Imposter Syndrome and Finding Your Flow

About two years ago someone messaged me asking if I would talk to one of their students about imposter syndrome, and if I had any good advice to give. I didn’t at the time, but it has been in the back of my mind since. I think I have worked it out now, and I would like to share what I have learned.

Firstly, what is imposter syndrome?

‌Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon, impostorism, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience) is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. From Wikipedia.

There are a few things that I have come to learn about imposter syndrome.

  • It is tied with being bad at self assessing your own skill set.
  • It’s about feeling like you don’t belong and fretting about whether you are good enough or not. Stereotypes play a role here.
  • If you are from a demographic that isn’t seen as the authority in your subject area and is underrepresented in your field, then you probably experience doubt from others and from yourself (from having internalised the stereotype).
  • It is a need to seek validation and nourishment for yourself in a world that is demanding more of yourself than you can give.

Here are some things that I have found to be effective in combating imposter syndrome for myself. These are meant to be used in conjunction with each other — in isolation they aren’t so effective.

Collect Evidence

I record my achievements. I note down compliments I have received on my work. I collect all the evidence I can that suggests I have experience and expertise in my field. If I haven’t gotten any feedback from anyone in a while, sometimes I will ask for feedback. If someone gives me critical feedback, I remind myself that this helps me grow faster than purely good feedback. It makes me feel like there are clear steps I can take to improve. People rarely give out thoughtful critical feedback so it’s special when they do.

I try to spend time looking at the evidence and see how much work I have put in. I like to appreciate all attempts, big and small, not just “completed” work (is anything ever truly completed?). Doing performance reviews and updating my resume are good opportunities for reflection. And instead of creating resolutions on New Year’s Day, I write up all the significant things from the past year.

Find Your Flow

In the past I have found myself truly miserable questioning whether or not I could do the job in front of me (after tricking my employer into giving me a job, of course). I have wasted so much time and energy stalling on a task because I was questioning myself. Thoughts of being “found out” and “I don’t know if I am good enough to do this” are distracting and don’t help me get to where I need to go. These thoughts and feelings consume my time and energy thinking about them when I could be spending that on improving my skills. When I think about this, I find that it becomes clear to me that I can work on the problem instead and the outcomes for me will be much better.

Once I have told the imposter syndrome thoughts to fuck off, I think about how I can get settled into my work. I find it better if I can let go of any expectations of myself. I try and turn down the volume on expectations, distractions, and any unhelpful thoughts.

I then find a clear, easy to achieve objective. I look for the smallest step that I can take to get settled into my work. Eventually, if I can stick with a train of thought long enough, I will get into the mystical ~ flow state ~. Once I’m in the flow, it doesn’t take much effort to ignore the bad imposter syndrome feelings.

In the act of focusing on the task at hand, I make progress infinitely faster than I otherwise would and I feel better for it. I can “prove” I’m not a fraud through doing the work.

I use Acceptance Commitment Therapy techniques as a way to help clarify my goals and focus on where I want to go (here are some resources). I also have list of tips on reducing distractions by my desk because I am often too preoccupied to remember these strategies.

Bonus Tip

Are you feeling invalid because you don’t feel like you’re contributing to society enough? Or you can’t achieve all the things you feel you are expected to? Do you feel like shit for not giving your absolute best to your work?

Well, buddy, it’s time to take a deep breath (maybe a few real good long slow ones). Remind yourself that you are so much more valuable than these expectations. ‌You are more than your economic output. You are unique and beautiful and strong. There are so many beautiful things everywhere that you can spend time with and appreciate. It’s fucked how much of our lives we give away in order to earn someone else comfort and luxury. It is not worth sacrificing your humanity to this.


But What About Being Humble?

I think some of us may feel a desire to hold onto imposter syndrome because it makes us feel like we’re being humble — which is a virtue, right?

Having imposter syndrome doesn’t make you humble. You can acknowledge your level of skill AND still be humble.

There is a cost to imposter syndrome. I really enjoy mentoring others, I focus on mentoring femmes/women in security. I have made the mistake of recommending books that are too difficult for some students which can risk them feeling not good enough and turning them off the subject area. This is because I failed to acknowledge my own level of skill in information security.

I have also had a mentor with a pretty serious case of imposter syndrome. They assumed that I would be perfectly capable of doing whatever task I was assigned and they didn’t check up on me and how my work was going. I made myself miserable toiling at these tasks for way too long. I later learned these were actually well beyond my skill level and domain knowledge (and challenging for people who were domain experts).

There is also a risk that if you go around saying that you don’t know anything and that you’re just a beginner, that other people will take your word for it. You won’t get assigned impactful projects that are going to challenge and grow you. (😬).

It’s better for you to acknowledge your skills for those around you, not just for your own sanity.


Extra Recommendations For Fun And Profit

  • Since I know critical feedback is so rare, I try and give feedback to others wherever I can (I try to always ask before sharing feedback because I do NOT want my new job title to be Chief Pontification Officer).
  • I encourage you to mentor others — and to check up on them frequently. This can help with your imposter syndrome and theirs. When I mentor people I try to pay careful attention to when something is just out of their reach, and I either spend extra time helping them get over that hurdle or we look for something else for them to work on. If they work through a challenging task, I let them know that it was difficult and I encourage them to recognise their achievement. Helping others has helped me to better acknowledge my own expertise and get a more accurate idea of what I know.
  • Consider reading this book The Ultimate Book of Impostors by Ian Graham. It’s packed with lots of short stories on actual imposters. You will quickly realise you are not like them!
  • Know that we are all trapped in this capitalist patriarchal society which is built on the foundation of inequality, so let’s be excellent to each other.