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Jean-Michel (jmfayard.dev)
Jean-Michel (jmfayard.dev)

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The Real Impostor is The Inner Judge - On Impostor Symdrome

My career-related content is now open-source on GitHub.

"What can I do to manage my imposter syndrome?" - I have been asked by two readers.

Also: 🎉 This article is my 100th article on DEV.to I would never have hoped that this journey would eventually lead me here when I copy/pasted here an old article from Medium, six years ago.

I cannot think of a better way to celebrate my milestone than to start ranting about a bully that lives rent-free in our heads and has the habit to demean us.

😶‍🌫️ Imposter Syndrome Sucks All the Joy Out

Here are the words from my ex-colleague

I’ve felt imposter syndrome all my career.
I think I put myself into a bad position when joining $PreviousCompany.
I just said to myself “This time is going to work! I’ll get rid of imposter syndrome!
It is pretty stupid put yourself against the wall, into a binary position where the result is “complete success” or “complete failure”.
The truth is that I haven’t got rid of impostor syndrome after my time in $PreviousCompany. I've been in $PreviousCompany just 9 months, but I do feel a strange feeling of failure
I don’t know … maybe my expectations were too high, but one of the reasons I feel unmotivated, probably the main and biggest reason is that I feel I need to stand up, dusting off myself, lick wounds and go into mental fights where I have to probe myself I’m good enough for any position I might consider to apply. I feel a bit exhausted from that mental fight.

That mental fight is exhausting indeed!

Here are the words from a reader who contacted me by email

Hi Jean-Michel
I really enjoy reading your articles on the web.
Many times I’ve tried to write something on Medium or other weblogs but every time I remind myself that I’m not a good developer.
Every time I see a new tool that I don’t have enough knowledge about, it makes me feel like I’m not good enough.

I’m messaging you to get some advice and learn from your experiences in the industry.
Could you please share some tips on how to overcome this feeling of inadequacy and how to improve my writing skills?

That stinky feeling of inadequacy...

You asked how you could write better. I'm pretty sure you would write better if you could somehow get rid of it.

But can you if you are a real imposter?

But I have at least one hint that you aren't one.

🤯 Real Imposter Never Feel Imposter Syndrome

Victor Lustig
Victor Lustig entered the hall of fame of Con Artists in 1925.
That year, he managed to convince some rich industrials that we has mandated by the french government to sell the Eiffel Tower for scraps.

Yeah. Making people believe that enough to give away their money requires some skills.

Around the same time in New York, George C. Parker launched the meme "And if you believe that, I have a nice bridge to sell you":

The Brooklyn Bridge was the subject of several of George C. Parker's transactions, predicated on the notion of the buyer controlling access to the bridge. Police removed several of his victims from the bridge as they tried to erect toll booths

Now consider this:

Real imposters like Victor Lustig and George C. Parker never have imposter syndrome.

Like it's impossible to be good at doing con jobs and not being sure whether what you are selling is fake or not.

They 100% know they are fake.

What they are good at is making others for a moment it's not, just enough time to fly with the money.

Imposter syndrome is the exact reverse: you feel that you are fake but others know you aren't.

Which means that if you are feeling imposter syndrome, you are probably not, in fact, an imposter.

💞 You Are Not Alone: Imposter Syndrome is Very Common in Tech

2 7520 results on Google make it a fact:

you are not alone

I think it is easy to understand why that's the case:

  • programming tends to make us humble because no matter how hard we try, the smallest bug can ruin our day,
  • there is so much to learn that we would need 42 lives to learn it all. If, and that's a big if, the industry would stop evolving in the meantime,
  • we compare what we know as an individual, painfully aware of what we don't know, with what the group of people around us share about things they know. Obviously people don't share about things they don't know, and a group of people knows more than one single human being.

Last but not least the fact that our industry is too often a club for fluent-in-english young white single men is a real issue for those who don't fit that narrow stereotype.

💡 Imposter Syndrome Feels Obviously Unhelpful In Others

Among all those articles, this one in particular that caught my attention in 2020.

First because that article from Ali Splittel is well written, relatable, offers realistic strategies, ...

My educated guess is that the author has been struggling a lot with imposter syndrome to know so much about it.

In fact she still did at that time

I'm years into my programming career, have held multiple senior titles, and I still worry that I know way less than everyone else. To be honest, being visible on social media exacerbates that feeling of fraudulence. So does moving into a new role or receiving new opportunities.

Now what surprised me is that I was following Ali Splittel and that no matter how you define what it means to be good, Ali Splittel obviously clears the bar for being a good developer, author and teacher.

Imagine being friend with someone like Ali Splittel, you would have said the same thing:

Hey $friend, it is obvious to me that you ain't no imposter.

But you would't even have waited until she got such a portfolio to say that, if only you knew she was struggling with it. You could have said the same three or five years before, before she had to go through that inadequacy shit.

Hey $friend, I know your potential, I know you really want to learn programming. There are lots of things you don't know yet, and that's fine, we are all learning. I know you will learn whatever you need to. I know that you will build your career, bird by bird. It is obvious to me that you ain't no imposter.

Isn't that ironic that those who suffer from a feeling of inadequacy so obviously don't deserve the critic?

In fact no, it isn't ironic.

The key distinction here is that it is obvious to you as a friend from the outside.

But it is very much not obvious to them who they see things from the inside.

Because in the inside reigns supreme an extremely meany dude.

🧐 The Inner Judge

inner judge

I have been myself struggling for the largest part of the last 15 years. Not with imposter syndrome specifically, but with severe low self esteem as by product of depression crisis.

One thing I've understood is that this feeling of inadequacy doesn't come out of nowhere.

It comes from a constant voice inside our heads that is being constantly mean, over-critical, never satisfied.

That voice, I call it The Inner Judge.
The inner judge not me, at least it's not all of me. It's a part of me.
But there are are better angels in our nature.
That's why it's best to consider it as a separate character, to distance it a bit from our true self.

There are mean guys outside that may knock us down, whether intentionally or not, and to be frank it doesn't matter much. And they do give the inner judge ammunition.

But the inner judge is by far the meanest and most effective of them all.
Because he is talking. us. down. all. the. ducking. time.

That inner judge, dear readers, is the real enemy.

We can't destroy it but we can decide to not let him run the whole show.

Because the truth is that the inner judge isn't quite as smart as he thinks he is.

🤡 We are Very Poor Judges of Ourselves

huge ego

The Inner Judge's power comes from our negativity bias. One harsh comment weights as much as four positive ones, no matter its truthiness.

But those mean things that he said, can he prove they are true?

As we established before, when you look at others with imposter syndrome, or a low self-esteem generally, it's pretty clear that their inner judge are doing a pretty crappy job and are spectacularly unhelpful.

Interestingly we can also see the same fact with people who have the opposite issue.
The Elon Musks of this world whose self-esteem and frankly their ego inflates until it reaches Mars.

They are also poor judges of themselves.

So what are the odds that we are the one whose self-image is realistic?

We might as well start to trust the people around us when they say nice things about us. It's not any less realistic, but it is, in fact, much more helpful.


Understanding where imposter syndrome comes from is the first, most important step to healing. If you have come this far, congrats!

We won't stop here though because the inner judge has such a well established habit of demeaning us. That's fine, we welcome his hatred and will fight back with action.

🎉 Keep Track of Your Progress

journalling

I am stealing directly this idea from Ali's article, because it's a very good one:

It can be helpful to keep track of your progress.
There are a few strategies for doing this.
One is to look back on old projects: how much has your code improved? Probably a lot.
Or, keep track of your wins. I keep a document on my computer with accomplishments, screenshots of nice things people have said, and positive performance reviews.
You can then look back on that when you have a tough day. It’s so important to remember your successes, especially when you’re at a difficult point in your learning or at work.

I have been doing programming for 15 years, so I'm soon reaching that point where it's not that overwhelming for me.

But in the last three months, I have faced the overwhelming task of launching my own company, meetings tons of people, experimenting with things and watching what works or not.

And that was overwhelming.

But I kept religiously a diary of what I did, day by day, and that was the bedrock that kept me sane and focused, that gave me a sense that I was making progress.

🤗 Open up to your friends and colleagues

coffee

Imposter Syndrome is also a form of shame.

And one thing I understood about shame is that it dissolves relatively quickly with one single tricl

Shame dissolves when you open up to a compassionate friend about it.

Now if you feel that it's super hard to do, it's normal.
Shame doesn't want to loose, and she will loose if you open up, so she prevents you to opening up.
Shame isolates you.
That's why it's so hard to open up.
That's also why it's so powerful when you do it nonetheless.

Now it is easier said than done but there are really three simple steps here:

  • make a list of the closest and most compassionate friends or (ex)colleagues
  • find the courage to say:

"Hey, I would like to invite you for a café. There is something that I've been struggling with in my professional life and I would like to talk about it".

If you chose the right friend, I'm pretty sure that this will help.

The final step to destroy the power of the inner judge is to start a ritual where he would be very much not invited to the table.

✍🏻 Write Daily Your Three Morning Pages

artist way

Julia Cameron has helped millions of people unlock their creativity with her book The Artist's Way.

The bedrock tool of a creative recovery is a daily practice called Morning Pages

Morning Pages are three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing,
done first thing in the morning.

There is no wrong way to do Morning Pages.
They are not high art.
They are not even “writing.”
They are about anything and everything that crosses your mind– and they are for your eyes only.
Morning Pages provoke, clarify, comfort, cajole, prioritize and synchronize the day at hand.
Do not over-think Morning Pages:
just put three pages of anything on the page
...and then do three more pages tomorrow.

Now you might think that this makes sense especially for writers.
But no, she recommends the practice for every creative person, and by that she means every human being, because we are all creative.
So that would be writers, painters, musicians, designers,... and of course programmers.

And the reason it is so effective is that it's like a spiritual habit where our ennemy Inner Judge is asked to Just Shut Up For a Little While.

Hi, I’m Jean-Michel Fayard and I think my job is done.

I now give you the mic.

🤔 What about you?

Do you currently have an inner judge bullying you?

What technique do you want to try next to stop letting him running the show?

  • opening up to a friend
  • keep track of your progress
  • the 3 morning pages
  • something else?

If you used to have imposter syndrome,
what was the most useful strategy you used against it?

If you have a friend that suffers from imposter syndrome,
could you invite him:her for a coffee to talk that through?
could you share my article with him:her?

Top comments (6)

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ranggakd profile image
Retiago Drago

We might as well start to trust the people around us when they say nice things about us. It's not any less realistic, but it is, in fact, much more helpful.

remind me of this quote if I didn't share it before

quote

Sometimes the inner judge voice is louder and we cannot hear anything from other positive voices in our head. But still thanks, this gives hope deep within me.

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jmfayard profile image
Jean-Michel (jmfayard.dev)

Yes that voice is dumb but it is talking all the time so it seems important.
You can't shut that voice down really, but you can learn to distrust her little by little.
It's not because it's harsh that it's realistic.
In fact tell your friends what that voice think of you, and you may find out they think it's pretty dumb

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bkpecho profile image
Bryan King Pecho

Great article, Jean-Michel! 🙌 It's refreshing to see someone addressing the inner judge and offering practical tips to overcome imposter syndrome. Thank you for sharing your insights and congratulations on reaching your 100th article milestone! 🎉💪

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jmfayard profile image
Jean-Michel (jmfayard.dev)

Thanks Byan!

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ant_f_dev profile image
Anthony Fung

Great advice.

I wholeheartedly recommend the diary thing. I find I'm too close to my work day-to-day to appreciate what I've actually accomplished that week. So I keep a weekly log that now goes back over 5 years now. It helps at appraisal time too.

And you're right about the stereotype. I don't fit it, and I've always found it more difficult to navigate office politics; it doesn't particularly help Imposter Syndrome.

Congratulations on 100 by the way!

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jmfayard profile image
Jean-Michel (jmfayard.dev)

5 years? That's amazing. You have at your disposal basically an encyclopedia of you.
And the nice thing with the diary is that you can start small, very small, in private.
Thanks for your kind words