Some thoughts on imposter syndrome

Tagged: work, rambling

Hi there 👋,

Today I'm writing from a cottage patio, taking my first stretch of summer vacation. I have five full days off, plus some weekend time. It feels great so far. It has been a hectic month starting a new job, and now I have some time to decompress and let some thoughts unfold. Seems like a good time to write and reflect a bit, I'd say.

One topic that has surfaced a few times over the month is imposter syndrome. It is a commonly written about topic in my field, so I won't be adding anything new to the literature, save for my personal experience. But, in the spirit of working on my transparency and openness initiatives I think I better write about it!

Being a curious person, I want to know why I feel imposter syndrome. I can only speak to my own lived experiences - whether what I'm about to describe can be qualified as imposter syndrome is up to you, dear reader. Hmm, I'm starting to waffle around the topic to avoid getting into it. Better dive in.

What does it feel like

Let's jump right into some superficial examples of what imposter syndrome has felt like in the past month:

  • In a meeting, what if someone asks me a question and I don't know the answer (and they already do have an answer for themselves?)

  • What if I'm pair programming and I slip up because I don't know the language we're using as well as the client employees?

  • What if the client thinks I'm too slow and they want me off the project?

And more importantly, the real feelings underneath the above:

  • what if I look stupid; make a fool of myself?

  • what if no one wants to work with me?

  • what if I'm not good enough; lose my job?

Why is it happening?

Looking for something to worry about

For me, I've realized that imposter syndrome was me partially just finding something to worry about. I've been a worrier for as long as I can remember. I don't know where I fall on the scale of anxiety; it isn't something paralyzing, but it is present. What's important to look at in the above "what does it feel like section" is the abundance of "what if" statements that exist.

And when I stop and just reflect on that, it's rather something to marvel at. Look at me spending all this energy on the unknown! And while I'm sure some amount of worrying is hard wired into the human brain, a lot of it, as my dad once told me, is wasted energy.

On the drive up, I was reflecting to my partner, "what if things didn't have to be this way?" And really, how often do I stop and confront the way I am, and ask myself - mightn't there be another way to move through the world? Maybe I could ask myself:

"What if I could have a life where I didn't worry so much?"

Even to ask myself that question - to offer myself a possible future with more blue skies than clouds is great feeling - and one I'm only recently becoming acquainted with.

If I start small, with a single question such as that, and a simple bit of curiousity, I might be able to follow that toward some much bigger things.

And really, what I'm talking about now is a much bigger thing ; anxiety, worry, concern - I can't address all these things for myself in a single post; but what I can do is start to explore, gently, and with curiousity. And eventually, I might be able to ask questions like:

  • what if I embarrass myself... and then learn from the experience?

  • what if I screw up, and then people are gentle with me and help me to not make that mistake again?

  • what if people laugh at me, and then I laugh along too?

And then more broadly, I might be able to ask:

  • what if I learn a lot and I discover new things I love?

  • what if I meet some amazing people, who become good friends or mentors?

  • what if my openness to not being perfect enables me to connect with other people in a deep and special way?

"What if I can't handle it?"

(I can't quite decide if this section is an extension of the above, or is something different.)

A friend recently relayed an idea they learned (from a book, a counsellor, somewhere - I can't remember) that underneath so much of our anxiety and worry is a simple fear:

what if I can't handle it?

where it could be ... anything really.

There is a lot to unpack from that question. At the root of it, I think we are most afraid to have this deep fear confirmed by others in an external situation.

So, we put up our guards. We get an ego about what we do know. We are reticent. We avoid saying "I don't know." We avoid failure at all costs in order to avoid confronting the not good enough notion that lies buried somewhere within us. We focus toward perfection on what we are confident about. And so on.

That's tough stuff.

And frankly, I don't want to live a life where that fear prevents me from following my dreams - even the most simple and mundane ones.

What to do about it

I don't have a solution to anything here. I do have some ideas about what might help me, personally:

Make peace with the inevitable

There is a pragmatic part of me that wants me to remember that these things are part of life:

  • making mistakes

  • embarrassing myself

  • not having answers

  • working with other people / collaboration is an inherently complex thing with lots of nuance - it's not going to be easy.

Failure will happen

All the above is going to happen regardless, so why not accept it and try and find a way to learn from my experience? Beating oneself up for any of the above isn't going to get me anywhere. Frankly, flowers grow when you water them, not when you yell or scold them.

Actual serious repercussions

Openness, vulnerability, and trust are important when navigating your confidence in what you know and don't know. But there is a time and place for exploring those traits and not just simply using them as an excuse for not doing your due diligence or for being careless.

That's a hard balance to find. There are some mistakes that can cause a person to lose their job. Worrying about and finding a way to mitigate those kinds of mistakes are a good use of time.

In addition to that, I can't deny it is a privilege to be "open and vulnerable" in a workplace. I come from a place that has afforded me some ability to explore these ideas; frankly, I think many people don't have those same affordances. Many people are walking a tight rope where they are under more scrutiny, whether as a result of implicit or explicit factors. The sad reality of that sometimes makes me cringe in my attempts at exploring these topics. I'm not really sure what to say about that. Maybe I'll regret trying to explore this stuff somewhere down the line.

I suppose you could say I've started to exhume something of a complex artifact. But I'm running out of a steam at this point, Either way, it's time to take a rest and throw the tarp back over it until next time.