Impostor Syndrome

“The Monster Under Your Bed”

When taking on a new challenge — whether it be a new job or learning a new language or tool — it can be easy to feel like you don’t belong. The initiated seem so much smarter, faster, and sharper. No human could possess such skill; these people must be wizards. Suddenly you find yourself wondering why you thought you could handle this, how long will it be until you’re found out?

Take a deep breath and relax. You are not alone. What you are experiencing is a phenomenon known as impostor syndrome or as Juile Pagano calls it, “The monster under your bed.”

Many who experience impostor syndrome have a tendency to fear being exposed as a fraud, regardless of accomplishment, because of an inability to internalize their successes. As Julie mentions in her speech, It’s Dangerous to Go Alone: Battling the Invisible Monsters in Tech, those suffering from impostor syndrome find it difficult to accept praise. A congratulations is meet by passive insecurities such as, “I got lucky” or “I’m not even that good a programmer.”

As an aspiring software developer, I have learned a lot about impostor syndrome. I’ve had an inclination toward it for quite a while but didn’t have the words to define it until recently. Now, with two words I can accurately describe the anxiety that being a novice at the foot of a mountain like programming can offer. Luckily, as Julie states in her presentation, having the vocabulary to discuss impostor syndrome is one of the first steps to overcoming it.

It’s Dangerous to Go Alone offers another point that I feel is invaluable to anyone dealing with impostor syndrome; Build a Party. As the name of the talk implies, trying to battle that kind of internal negativity alone can be extremely difficult. You may not be rescuing Princess Zelda but it certainly takes some courage to share your insecurities with others. Sometimes simply saying the words aloud can help. Find people you can rely on in your community and help each other grow.

Being a new programmer, I have found the Ruby community in the DC area to be extremely welcoming and supportive. At one of the first meetups I attended, I went out on a limb and shared my feelings of being an impostor with an organizer from the user group. Not only was I comforted by their expression of similar experiences, I was also able to joke with them about a topic that had seemed so daunting minutes prior. Later she followed up with an email and a reading suggestion that I now recommend to every aspiring or beginning programmer: Apprenticeship Patterns: Guidance for the Aspiring Software Craftsman.

In this work, Dave Hoover and Adewale Oshineye weave their shared experiences with those of other programmers to establish a set of patterns for realizing your potential as a software developer. A pattern that aligns well to combat impostor syndrome is focusing on the long road. As the adage goes, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

I find it inspiring to look at fixtures in the Ruby community like Sandi Metz and think about the work that must have gone into honing her craft. Impostor syndrome says that you’ll never reach those heights but where’s the shame in trying? Julie Pagano raises the point that as magical as your heroes may seem, they are in fact human. They make mistakes and they have experienced struggles to get to where they are. Remember that you need to stretch yourself to grow and that you can’t challenge yourself without leaving your comfort zone. Build your party, share your fears, focus on your goals, and know that your future-self will be better for it.

In a world filled with instant gratification it can be tough to look at your own path objectively. When you measure your entire body of work against someone else’s highlight reel it is easy to feel overwhelmed. Before you make these comparisons consider these people may have the same feelings as you or worse yet, they could be personifications of the Dunning Kruger Effect. People who experience this phenomenon suffer from illusory superiority and rank their ability much higher than average, even if they are drastically under-skilled. Your acute self-awareness can be a valuable asset in battling impostor syndrome. Rather than amplifying your shortcomings or seeing them as weaknesses, use them as opportunities to guide your continued growth.

As Dave and Ade write in The Long Road, “You will come to wield knowledge and technology as the samurai uses his short and long swords. You will come to comprehend and appreciate the deeper truths of software development. But all this will take time.”

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