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jmoreno
jmoreno

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A Letter to my Junior Self: Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome is probably one of the most common issues that new programmers face. The tech industry can seem incredibly daunting from the outside looking in, "make sure you practice leetcode, oh and put together a portfolio, and why are you learning that framework that's old news, all the cool kids have moved on to this new framework."

Then once you start the job there's a feeling of needing to keep up, to be at the same level as coworkers with much more experience than you, after all if you can't keep up then why did they hire you? Man they're probably even thinking of firing you right now aren't they?

Of course this is bullshit. The mind likes to exaggerate, in truth you're probably doing fine and a part of you knows this, but the mind is tricky and well it's not exactly wrong.

The truth is that if you're new you probably can't keep up with your more experienced coworkers, but the good news is that no one really expects you to in the first place.

So then how do we deal with imposter syndrome? The following is the process that I followed (I am not a medical professional and if you're truly struggling please reach out to a professional).

This whole letter is based on the idea that imposter syndrome is a learned reaction to a given situation, it is NOT a moral defect, or flaw in your person, it is simply how we learned to cope with unfamiliar situations. So keep that in mind as you read this letter.

First step is to simply observe, whenever you're going to be in a situation that has caused your imposter syndrome to flare up before, pay attention to your body, watch how it tenses up, watch how your breath changes, and more importantly watch the thoughts that are popping up in your head. What is the mind presenting you with at this moment? Why?

This is going to be hard at first, after all you're looking directly at the things that we want to avoid but it is important because we want to be able to see what exactly it is we're afraid of.

Then, explore what the fear is really about. This might sound silly but it's important to know what exactly it is we're afraid of, is it getting fired? Is it the reputational hit? Is it a deeper fear that maybe you chose the wrong career? Or that you're not smart enough to do this? Let's tackle a few of the common fears.

"I'm scared I might not know how to do this." Why?

Is it because you're scared you'll lose your job? Highly unlikely. If you're just starting out you were most likely hired as a junior. Your company, your coworkers, and frankly most people in tech do not expect that you know everything, we WANT to help you learn, we want to see you succeed. Why do you believe that not knowing something is a basis for being fired?

Is it because you don't want to look bad in front of your peers? Once again try to explore where you picked up the belief that not knowing how to do something is a bad thing or would make you look bad somehow.

We want to see you succeed, we want to help, and while most people don't speak openly about it I can promise you that a majority of people have felt this way.

Keep in mind that developers are fundamentally a curious group of people. We tend to pride ourselves in learning new things, so if someone doesn't know everything but is trying to learn to do things they'll usually be looked on favorably. (And if your coworkers are being elitist assholes about it, fuck them, find the helpers).

Are you comparing yourself to some mythical genius programmer who knows everything? These types of programmers may exist but in the seven years I've been in the tech industry I've never come across one, even if it looks that way sometimes from the outside. More likely they just have more experience than you and have seen more shit. This is a good thing, it means you have people to learn from. If you didn't how would anyone ever progress?

Is it because as a kid you were scolded for not knowing something? This one cuts a little deeper but was my personal reason for imposter syndrome, as a kid I was rewarded when I knew things and punished when I didn't. This is where I internalized the idea that not knowing something was a bad thing. This created a very toxic and subconscious behavior in me where I would hide away until I felt confident in doing things, after all I didn't want my parents to be upset with me. Well guess what, we're not kids anymore, no one is going to scold us, and even if someone does, we'll be fine. It might hurt, but we'll be fine. This doesn't mean that our fear is invalid, it just means that it is no longer a useful pattern of behavior.

Now, once you know what your fear is really about you have to take probably the hardest step: Acceptance.

You have to accept that this fear is there, having imposter syndrome is simply something that happens to you right now, and that's okay. It shows that you care about your work, it shows that you're conscientious, these are admirable qualities.

The fear feels unpleasant I know, and we instinctively want to get rid of it. But as you may have noticed pushing it away doesn't work and can even make it worse because now you have the fear and the shame towards having felt that fear. (After all no one else feels it right? What's wrong with us?)

So instead, just let it be there. It has valid reasons for being there. In my case as a kid I was 100% going to get in trouble for low grades this was a fact of life, so now as an adult my mind was trying to avoid that and it just hadn't realized that we were no longer in that situation. It just wanted to help. So accept it, thank the mind for looking out for you and then teach it how to look out for you in helpful ways.

This is where we get to retraining our automatic reactions, again imposter syndrome is a learned reaction to a given situation, it is NOT a moral defect, or flaw in your person, it is simply how we learned to cope with unfamiliar situations.

So how do we retrain ourselves? In my experience the best way is repetition, when imposter syndrome flares up we follow the process: observe our mind, explore the fear, accept that the fear is there, know that the mind is trying to help, and then help it help us.

If it starts going on about everyone else being smarter than you explain to it that this is simply not true, and even if it is true you're here to learn and grow not to compare yourself with others, so who cares?

If it starts going on about getting yelled at as a kid for bad grades, comfort it, tell it that it's okay to be scared, and that you know it wants to help but you're no longer there, and if your coworker yells at you they're the asshole.

Over time (weeks, months, years) this replaces the automatic reaction of fear and anxiety with an automatic reaction of exploration and acceptance, which means that we'll feel imposter syndrome less and less intensely, and because we're presenting the mind with alternatives it will eventually start to present them back to us and on days where we're feeling low, the mind will remind us that this is okay.

This is the process I personally followed to get rid of imposter syndrome, fear of public speaking, fear of looking like an idiot in front of my coworkers, and frankly just fear in general. It is hard but man is it worth it. Good luck, you got this.

For more explorations of this I suggest the following reading list.

Reading List

  1. The Inner Game of Tennis
  2. Zen Mind Beginner's Mind
  3. Atomic Habits
  4. How to Fail at Everything and Still win Big

When touched with a feeling of pain,
the ordinary uninstructed person
sorrows, grieves,
and laments, beats his breast,
becomes distraught.
So he feels two pains,
physical and mental.
Just as if they were to shoot a man
with an arrow and,
right afterward,
were to shoot him with another one,
so that he would feel
the pains of two arrows…
https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn36/sn36.006.than.html

Or if YouTube is more your bag I would start here with HealthyGamerGG. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qvaB2d5yDf8

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