Moving Beyond, Not Getting Over, Imposter Syndrome

“Imposter syndrome” is endemic in software development. We define it as those feelings of doubt about being good at your job, or fear you’ll be outed as a fraud. But the popularity of this term shifts the burden of responsibility onto individuals for systemic problems that we must address collectively in order to move beyond, not get over, the root of imposter syndrome.

Feelings are real, syndrome is not

To be clear: your feelings are valid. The term “imposter syndrome” is so common because it’s so relatable. It also casts a wide net over many nuanced, albeit universal, experiences worth digging into more deeply. When people use it, they might be talking about anything from being a bit nervous, to terrified and full of dread. Jodi-Ann Burey describes the term as a “proxy” for what might actually be going on. Our feelings are powerful signals, and they can tell us when something’s amiss, such as a lack of belonging or an unmet need for proper acknowledgement.

Imposter syndrome does those feelings and needs a disservice. “Imposter” implies something criminal or deceptive, while “syndrome” pathologizes what are likely normal and important feelings to listen to. The label compels us to believe that we shouldn’t feel anxious or uncertain, even when we have valid reasons for doing so. I’m tired of feeling bad about feeling bad. We can use these emotions as a guide instead.

Examining why we feel how we feel

Are you learning something new? The job of building software is expansive and evolving every day. There are constantly new languages, frameworks, best practices, and design patterns to learn. Consider the commonplace corporate value of “continuous improvement”. While a worthy goal, constantly stretching ourselves outside our comfort zone is literally uncomfortable! That experience is part of being human. So let’s normalize and talk about it, rather than perpetuate the narrative that developers are not where they should be.

As a consultant, I rotate client projects every few months. I’m joining a new team, learning the codebase as well as social dynamics, all while trying to convince the client I know what I’m doing. Sounds like a recipe for anxiety and pressure to prove myself. That doesn’t mean I’m incompetent at my job. It’s just a lot of mental and emotional energy, and I might not be delivering as much as I normally do. That’s perfectly ok.

There’s a myriad of external factors that can contribute to the discomfort we interpret as imposter syndrome. You picked up a ticket and you’re beating yourself up because it took way longer than it was estimated. Did estimation inclusively capture the abilities of everyone on the team? You’ve been at a job for three months and still feel unsure of your work. Were the job expectations clear, and have you received quality feedback to direct you? You took on a new role of tech lead and you’re simply drowning. Were you provided the support you needed to succeed? If the answer in any of these cases is no, we should fix the workplace, not ourselves.

Systems of bias and exclusion

There also exists the serious problem of putting the onus of responsibility on people of marginalized identities, whose feelings of insecurity are heightened by systemic bias and exclusion. We experience day-to-day microaggressions, having our skills or experience questioned, or worse, are bullied and torn down. The consequences of imposter syndrome for marginalized people are dire, often leading to burnout or workplace trauma that forces us to leave the industry entirely.

When I joined a new client team and one of their male developers said, “Let’s find you a beginner ticket to work on,” I couldn’t help but zoom in on the word “beginner”. Sure, he may have been well-intentioned, yet the implicit bias in his language was not lost on me. What does it mean when the default assumption is that I’m a novice programmer, before I had done any work to prove otherwise? No wonder I still preface code review comments with “I think”, even though I know from experience that an empty string evaluates to truthy in Ruby (and also I triple-checked in IRB beforehand). No wonder women of color internalize beliefs that they’re not good enough or don’t belong—not to mention the lack of role models or people in leadership who look like them.

Next time someone uses the phrase “imposter syndrome”, we can compassionately empathize with their feelings. We can tell them it’s not their fault, nor their job to “get over” it. We can help identify aspects within their control (asking for support, acknowledging that they’re learning something new) from those that are not (a coworker refusing to believe them, a society built on discriminiation). And we can hold this industry accountable to reducing systemic exclusion in order to move beyond why imposter syndrome exists in the first place.