Beat Impostor Syndrome

Impostor syndrome leads to suffering: not physical pain, but anxiety, stress and unsatisfactoriness. What’s more, these effects can be self-reinforcing.

The harmful effects of impostor syndrome

We impostors devise several ways to deal with our feelings of underserved success in life. These behaviours help us make sense of our success while feeling incompetent, and avoid being found out as a fake:

  1. Overcompensate for your incompetence by working extra hours, prepare better than others and commit to more work.
  2. Passive self-sabotage to avoid failure. By procrastrinating on studying for that one big exam, you can blame your lack of preparation rather than your incompetence for your failure to pass.
  3. Stay under the radar by constantly switching jobs, careers, studies or partners, so you are never in one place long enough to be found out as a fake.
  4. Charm your way to approval by hooking up with people you admire, so they can see how special you really are.
  5. Never finishing your work, so no one can ever criticise it, because “it is not done yet”.
  6. Active self-sabotage to avoid failure by not showing up for meetings, substance abuse or helping competitors.

it’s far less painful not to try than to expose yourself to others’ judgment of your work and risk falling short. Young, V., Secret Thoughts of Successful women (2011)

A common theme in all these coping mechanisms is their self-reinforcement: when you fail, they give you an excuse so you don’t have to appear incompetent. When you succeed, they prove your are a fraud because you just dodged a bullet — and that just raised the bar another notch, requiring even more of the harmful behaviour in the future. We have seen how our instinct likes to form stories and jump to conclusions; this is how it deals with the discrepancy between our success and our self-image.

Dilbert on expectations

Ultimate consequences

Insecurity and anxiety are emotions we all have to deal with at some point in our lives, but when unchecked, impostor syndrome’s coping mechanisms might present serious harm:

  1. You burn out because your try to overcompensate for you supposed incompetence for too long.
  2. You sabotage your own personal development, career or relationship.
  3. You are depressed because you feel underserving of love or success.
  4. You don’t enjoy life because your energy levels are constantly drained from dealing and thinking about your impostor syndrome.

These effects are profound both for us as impostors, and for our families, communities and companies. Successfully identifying and dealing with impostor syndrome in your personal life can be an important step to a more fulfilling life; while identifying and tackling it in knowledge-based creative professions such as software development makes business sense and merits its own discussion. You can also read more about how impostor syndrome works.