5 Things to Know about Impostor Syndrome

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Success doesn’t come easy in the tech world. It takes hard work to learn necessary skills and achieve some level of success.

Despite their competence, some successful people feel like frauds. They chalk up their accomplishments to luck and fear they can’t keep up. This is the psychological phenomenon known as impostor syndrome.

Though there’s been plenty of chatter about impostor syndrome lately, the theory has been around since 1978, when Dr. Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes discovered that some high-achieving individuals can’t internalize their accomplishments and persistently fear being exposed as a fraud.

Anyone can experience impostor syndrome. Even Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has said that she’s felt like a fraud at moments in her life. Though feelings of inadequacy are common, impostor syndrome is a more nuanced issue.

Here are some key things to know about impostor syndrome:

Common in Tech

Impostor syndrome exists across all professional settings, but is becoming more prevalent in the tech world. The nature and speed of innovation can contribute to feelings of inadequacy among tech professionals.

“In tech, you never feel like you have mastery because things are always changing, and there’s always more things to learn,” said Alicia Liu, a senior software engineer in San Francisco who has experienced impostor syndrome. “It’s also just the pace of change. I imagine if you’re studying history or architecture, you feel like you’re progressing, like you learn this and you learn something else, and you’re accumulating. Whereas in tech, you always feel like you’re behind.

She added: “What I learned 10 years ago I can’t use to get a job anymore. You don’t have that sense of accumulation.”

Women and Minorities are More Susceptible

Though impostor syndrome can impact anyone, women and minorities are more apt to wrestle with it, particularly in tech where diversity is lacking. Code2040, a nonprofit organization that helps create opportunities for minorities in tech, released a report last year that noted a high rate of impostor syndrome among its fellows.

Work environment plays a role in whether people feel like impostors, according to Valerie Young, author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from Imposter Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It.

“A sense of belonging fosters confidence,” Young said. “So when you walk into a workplace, or a conference or a meeting, or the executive floor in a building, the more people who look like you, the more confident you’re going to feel. And conversely, whenever you belong to a group for whom there are stereotypes about competence, part of you deep down knows you represent your entire group.

“That’s even true if you’re the youngest person on your team and people make assumptions about your competence, or if you are by far the oldest person, especially in a tech capacity. And certainly women and people of color in the STEM field,” Young added. While men are more likely to externalize failure, mistakes, and criticisms, women are more likely to internalize those elements—and become more likely to experience imposter syndrome as a result.

It Impacts High Achievers

To feel like an impostor, you need an achievement or capability to discount. Young believes you don’t have to be a super high-achiever; you just need some accomplishment, whether good grades or praise from a manager, that you struggle to internalize.

Liu thinks it’s important to differentiate impostor syndrome from the normal self-doubts of new programmers. When she was just beginning, she felt out of her depth—but that was normal, because she was trying to learn a new body of knowledge.

“It helps if people are learning and developing with peers and able to talk about how they’re feeling and recognize that everyone feels this way,” Liu said. “I think when people label that totally normal feeling that everyone feels as ‘impostor syndrome,’ I don’t think that’s helpful to people who are just starting.”

It Impacts Companies

Though impostor syndrome affects individuals, it has consequences for companies. Researchers from Ghent University in Belgium discovered that employees who have impostor syndrome are less likely to volunteer for tasks at work that go beyond their job description.

Young suggests there are several ways that impostor syndrome manifests itself—including procrastination and overworking—and each way can impact organizations.

“We often come at this on an individual level, but there are costs to organizations, as well,” said Young, who has spoken about the topic at Apple and Facebook. “If you feel like an impostor, you got to manage the anxiety of waiting for the other shoe to drop and to avoid being found out. So you do things like you don’t ask questions, you don’t throw out ideas, you don’t go for the promotion, you don’t challenge yourself because it’s safer to just keep a low profile.”

It Can Be Overcome

The good news about impostor syndrome is that it’s not a permanent condition. The sooner you recognize you have it, the more likely you are to overcome it.

Liu conquered impostor syndrome by recognizing that her viewpoint was distorted. Once she understood the syndrome, she had a better grasp of reality and was able to accurately gauge her abilities.

“My mantra is if you want to stop feeling like an impostor you have to stop thinking like one,” Young said. If you’re feeling like an impostor, you’re not alone: it’s common in the tech industry. The more you know about it, the better you can combat it by re-directing your thoughts. It may take time, but recognition is the first step to overcoming it.

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