The Imposter Syndrome

Mastering the art of pretending

I kicked ass at Mario games, made my first website in seventh grade, and got a 5 on my computer science AP test.

I thought I was set. I thought I’d feel as right as rain, waltzing into the computer science major my freshman year.

I was wrong.

It took less than half a quarter for the difference to make itself known, blooming like spilled ink into my consciousness. My first computer science class wasn’t easy, but apparently it should have been. I’d hear them talking loudly on the steps of our lecture hall after class. How long’d it take you to finish the assignment? It was always a boy who asked.

Four hours, would be the reply. It was always a boy who replied. It took me two, another would chime in, and it would have taken me less except for a stupid stray bracket that took me forever to debug. The conversation would then morph into a rant about the indignation of obscure error messages followed by an argument about how to make compilers smarter.

I’d walk past, wishing I had headphones jammed into my ears.

This happens enough times — you in the middle of the pack, the front runners pulling farther and farther ahead — that the spilled ink starts to leave a permanent stain.

Twenty hours. That was how long the assignment took me.

I’m not great at this, you think. Do I really belong here?

I first heard the term imposter syndrome from a guest speaker for my Women in Computer Science group during my junior year. She was a professor who studied this kind of thing to better understand the differences between genders.

I remember how she stood in front of a packed lecture hall, citing study after study that were both stunning in their revelation while feeling so naturally true. Yes! I mentally fist-pumped after every point, Yes! this describes exactly how I feel. I want to be completely sure I can do something before I sign up to do it. Negotiations and confrontations are hard for me because I care so much about being likeable. I believe I am where I am because of luck—for instance, winning that science fair project even though I know in my heart of hearts my work was kind of bullshit.

I have been pretending ever since.

The speaker said that many women feel this way. More so than men. Perhaps, she ventured, there were those among us who felt this way?

We all raised our hands.

Her manner was easy and amiable, like she was chatting with a friend over a glass of wine instead of in front of a crowd of unfamiliar faces. We were captivated by her. I tried to imagine myself like that, talking with such poise in front of such a crowd. I couldn’t.

Even now, I feel like an imposter sometimes, she said.

I didn’t believe her for a second.

I spent the first few years of my professional life trying to master the art of pretending.

School was hard, but at least there was a structure to it. You did your assignments. You took your tests. You’d get your grades, and the grades would tell you how well you were doing.

Working at a startup was another matter entirely. I felt the raw energy as soon as I stepped into the room on my first day. Nobody looked up from what they were doing. A mad intensity thrummed through the office. Around messy clusters of desks, engineers spun products with the clickety-clack of firing keys, their silhouettes brimming with confidence.

I knew so little then, but I knew this: I wanted to become a part of that energy. And so I began to pretend. I started to mold myself into a puzzle piece that would plug into the environment. I tried, oh, how I tried—how ridiculously, desperately, pathetically I tried.

How I’d nod and laugh along as the engineers made fun of other engineers’ code, all the while feeling my stomach twist because I knew with an unwavering certainty that if I weren’t present, that same group would be making fun of my code.

How I’d roll into work at noon and stay at the office until 7am so I could claim to be a part of the night crew.

How I’d argue something I didn’t feel that strongly about, like Macs versus PCs, just so I’d have something to vehemently defend like the others.

How I’d watch sports I didn’t have a clue about, and swig vodka my body had no tolerance for, and not get offended when offensive things were said, all because I wanted to belong.

How I watched like a hawk and listened like a bat to what was going on around me—which sites were worth following, which typefaces were cool, which frameworks were the bomb—so that I could inhale and parrot back some of the casual confidence of my peers.

I could never have admitted any of this then, not even to myself. I would have shriveled up into a ball of mortification and died on the spot if my friends and colleagues knew. You don the disguise long enough, and you can’t even recognize that you are acting. That you are behaving inauthentically, from a place of fear and insecurity. That you can’t figure out how to reconcile the real you with the pretend you.

Because nothing is more important than not being found out as a fraud.

The benefit of time is that it helps one see the past more objectively. If I could go back and tell myself what to do to combat those imposter feelings, it would be with these three tactics:

  1. Look at events with a best-case instead of worst-case interpretation. Or just ask. There are hundreds of things happening every day that a mind can interpret. For example, maybe you were left off of a meeting. The imposter’s reaction is to read the worst into that little detail—oh, they must not think I have anything valuable to contribute. To counter those negative thoughts, assume best intentions. They were trying to save me time by not burdening me with a meeting that’s only marginally relevant to me. Or, if you clearly should be at that meeting: they didn’t realize I should be at that meeting or it was just a simple oversight that they forgot to type my name in the ‘to’ field. If you accept, as research suggests, that the imposter syndrome tends to be irrational, then the best-case interpretation is more likely to be true than the worst-case interpretation. Don’t believe me? Then stop interpreting altogether. Square your shoulders and just ask. (Hey, I’m getting the sense that maybe you don’t think I’m being a valuable contributor to Q because of X, Y and Z. I’d love to get your honest feedback if that’s true.) Do it via writing if it’s easier for you. Asking is hard, but so is weathering a thousand little paper-cuts of interpretation.
  2. Focus on the strengths of being different rather than the weaknesses. Because an imposter is always trying to fit in, she views her differences from her peers as something to overcome. As an example, there was a time when most of the people I worked with were outspoken and decisive, and so I saw my introversion as a weakness. Why couldn’t I make up my mind as quickly as they could? Why couldn’t I argue as eloquently for something in the heat of the moment? It wasn’t until I received repeated feedback praising my thoughtfulness and my ability to look at all sides of a problem that I realized what I had long considered shortcomings were also strengths. It doesn’t mean I don’t have areas for development, but this shift in perspective helped me accept that we are all wired differently, and so we bring our own various talents to the table. These days, I tend to approach problems with an eye towards my strengths instead of zoning in on my weaknesses.
  3. Find people you can admit your insecurities to. For years, I bit my lip and kept my vulnerabilities to myself. They say fake it til you make it, and so I thought that by method acting who I wanted to be, day in and day out, I would eventually become that person, and none would be the wiser. Actually, that line of thinking turned out to be idiotic. I denied myself the solace that comes from being able to openly admit fears to people I trust, and missed out on the power of their empathy and advice. Everyone has their own bag of worries to deal with, and what I’ve learned is that the more honestly you can admit yours, the more willing others are to help. So tell your best friend about how you felt like an imposter at work today. Seek out a mentorship or Lean-In circle to join. Consider bringing up these topics with your manager. Just don’t pretend your insecurities don’t exist, because you’ll only be hurting yourself.

Experience makes anything look easy, but insecurities never fully disappear. This is true for everyone, especially true for women, and truer still for women in male-dominated fields.

These days, you might find me talking in front of a crowd of unfamiliar faces. I still kick ass at Mario games. Even now, I feel like an imposter sometimes.

Here’s the thing though: it gets easier. You start trusting yourself. You’re an imposter less and less, and you’re yourself more and more.

You may not believe me, but I’ll try and convince you all the same.

You belong here.

And you are going to be great.