Chances are this article is very relevant to you, even if (particularly if) you’ve never given the imposter syndrome the time of day. (You will, now 🤣). Granted, I started my research for this piece mostly as a self-help exercise, but it’s very likely that you’ve been battling it too. Any career transition may elicit a good dose of imposter syndrome, but transitioning to tech, especially if you’re starting from scratch AND mid-career, is likely to qualify you for imposter syndrome olympics. Might even take you straight to the finals!
So here we are. We’ll look together at what imposter syndrome is, why it comes up, how to recognise its signs and, most importantly, what to do about it. This should / will, I’m hoping, equip you to manage the situation and avoid letting it mess up your transition.
So what is this imposter syndrome thing?
Here’s the best definition I could find for you:
‘Imposter syndrome is a condition that describes individuals who, despite their objective successes, fail to internalize their accomplishments and have persistent self-doubt and fear of being exposed as a fraud.’
D. Bravata, Stanford School of Medicine / Journal of Mental Health and Clinical Psychology
Wait, did I just do that? Give you a proper, scientific definition? I guess I did, and for cause – especially in this day and age when science is under constant attack… But it’s not just scientists who explain it – real people, in the trenches, do too. Here’s what Syk Houdeib, a recent transitioner, had to say. And here’s another definition that couldn’t get any clearer:
In other words, the imposter syndrome is the slightly fancier name for the feeling of inadequacy, the worry that you’re not as competent as others perceive you to be, that somehow you got to where you are out of sheer luck and you’re simply fooling everyone. It’s the sinking feeling that causes you to disregard all progress you’re making and casts a doubt over all your achievements and successes. And all that in the face of objective success.
Quick note to put your mind at ease
‘Sounds ominous’, you’re thinking… ‘is it a mental thing?’
Well, it is, but not in the sense you’re asking. It’s not an actual medical / psychological issue, it’s mostly a personal feeling of inadequacy that you need to deal with.
That said, if ever the discomfort and the struggle are too much, be sure to speak to a mental health professional.
You are not alone
Studies indicate that up to 70-82% of people experience the imposter syndrome at some point in their life, but when I tried to find out who is most likely to be affected, the information was not consistent. Some authors found that it affects equally women and men of all racial / ethnic backgrounds; others, more recently, noted that women and minorities, and in particular minority women, were significantly more likely to be affected. In our case, given that the transition into tech is such as major life-overhaul – it’s safe to assume that it can touch anyone, so we’re all concerned. However, if you’re in a vulnerable group you might want to keep an extra eye on this and be sure to reach out for help when things pile up…
And since we’re talking psychology: as often the case, you can thank your parents for your imposter syndrome. (Of course you can…)
On the plus side – if you find yourself fighting a case of imposter syndrome, good news: it is thought to predominantly impact smarter persons who fall neatly into the ‘the more you know, the more you realise how little you know’ category. They tend to set higher (often unrealistic) expectations for themselves and to have a slightly distorted notion of what it means to be competent that invariably discounts their objective progress and success.
Why does it matter?
If you’re thinking ‘well, imposter syndrome is just modesty taken a step too far’, you couldn’t be further away from the truth. Being modest and humble is one thing; being marred by the imposter syndrome is debilitating. Left unchecked, it will soon take its toll on your career before you even get a change to launch it.
How, you wonder?
Well, think about it. When you think you’re not good enough – you’re unlikely to take the first step, to ‘put yourself out there’. You’re too embarassed to speak out, to attend events, to network – thus limiting your contact with your new profession, with your future peers – implicitly limiting your growth. It prevents you from applying for jobs on account of ‘you’re not ready’ (Big mistake, says Syk, who transitioned from English teacher to web dev in his early 40s). And when you do apply, chances are you’ll sabotage yourself because the imposter syndrome prevents you from advocating for yourself. Not too mention that you likely put so much pressure on yourself to ‘get ready’ that you’ll probably burn yourself out before you even get started…
How do I know if I have it?
For me, it went a bit like this (see if this rings a bell):
You get the idea.
See if you find yourself in the questions below:
- Do you feel your success is caused by a lucky break rather than hard work?
- Do you find it difficult to handle praise?
- Do you often find yourself putting yourself down (‘nah, that’s easy, anyone can do that…’?
- Do you hold yourself to bonkers standards? And set yourself objectives you cannot possibly achieve, thus setting yourself up for disappointment when you inevitably fall short?
- Do you find yourself stuck in your tracks, paralysed by fear of failure?
- Do you agonize over the smallest mistake or flaw?
- Do you find yourself overpreparing for the smallest of things?
- Have you ever thought ‘No way I can do that’ only to find you actually didn’t do too shabby at all?
- Are you ever afraid you might disappoint xyz in your life?
- Are you very sensitive to even the slightest hint of criticism, however constructive?
If you answer yes to any of the above, you know it already: you have a case of imposter sydrome on your hands!
What you need to know is that the imposter syndrome comes in many flavours. While some fixate on every little mistake they make, others feel so inadequate they need to push themselves to the limits all the time, regardless of their skill level. There are those who get physically sick if they need to ask for help, as they see needing assistance as a sign of weakness. Finally, others still set themselves up for disaster by setting such high objectives for themselves that they have no choice but to fail…
Being aware of all this will, hopefully, help you diagnose the imposter syndrome early in its tracks, and prompt you to take action to fix it before it takes a toll on your well-being, health and success.
It’s not all bad…
First of all, it’s a sign that you’re doing *something* right – it’s generally a side effect of some sort of success. Here’s the founder of Atlassian (whom I quoted above; think Jira) explaining how to harness it for good:
How do I fix it?
The approach that makes the most sense to me is pitched in this Ted Talk by Valerie Young; she says in order to beat imposter syndrome, we must think better thoughts:
It then follows that in order to rid yourself of imposter syndrome – or, as Valerie Young says, in order to ‘have imposter moments, not imposter lives’ – you just need to recalibrate your mental chatter, to reframe your thoughts. The end game: talk yourself out of the imposter spiral.
Easier said than done, right?
Here are some things that might help with that:
1. Call it out
As is often the case with the pesky feelings that eat at us, getting to understand them and talking about them can really lessen their grip on us. Just by reading this piece you’re already in the driver’s seat: you’ve put a name on a complicated feeling.
Here’s what you can do next:
- First, aim to understand the theory of imposter syndrome inside out. Go beyond this piece and read about it, listen to podcasts etc. to get a good grasp of it. Frequently, demystifying things is the first step to taking control.
- Next, learn to recognise your own imposter feelings when they occur, and to label them accordingly. Figure out where the facts end and the feelings begin and keep in mind that just because you think you’re ‘less than’, it doesn’t mean you are!
- Finally, talk it over with someone you trust (a mentor might do wonders here). When you verbalise things, when you go a step beyond just being aware of a problem, you take away its power over you. Remember, if it ever gets too heavy, be sure to seek professional help.
2. Re-write the faulty script
Now that you understand the phenomenon and you’ve learnt to ‘read’ yourself, whenever you realise you’re having an imposter episode, talk yourself down. It’s all in the language you use in your mental chatter. Here’s one way to do that:
- Start by inventorying all the things you tell yourself during your imposter moments, and then list all the possible counter arguments. You get the idea: when you think you’re not good enough on one front, identify the things that prove the contrary. If you’re not able to see any (duh, you’re going through an imposter episode, after all), enlist the help of your co-workers, mentors etc. You can do this privately or even publicly. Showing your belly IS scary but it shows maturity, self-awareness and an eagerness to improve – all things that will score you points when future employers look you up. (PS: they will!)
- Then, as you realise you’re having an episode, acknowledge it and tell your mind ‘Hey, nice try!’. Acknowledge the feeling (‘A-ha, there you are… it’s been a while!’), then remind yourself it’s quite common to feel that way but that it’s very likely baseless. Try to figure out what triggered the episode, and calmly present your mind with the arguments from your inventory above. If none of the arguments match – i.e. when it’s actually accurate that you don’t know x or y, remind yourself that you’ve got what it takes to learn it and trump your imposter feelings with an actual plan for learning it.
- Finally, invest a little time in your mind. Learn how it works – not only is it fascinating but as you learn to understand yourself, just about everything will fall into place. One really good place to start is The brain: the story of you, an eye-opening, captivating ride into what makes us tick, into what makes us… us. Learn about neuroplasticity – and how amazing our brains are at adapting and adjusting througout our life and about growth mindset – and just how essential it is for life success. And keep coming back here, as I will have more goodies to help you grow.
3. Keep learning front and center
And not just that – keep tabs on what you’re learning:
- Learn regularly. Set a regular time for your continuous growth. Do it like Syk who has set aside a couple of afternoons each week plus a full weekend each month for professional development. And keep a log of everything you’re learning – keep track of your successes, big and small. You can do it in a notebook, or you can blog / tweet about it. Bear in mind that by doing it publically you get to reap a ton of benefits in addition to keeping your inner imposter under wraps; you also get to garner support from others and to leverage motivation and accountability. Whatever you choose, you will be able to refer back to your log in your times of imposter need.
- Embrace mistakes as learning opportunities. So you sometimes mess up! It’s more than ok, it really is the path to growth. Do yourself a favor and acknowledge the fact that perfection is an illusion. Our quest for perfection is more often than not a by-product of our tendency to constantly compare ourselves to others. DON’T. Also, be sure to derive some sort of learning from each of your mistakes, each bump on the road and celebrate the fact that you’re putting a foot in front of the other – metaphorically, not just physically… Career change is a game of perseverance over insecurity, of action over perfection. But don’t take my word on it – here are some Ted Talks on this.
- Talk it out. Find a mentor. Or, failing that, find a ‘victim’ you can trust and share your doubts and feelings – they tend to worsen when kept under wraps. Better yet, roll up your sleeves and focus on others. Whether you find someone else who struggles with similar feelings and you help them stay afloat, or you find somone who’s one step behind you in the skills you’ve developed and share you knowledge, you’ll be better for it. You’ll make a difference to someone and, as a by-product, you’ll realise how far you’ve come and lessen the grip the imposter syndrome has on you.
- Last, but not least, reward yourself for progress. If you find you tend not to remember how far you’ve come, at least you’ll be sure to remember your rewards :), and they’ll stand proof of the path you’ve taken!
How is imposter syndrome relevant during my transition to a tech career?
Well, other than… everything I said before ;), look at it this way:
Preparing to take on a new role, leaving all comfort and security behind, is always challenging, but it is particularly so as you reach middle age, a time riddled with inherent challenges. You’re basically hitting two transitions at once, and that is bound to have a slight destabilizing effect.
In this context, your take on what it means to be successful and the way you internalise success is critical as it dictates how competent you feel which, in turn, dictates the actions you take. If your standards are unrealistic to the point that hardly anyone could every meet them, you’re likely to fall short yourself. And if your relationship with failure is faulty, chances are you’ll never even try.
Now, don’t get me wrong: striving for more is a good thing. A great thing, even. In fact, for many of us, it’s what drives us to attempt to transition to a tech career. However, there’s a fine line between a healthy quest to become the best you, and perfectionism.
Which drives home my final point: perfectionism is the one thing you really need to steer clear of. Setting impossibly high standards, coupled with the fear of failure leads to you no longer trying, to seeking the comfort of the familiar, and to avoiding any explorations. This, in tech, where all knowledge is SO ephemereal, is a definite no no.
Hey, if you find this useful:
– please be sure to share it with a friend who could use it &
– drop a comment below to share your imposter thoughts – it’ll do you good!
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