Sep 11, 2015
###”I think I’ve lost my identity…”###
So begins a conversation with a friend and fellow developer. We are sitting in a brightly lit cafe the day after a conference where both of us have given presentations. The interesting thing, mine was the “soft talk”.
“Not like it’s been stolen or someone is impersonating me…I just don’t know who I am as a developer anymore”
With this statement comes a mixture of relief and concern. Relief because at least it’s not literal identity theft, though in comparison that’s a mere inconvenience. No…what we are now discussing is impostor syndrome.
For those unfamiliar with the concept, impostor syndrome is defined as feelings of inadequacy that persist even in the face of information indicating the opposite is true. This feeling permeates regardless of having a successful career, being recognized by peers, or the ears of crowds at conferences hanging on every word.
FULL DISCLOSURE: I am not a mental health professional. If you feel you need the advice of a professional, please seek such advice from a clinical physician. I’m always willing to help, but I do not have a degree or license to dispense medical advice.
One of the things we focus on as coders, especially in the team focused age we are in, is being on a team “of people so much smarter than we are”. It’s something we celebrate and boast about when we speak of our jobs. People are always happy to tell you they are a link on a chain of “the best minds in the business”. Each time we say this though, it can be causing a small seed in our minds to bloom. That seed is saying, “if everyone on the team is so awesome, am I the one who is less awesome? Is my contribution somewhat less than the next person?”
A quick way to stomp this weed before it has time to germinate is to continually validate all members of a team. This must be sincere validation, not the pat on the back because you are part of the team, but an actual time in a meeting or standup to cite something each person has done and appreciate the contribution. This gives each person a concrete accomplishment they can recognize and take pride in.
Another general symptom of impostor syndrome is the sufferer feeling like a fraud. This comes into glaring focus in today’s “everything is public” coding world. At any point in time, you can see the level of check-ins on a particular person’s Github account. Some people, especially those feeling they are impostors, feel graded and that there contribution isn’t enough. As if there is a standard of participation we all need to achieve. The idea that everyone needs to meet an imaginary level of acceptable contribution brings many to the conclusion they will never reach that level. It’s a perception that feeds paranoia which in turns feeds impostor syndrome.
It’s difficult to avoid a feeling a public judgement when what a developer does is so publicly visible. This is also something we cannot do much about in our current environment. It’s possible to make work private, but perhaps hiding contributions away is just avoiding the problem. We need to enable developers to take heart in the fact that any amount of contribution is valuable, every little bit helps.
A third issue, and the most difficult to address, is the feeling that any achievement made was just pure luck. Dismissing hard work and ingenuity, many developers feel they hit the goldmine…but it was all luck. Not talent. Not determination. Just a couple of good days strung together to make hit on a conclusion. “Maybe it was divine intervention, but it wasn’t me.”
It’s hard to convince someone this position is invalid. Luck is a vacuous system that is hard to disprove. Constant reassurance of the person’s accomplishments may help, though it may only more deeply entrench the concept of it all being luck. This may be the surest sign it’s time to seek some sort of professional help. You may be a great shoulder to cry on, and that’s the first step, but there comes a time when the professionals need to be called in.
This outlines the three main symptoms to impostor syndrome: discounting success, feeling like a fake, and attributing any kind of success to luck. The conversation kicking off this post touched on all three of these aspects and ended with, “..so what can I do to get that mojo back?”
Again, not being a professional, I suggested seeking out help. There are resources from people feeling less than adequate. impostor syndrome often begins with low self esteem but can spiral into depression. A talk with a psychologist or a group where you can share experiences is often beneficial.
The Ada Initiative has set up training on recognizing and helping to cope with impostor syndrome. The link above includes exercises to help combat feelings that lead to a sense of inadequacy, as well as some videos to help people judge their contributions realistically.
At the very least, taking a step back and doing something outside the normal coding routine often helps. It seems in our industry there is often a stigma around taking time for yourself. Often, this time is needed to reevaluate goals and establish a connection back to what made a person passionate about doing what they do.
Sometimes, when things appear to be a struggle, it’s important to reach out for a lifeline. We appreciate this and want help as much as we can. If you are in need of assistance, know someone in need of assistance, or just need someone to represent those with mental health issues that you feel are underrepresented in our community, reach out to the folks in our Prompt program. We are here to help.