Impostor Syndrome

Battling the Invisible Monsters in Tech

In response to the talk by Julie Pagano (link at bottom):

When it comes to improving your skills, people rarely draw attention to important psychological issues — i.e. insecurity, anxiety, and a lack of confidence.

On the other hand, computer science and programming communities are strengthened by participation. Unfortunately, those suffering from these psychological conditions are more reserved when it comes to participating and helping the community at large.

Julie Pagano refers to the “Impostor Syndrome” as the psychological phenomenon of being unable to internalize accomplishments. Those suffering from the syndrome fail to see the overall picture of the many failures and achievements involved in learning. For most, the many failures of programming are balanced by the overwhelming feelings of accomplishment when certain goals are reached. For those with the “Impostor Syndrome”, the balance feels tipped towards the feelings of failure.

These suffering individuals often have a twisted sense of their own ability. While their actual ability may be rather high, the perception of their own ability is much lower. On the flip side of this, Pagano refers to the Dunning-Kruger Effect, in which individuals suffer from the illusion of possessing great skills and knowledge, despite the actual room for learning. These individuals might also struggle to learn new things, because they believe they already know so much. At this point, it would be useful to reflect on your own ability and seek out ways to improve — and to remember to always avoid the qualities of Dunning-Kruger Effect.

However, Pagano mostly focuses on Impostor Syndrome, and offers great solutions for combatting day-to-day insecurities.

  1. Build a party - Establishing a support system with your colleagues/coworkers/teachers/etc. will help you find useful feedback when you have questions, problems, or simply need to vent. This is also extremely useful for when you simply have a bad day.
  2. Track measurable progress - By setting practical goals, you can quickly reach more “achievements”. Simply start with small goals, and remember to soak it in each time you accomplish something.
  3. Look for positives & avoid negatives - Building on the previous suggestion, Pagano emphasizes the need to seek out positives. By seeking more simple accomplishments and focusing on positive language/avoiding negative language, you can allow yourself to enjoy more positive feelings and keep yourself from harping on negative feelings.
  4. Help others - This can definitely seem challenging when you’re learning a new skill, but helping others can really solidify your own understanding of new concepts. It also helps to know you can teach what you’ve learned, and informs you of what “Impostor Syndrome” can look like from the other end.
  5. “Kill” your heroes - You know how people say “Don’t meet your heroes”? Instead, Pagano tells the audience to “kill” them instead — or rather, to humanize them and take them off the “pedestal” of heroism. By remembering that every human has taken the path from Beginner to Pro, it can help take the weight off when others might want to compare themselves to the Programming Wizards and other skilled heroes of the community.

These 5–6 steps can really make a difference in combatting feelings of the “Impostor Syndrome,” but remember that these feelings can affect anyone, of any experience level. However, keep practicing these steps and you may find yourself making good habits that lead to great success in learning to code.