How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome as a Programmer or a Data Scientist

Confidence is not the only thing that’s needed to overcome imposter syndrome.

Jun Wu
Jun Wu
Aug 22 · 9 min read
Photo by Alex Radelich on Upsplash

There are 350 likes for an imposter syndrome thread on a subreddit for new programmers. I’m not surprised.

Honestly, programmers and data scientists struggle with imposter syndrome the most. Why? Programming and data science are both competitive careers.

Technology develops so fast that you are forced to learn new things all the time. This puts you at the starting line again and again. Each time, it will feel like you just graduated from school. Each time, it will feel like you will flunk your next technical interview.

On top of that, typical programmers or data scientists change their jobs every two to three years. Some freelance programmers and data scientists pitch for work every few months or every month. This kind of turnover means constant change. Constant change plus constant learning usually result in fear.

“The imposter syndrome is a psychological term referring to a pattern of behavior where people doubt their accomplishments and have a persistent, often internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud.” — Psychology Today

Looking back at the 10+ years I spent in investment-banking technology, I probably dealt with imposter syndrome every day at my work. After the first five years, I learned to accept the feeling as an accepted part of my career.

Repeatedly overcoming imposter syndrome made it easier to deal with. But it certainly didn’t make it go away completely. With each new area of work I went into, inevitably, imposter syndrome stared at me in the face.


Know the Source

The first step to dealing with imposter syndrome or any psychological issue is simply to acknowledge it and know the origin of where it comes from. I have imposter syndrome worse than most due to the kind of childhood I had.

I grew up living with abuse and abandonment that I was forced to erase from my memory while dealing with the hamster wheel of overachievement in a narcissistic paternalistic household.

For me, confidence does not come easily. Growing up in America as a poor immigrant and working in corporate technology as a woman have both contributed to my lack of confidence.

A lack of confidence can contribute to imposter syndrome. But so can overconfidence. I remember the first time I became a senior developer on my team. I finally felt that I mastered all I needed to learn on that team. My success made me overconfident. I stopped taking risks in working on interesting projects. This was when my motivation dived. As soon as my motivation for work dived, imposter syndrome came on immediately when the first change occurred on the team.


Recognize Imposter Syndrome, And Lean Into the Feelings

When imposter syndrome comes on, these are my classic symptoms:

  1. My anxiety for doing any work multiplies.
  2. My motivation for work dives.
  3. When presented with opportunities, I talk myself out of them.
  4. When people compliment me, I think they have hidden agendas. I also downplay my successes and attribute them to luck.
  5. I act fake because I feel fake. I pretend I know areas of knowledge that I don’t know.
  6. I want everything to be perfect. I can’t finish my work because I can’t finish the revisions.
  7. I need to do everything myself. I have trouble delegating tasks.
  8. I need external validation for my work, my intellect, and my self-worth.
  9. I study for degrees after degrees and certificate after certificate. I am addicted to taking exams.

Whenever I begin a new project, a new job, or a new turning point in my life, these symptoms of imposter syndrome cause a host of feelings and emotions:

  1. Anxiety
  2. Self-doubt
  3. Fear of failure
  4. Fear of success
  5. Fear of happiness
  6. Depression
  7. Mania from perfectionism
  8. Self-sabotage
Photo by Paolitta Chaaya on Upsplash

Know What Happens When You Do Nothing

The consequence of the feelings from imposter syndrome can be immense — not only for your mental health but also for your career … and your life. If these feelings are uncontrolled, it will eventually prevent you from advancing in your life.

When I was dealing with bullying in the workplace for several years, I had trouble dealing with my imposter syndrome. I didn’t have the headspace to deal with imposter syndrome when my workplace was intense, crushingly difficult, and made even more difficult by a toxic environment.

During this time, my feelings of imposter syndrome became worse by the day. After three years, not only did my life feel stagnant, but I also started to take actions to move backward in my career.

These were the outcomes:

  1. A major bout of depression stemming from the burnout that took almost a year to heal.
  2. When offered opportunities for advancements to get out of the toxic workplace, I rejected those offers.
  3. Instead of seeking happiness, I started to sabotage my own life by not doing the things I loved to do, seeing the people I loved to see, or traveling to places I loved to be.
  4. Instead of acknowledging my feelings, I numbed them and then acted arrogantly to overcompensate for my imposter syndrome. This pushed people away and resulted in the loss of working relationships.
  5. Instead of seeking opportunities for advancement at work, I started to hang on dearly to the toxic environment I wanted to get away from. This fueled a cycle of self-sabotage.

Change your Mindset

Once you have imagined in your mind the worst that can happen when you don’t do anything about your imposter syndrome, then you will start to look for a solution. This is when a change in mindset is needed. Instead of wallowing in the fact that you are fake, you are not enough, and you can’t do it, think about this instead:

  • You are enough if you believe that you are enough.
  • You are enough if you act like you are enough.
  • You are enough if you simply proceed to deal with the next adventure by taking just one step.

By simply taking the next step, whatever that is, your feelings of being an imposter will feel less important. Focusing on the next step on your journey, whether or not it is to pick yourself up from failure or to make a decision, will allow you to move on from this feeling of being an imposter.

Photo by Bruno Nascimiento on Upsplash

Turn the Situation Around

Once you have taken this initial step, then you can turn your imposter syndrome on its head. When you feel like a fake, it is an opportunity to prove to yourself you are not fake. This is when you take actions for self-improvement and knowledge improvement, setting yourself up for success. Success is often success in mentality. This means you are a success if you feel you are a success. The best way to feel successful is to work on projects that are important to you. Then, succeed step by step by finishing those projects.

You can set yourself up for success by working on a simple passion project, then seeing yourself succeed step by step.

The word “simple” is really important here. This must be a project that you know you will finish. This also must be a project that’s important to you. Once you’ve achieved this, you will feel enough motivation to keep going.

Then, you add on complex features to the project one by one to see them into completion. Challenging yourself is key.

The point here is to fill yourself with motivation when you can’t muster the motivation.

What does this look like in real life?

I used to run six miles every morning rain or shine to overcome my imposter syndrome. The first two miles were my simple passion project. The last four miles were filled with hurdles: a big hill in the middle, stamina issues, hunger, physical pain, and fatigue.

You don’t have to use a project for work to fill yourself with motivation. You can use any project in your life.

Photo by Michal Perchardo on Upsplash

Ride the Motivation and Give Yourself Applause

Now that you are motivated to snap out of your imposter syndrome, this is the time to ride the wave. You ride the wave by taking a risk in your career. Taking risks is central to keep your motivation high and gaining confidence.

To resolve your long term feelings of imposter syndrome, the only way is to continually improve on your life and your career one step at a time. Here’s the formula:

Taking risks -> Self improvement -> Intrinsic Motivation -> Overcome Imposter Syndrome

The inherent part about taking risks is that there’s the chance of failure. In failure, you will stare imposter syndrome in the face again. You will deal with those feelings. Then, you will climb back up again. I never said the road to the top of the mountain is a straight one. Just like any project cycle, there’s an iteration to the steps to overcome imposter syndrome.

What does this look like in real life?

For me, taking risks meant:

  1. Taking on projects where I had to learn a set of new skills.
  2. Taking challenging programming assignments.
  3. Taking on roles that I never thought I would take coming from a development background.
  4. Taking on roles in life that I never thought I would take on (I became a mother).
  5. Meeting new people and learning from them: changing workplaces or work teams every two to three years.
  6. Working in a different country.
  7. Working remotely.
  8. Studying and completing a degree that will advance my career. (I took five years to study graduate math, then finished a master's degree in statistics part-time while working.)
  9. Learning a new hobby where I had to start from zero.

Once I overcame just one of these big projects on my list by taking the risks I took, I applauded myself.

Each time you applaud yourself, you are giving your intrinsic motivation a boost.

Once you have applauded yourself, you move on. The thing about intrinsic motivation is that it is egoless. You are celebrating your success without letting it get to your head. After all, as soon as the celebration is over, there will be the next set of risks that will be presented to you.


Keep On Keeping On

Once you overcome your imposter syndrome once, it doesn’t mean that it won’t come back again. You will have to keep improving yourself, your life, and your career to have an easier time dealing with it the next time around.

So keep taking risks, keep overcoming hurdles, and keep applauding yourself.

When your intrinsic motivation for life becomes second nature, you know you have arrived at the holy grail. You can now overcome anything.

The prospect of failure is now meaningless.


Conclusion

Nowadays, any career is a competitive career, whether you are a software engineer, a programmer, a developer, a technical-support specialist, a program manager, a technical manager, a business manager, or a data scientist. Self-confidence will only get you so far. Intrinsic motivation, however, is much more powerful.

Focus on improving that in your life. When you love your life with zest, you want to make small improvements every day. This includes taking small steps of improvement at work. Imposter syndrome is a persistent beast. To beat it, you’ve got to understand it, lean into it, and then turn it around.

What are you waiting for?


About the Author

Jun Wu is a Content Writer for Technology, AI, Data Science, Psychology, and Parenting. She has a background in programming and statistics. On her spare time, she writes poetry and blogs on her website.

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Better Programming

Advice for programmers.

Jun Wu

Written by

Jun Wu

Single Mom Writer, Technologist, Poet: Tech, AI, Data Science, Leadership, Psych, Parenting, Edu, Life, Work,Poetry etc. Find Me: https://junwuwriter.com

Better Programming

Advice for programmers.

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