything, but when you do, you downplay it as luck. It’s a circle.
If you have high self-confidence you will probably think that anything good that happens to you is because you are pretty good at what you do, and anything bad is either bad luck or someone else’s fault.
For me, IS made me feel like I had lost it. I had somehow grown too old to be a developer. My brain wasn’t able to cope with learning new stuff. At least I thought so at the time. In reality the last three years have been a chance to learn a lot of new stuff. As a consultant I am mostly on short-term contracts that get extended as long as the customer needs me. That means that moving between customers is a normal thing. I haven’t heard any negative feedback, so I must have at least been doing an OK job.
Going forward, I have to accept the fact that learning takes time. Getting good at something new takes even more time. And I have to remember that I can’t be an expert at everything. I need to be humble enough to ask for help when I need it.
Luckily, I had read about Imposter Syndrome, so I was able to realize what was happening. I have ploughed through quite a bit of literature on psychology and IS the last year or so, and I started doing mindfulness meditation at the end of last year. Mindfulness has helped me quite a bit by enabling me to detect imposter thoughts so I can dismiss them. I am a lot better now, and have been for a while, but I do still feel like an imposter on occasion.
I have also been out paddling with my kayak more often this year. That is a kind of meditation too. =)
The negative feedback-loop with Imposter Syndrome is self-reinforcing, and can pull you down if you aren’t able to stop it. So how can you break out?
- Talk to other people about your feelings of being an imposter. Just the act of talking about it will start the process of healing.
- Allow yourself to make mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. Make them more often, so you can recognize the imposter thoughts as they emerge and learn from them. When you make a mistake, try thinking of yourself as a friend. What would you tell a friend that makes a mistake?
- Get enough sleep! Sleep deprivation mimics depression and can fuel Imposter Syndrome. In general you should be getting 8-9 hours of sleep every night.
- Recheck your measures for success. You don’t need to make less lofty goals necessarily, but maybe you need different goals, or a set of milestones that will help you measure your progress. I started with mindfulness meditation at the end of last year to calm my mind before sleep. Regular mindfulness training can also help you regulate emotions, thoughts, and give you better insight towards yourself and what your goals are. But that is not within the scope of this article. 🙂
- Read up on Imposter Syndrome. There are quite a few articles online about it. If you want to read a book, I recommend a book by Sandi Mann titled “Why do I feel Like and Imposter?”.
If none of these tips work, then seek out professional mental health support.
I hope my personal story helped you understand how easy it is to develop IS. If you think you are an imposter, most likely you are experiencing Imposter Syndrome.
According to Dr Sandi Mann it is often people that experience some degree of success in life that are triggered to feel like imposters, so the chances are that if you suffer from IS you are probably pretty good at what you do.
Up to 70% of us suffer from IS at some point in our lives, according to studies, so you are not alone. Find someone to talk to. They will most probably understand what you are feeling. Acknowledging IS, and talking about it is the first step to reducing it.