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Cover image for Impostor Syndrome: The Biggest Enemy to Your Progress is Your Ego

Impostor Syndrome: The Biggest Enemy to Your Progress is Your Ego

annajmcdougall profile image Anna "Apero" McDougall πŸ³οΈβ€πŸŒˆ Originally published at blog.annamcdougall.com ・3 min read

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Today I want to take a look at 'Impostor Syndrome' from a different angle. 'Impostor Syndrome' is spoken about a lot in the developer community. So much so that I didn't really want to write about it, until I realised I have a slightly different perspective on it.

For those who aren't familiar with this term, it's used to describe that feeling when you're sure you don't know what you're doing, and that you're wildly un- or under-qualified to be doing your job. It's usually paired with the sensation that everyone else seems to have their shit together, and it's only a matter of time before they discover your deep, dark secret: that you have no clue and you are an impostor.

Normally, you'll see bloggers, tweeters, and people of all different stripes come out to reassure you that it's OK to feel impostor syndrome, that you're not alone, that we're all struggling together. This is true, and it is one way of looking at the issue.

My way is a bit different. To me, impostor syndrome represents your ego crying out for validation. "I thought I was smart," part of you is thinking, "Why can't I understand this?". Perhaps you have lower self-esteem (we've all been there, solidarity!) and don't think the first part of this phrase is relevant to you. Well sorry, it is. If you really had no or low expectations of yourself, then you wouldn't feel what we call the 'sinking sensation', which is disappointment or the realisation that something is wrong. If you really, truly believed you weren't intelligent or worthy, then you wouldn't even need the term 'Impostor Syndrome', because to you it would just be 'Normal Syndrome'. To fall, you need a certain height to fall from.

For what it's worth, I'm a believer that self-confidence is incredibly important, and that everyone should feel excited and proud of their abilities. There is nothing wrong with having a healthy ego, as long as it doesn't transform into a superiority complex. I love talking about ways to improve self-esteem and self-confidence, and it's something I'll definitely be writing about in the future.

But...

When it comes to learning and self-development of any kind, your ego is your enemy.

Impostor Syndrome occurs because you expect yourself to be good already. Instead, expect yourself to learn something to become the best you can be in future.

Go into every discussion yearning for something new to learn. Go into every code review wanting to find a point of improvement. Go into every conversation striving to become a better friend or colleague. Rather than letting failure and correction be a blow to your ego, you have to find a way to view them as stepping stones to a better future.

When you are learning a new skill, reviewing your work with a colleague, or asking for feedback, you are opening yourself up to criticism. If you come at these situations with an attitude of 'There is so much to learn, and so much I don't even know I don't know', you can view every point of constructive criticism with grace and gratitude. Not only does this make the whole situation easier for you and your self-esteem, but it is also a lot more pleasant for others to be around.

My code is inefficient? I had no idea! How can I improve it?

I took too long completing this section of the project? I guess I have to work on time management! Any suggestions?

My approach to this question was totally wrong? I used what I had, but if there's another tool I can add then that's great. How would you go about it?

If you adopt this attitude and learn to approach work and life from a position of "What can I learn from this?" rather than "How can I prove myself?", then Impostor Syndrome becomes irrelevant. Even if you do know less than every other member on your team, suddenly it's nothing to be scared of or ashamed about. It's just the starting point for a lifetime of learning and growing, and what you'll find is that when you open yourself up to learning more about your work and the people around you, they will open up to teaching you and they will become invested in your success.

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Anna "Apero" McDougall πŸ³οΈβ€πŸŒˆ

@annajmcdougall

"That dev who used to be an opera singer" πŸ‡¦πŸ‡Ί in πŸ‡©πŸ‡ͺ

Discussion

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I had this issue for really long. Literally everything i did. Why I'm so bad at game even after thousands of hours, why i can't solve it fast enough, why it's hard only for me and so on. Causing me depression, low self-esteem or what ever you have.
I still have this issue partially, but i learned to accept who I'm and i can be even better if I learn, adapt and accept.
Good write.

 

Glad to hear you're coming out the other side! Yes, the ego is a double-edged sword: sometimes it is the best thing you can have, sometimes it is the worst. The key is knowing when to embrace your self-confidence and when to put that aside to prioritise learning from a place of humility.

 

Really interesting post. In some ways this seems like a very similar message to the one that Hiro Nishimura plans to talk about at this upcoming virtual meetup cfe.dev/events/power-of-yes/ - basically that saying yes to things you don't feel fully ready for can help you handle imposter syndrome - similar to how you say to change your mindset and look at opportunities for growth rather than deficiencies.

 

Really interesting! Honestly there are so many ways you can combine ideas on this, since it is actually very complex. Overall, I'd say having a 'growth mindset' helps in a lot of areas. The standard advice I outline early on ("We all feel this way sometimes", etc.) is extremely useful in normalising the emotions and feelings of inadequacy, however I just feel there is always a next step missing from that advice. OK, we all feel that way. Now what? How do we make ourselves feel better? To me, the only way is to accept that you still have a lot to learn and get on with doing it. Reflection and acceptance are good, but there needs to be a next step!

 

The alternative, which absolutely nobody wants to talk about, is that you're actually the impostor you fear you are.

I say this because when anyone brings the topic up, people start trying to help by telling them they're really smart/capable/whatever. 99% of the time, these are people genuinely trying to be helpful - but who don't even know the person in question.

 

Exactly! That's why this approach works better for me, at least. With my approach, even if you are "the impostor" then it's fine, because it just means you have more to learn. It's the same approach I take to people disliking me: rather than trying to fight to deny that people dislike you, just say "yeah OK they don't like me. Now what?". It's forward looking rather than backward facing.

 

"If you adopt this attitude and learn to approach work and life from a position of "What can I learn from this?" rather than "How can I prove myself?", then Impostor Syndrome becomes irrelevant."

Treating imposter by just switching the context before the question mark. So cool. Pure gold, thank you :)!

 

Yooo what a great post!
I really never saw it this way before but it makes total sense.
I was reminded of this book by Ryan Holiday while reading this article.

The "learning mindset" you mentioned is truly a great antidote for that syndrome, that and also giving value to others instead of trying to "prove something" works for me, like I wrote before.

 

Thanks for writing this. I've been pushing back on "imposter syndrome" for a long time. I don't think it is useful for us to explain away uncomfortable feelings of "being an imposter". Our feelings can give us useful signals on what we should improve upon.

Whenever I feel like an imposter, it is a sign that I need to beef up on the fundamentals of a new topic. And that I need to get over myself.

 

Good post one strategy that worked for me was just building projects and getting good at it. I have grown a lot lately. A few months back I had to google and seek help from developers when I got stuck on complex problems. Now I can just work on through it and if I get stuck I can usually debug it on my own.

 
 

Your article give me another perspective on impostor syndrome. Thanks for share.

 

Nice point of view Anna! Didn’t think about how ego and impostor syndrome are correlated.

 

Interesting perspective!, never saw it this way.
I respect your thoughts here, not share them though.

 
 

"expect yourself to learn something to become the best you can be in future" Thanks for sharing Anna

 

Thank you for you encouraging post.
In the same idea, I don't think flagellate ourself makes you a better person...