Impostor syndrome can be tough to deal with, but you are not alone and there are steps you can take to control your thinking and counter its effects.
Impostor syndrome is a story we tell ourselves to cope with our perceived incompetence. It makes us feel safe, and that feeling is an important reward in our instinct for our impostor behaviour. Such a habit is close to impossible to eliminate, but we can change it. Charles Duhigg explains how habitual behaviour can be replaced, if we understand the trigger and the reward.1 Changing our habits is key to changing our lives:
Habits never really disappear. They’re encoded into the structures of our brain, and that’s a huge advantage for us, because it would be awful if we had to relearn how to drive after every vacation. The problem is that your brain can’t tell the difference between bad and good habits, and so if you have a bad one, it’s always lurking there, waiting for the right cues and rewards.
We’ve got a pretty good idea of the reward for impostor syndrome (feeling accepted) and we’ve seen some typical impostor behaviour patterns. What are the triggers for your impostor behaviour? The steps below can help you answer that question and help you change your impostor habits.
Typical advice for dealing with impostor syndrome is to learn to accept yourself and give yourself permission to fail. Those are lofty goals indeed, but here I propose a few more actionable steps your might take to achieve them.
Admitting to yourself you display impostor behaviour and suffer from its harmful effects is the first step to understanding and ultimately overcoming it. Labeling these effects gives you a nice bundle of topics to work on, rather than trying to fix all the complexity and problems in your life all at once.
Do you believe your own thoughts? What if you can recognise your uncertainty or discomfort and accept them as one of many emotions you experience, instead of letting them define who you are? Mindfulness can help you observe your thoughts and feelings and accept them without necessarily acting on them.
Since we cannot trust our own minds to properly assess our success, we need an external measure. I have found a personal mission statement fundamental to establishing what I believe in, what I value and when I consider myself successful. Having it written down allows me to reflect on it once in a while and check up on how I’m doing.
Writing a personal mission statement is like describing a dream to someone else: it seems simple enough, but the moment you try to put it into words, the ideas that were in your head so clearly suddenly evaporate. Forcing yourself to think and decide on the exact wording of a mission statement is what helps you discover what really matters to you.
Here’s an example:
I, John Smith, believe life should be enjoyed to its fullest extent in the company of friends and family. Helping other people achieve their potential is what energises me and drives my professional career. I live my life with honesty, humour and commitment and hope to inspire others to make the most of their lives.
Another way to externalise self-evaluation is to collect a group of peers to gather feedback from. Include people that you trust with your personal feelings and emotions. Ask them to observe you and reflect on your behaviour. This is not about re-assurance — these people should have the guts to be honest and open. This can be scary, but quite effective in proving to yourself how your notion of competence differs from others’.
Admitting to yourself you suffer from impostor syndrome is one thing, but publicly speaking up is another. Admitting to uncertainty is scary; but on the other hand, admitting to fear and doubt can also be considered great strengths and signs of self-confidence. Speak up at company get-togethers, community gatherings or conferences about what you are dealing with. People will understand your position better, give you feedback and speak up themselves.
Courage is not a lack of fear, but acting despite it.
In the end, you will have to take the plunge at some stage and take steps that you are very wary of or unsure about because of your impostor feelings. Remind yourself that interesting things happen outside of your comfort zone, and that there is only one way to get there: right through the middle, through all your fear, doubt and insecurity. Note them, accept them, and then continue. Courage is not lack of fear, but acting despite it.
Force yourself to take such a step, and make the most of it. Remember it is not about succeeding; it is about giving yourself permission to take the step. You’re allowed to fail, you’re not allowed to bail out. Once you do that, you can show yourself that it is actually okay to take risks and be vulnerable. You will find that instead of a web of lies falling down, you will actually discover many new, interesting things.
Dealing with impostor syndrome on your own is one thing, but you may be able to help others, too. Impostor syndrome is especially prevalant among software developers and can seriously impact the software business. Find out more about the personal causes and effects of impostor syndrome, or continue reading about how impostor syndrome impacts and can be dealt with in the software industry.
Duhigg, C. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (2012) ↩