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Beyond Impostor Syndrome

From my little corner of the internet, Impostor Syndrome seems to be getting more attention these days, which is cool. But there’s a bigger world underlying it. Camp out in the mines of Impostor Syndrome and you may miss out on what lies beneath and the resources we have to combat it.

“It” … is shame.

Shame is about my identity. We typically talk of shame in false views of self (“I should be better than I am/I’m unlovable”), though an accurate view of self I’d label as “healthy shame” or humility (“We all make mistakes/I need help”).

Impostor Syndrome is rooted in shame. It speaks to specific instances of identity struggle, usually involving a sense of deception or fraud about our work and accomplishments.

But the shame underneath in each of us can play out in many other ways.

The refusal to pour out my heart’s frustration over making a grocery list with my significant other because it’s just an f’ing grocery list and I don’t want to feel like I’m being disrespected over something so insignificant.

The apology I interrupt myself with to make sure no one has an adverse reaction to my opinions.

The verbal shove to make my friend think twice about asking me that question again.

The give-up on taking care of myself because there’s nothing worth saving here anymore.

The king-of-the-hill race to drop knowledge so that no possible conflict can occur because I allowed someone else to muddy the playing field with something confusing or imprecise.

The faux-patient submission to an unyielding relationship I tuck deep down in my purse of resentments.

The refusal to speak up to an act I’ve been guilty of myself because who am I to out myself as a hypocrite.

The spoken snub to try and silence the proof that I’m not really comfortable with how others express themselves.

The interruption of my spouse’s story to make sure they get it right so others won’t think poorly of me because of my ignorant other.

The justification where I draw the line so help me god you can have everything else, but not this.

The turned over phone, the ignored text, the deleted email.


Years ago I knew of a man in his fifties or sixties, a successful business man, who had a secret: he couldn’t read. He’d worked around it his whole career, had figured out how to have others read for him so he would never have to.

As part of his recovery he decided to remedy this. The tutor started with some simple reading samples to get their bearings and by the time they were done, it was determined he could actually read at about a 7th grade level.

His shame around reading had skewed his beliefs so much over the years, that he really didn’t think he could read at all.


The topic of depression is pertinent as well here. While I believe everyone copes with shame, those who receive their helping of shame swimming in a gravy of depression have it rougher.

The physiological effects of depression are akin to circus mirror glasses on top of the blinders of shame. I’m a bit (more) out of my depth to talk about depression, other than to say my spouse and I have struggled through hers our entire marriage. Successfully, I might add, on the whole. But it’s no small beast.


How, then, do we cope?

For many, anger is the defender of our secret shame. Look behind it, what’s it so desperate to guard?

For others, withdrawal and fear are aiming to protect. Peel it back, what’s beneath it?

Look for hurt. For loneliness. And look for false beliefs. Toxic shame arises from lies. Tie yourself to something right.

Stay connected. Shame removes options, isolates. Do not hesitate in getting help from someone trained in dealing with it. And when you hesitate and the shame wins for a day, get some help again.


Shame runs deep. But we can learn to recognize it, in all its myriad ways. If Impostor Syndrome has been your introduction, keep digging.


References:

Brené Brown has some wonderful resources on shame, see her site here: http://brenebrown.com. These TED talks of hers are good introductions: Listening to Shame and The Power of Vulnerability.

Greg Bauges has a great blog on the topic of Depression with a focus on the Software Developer community, and runs a support site at http://devpressed.com/

A couple of recent tweet conversations prompted me to get this out of my head and into words. Thx to Glenn Vanderburg, @gregvaughn, kerri miller and others for, at the very least, allowing me to invade on their tweet-turf. Thanks also to folks who additionally reviewed this article for me: Tara, Adam Keys, Morgan Whaley, @erniemiller, and Tony Pitale.

I gave a little lightning talk on Technical Intimidation at RailsConf 2013 which touches on these topics, video and lots o’ other links on my main blog: http://clabs.org/blog/TechnicalIntimidation. If yer a techie, give it a spin.