Mental Health and Software Engineers: Imposter Syndrome
Impostor syndrome is a phenomenon that can leave anyone, in any industry, feeling like a fake —from factory floors to the C-suite.
Impostor syndrome is a phenomenon that can leave anyone, in any industry, feeling like a fake —from factory floors to the C-suite. Programming and software development is far from an exception. In fact, developers are particularly prone to impostor syndrome. What is the Imposter Syndrome, you wonder? Imposter syndrome boils down to believing you are not qualified for the position or work you have credentials for. The fast-paced and always-changing nature of tech hence makes it a common challenge in the industry.
What are the symptoms of the Imposter Syndrome?
A sufferer of impostor syndrome struggles to recognise their value, and negatively compares their skills against the skills of others. They believe they aren’t good enough to do their job, despite external evidence proving otherwise. They often doubt or fail to recognise their accomplishments and intelligence. Instead, they fixate on their perceived shortcomings, failures and mistakes. Any successes are attributed to luck or the accidental deception of colleagues and managers.
In general, there are five major types of imposters, as described by Dr. Valerie Young.
- The perfectionists
They tend to focus primarily on how they do things, often to the point where they demand perfection of themselves in every aspect of life. Yet, since perfection isn’t always a realistic goal, they can’t meet these standards. Instead of acknowledging the hard work they’ve put in after completing a task, they might criticize themselves for small mistakes and feel ashamed of their “failure”. They might even avoid trying new things if they believe they can’t do them perfectly the first time.
- The natural geniuses
They’ve spent their lives picking up new skills with little effort and believe they should understand new material and processes right away. Their belief that competent people can handle anything with little difficulty leads them to feel like a fraud when you have a hard time. If something does not come easily to them, or they fail to succeed on their first try, they might feel ashamed and embarrassed.
- The rugged individualists (or soloists)
They believe they should be able to handle everything solo. If they can’t achieve success independently, they consider themselves unworthy. Asking someone for help, or accepting support when it’s offered, doesn’t just mean failing their own high standards. It also means admitting their inadequacies and showing themselves as a failure.
- The experts
Before they can consider their work a success, they want to learn everything there is to know on the topic. They might spend so much time pursuing their quest for more information that they end up having to devote more time to their main task. Since they believe they should have all the answers, they might consider themselves a fraud or failure when they can’t answer a question or encounter some knowledge they previously missed.
- The superheroes
They link competence to their ability to succeed in every role they hold: student, friend, employee, or parent. Failing to successfully navigate the demands of these roles simply proves, in their opinion, their inadequacy. To succeed, then, they push themselves to the limit, expending as much energy as possible in every role. Still, even this maximum effort may not resolve their imposter feelings. They might think, “I should be able to do more,” or “This should be easier.”
In the world of programming, developers of any experience or education can fall prey to developer impostor syndrome. Developer imposter syndrome sees both junior and senior developers dwelling on the knowledge and coding languages that they don’t know. Due to the very nature of the tech industry, with so many approaches, languages and methods in circulation, it’s impossible for any developer to know everything. Plus, as we gain new technology and understanding, previous methods can become obsolete. As such, development is a role in which programmers need to be constantly learning and open to new ideas and practices. So, when new or unknown methods, languages and tools are needed, it’s easy for developers to feel inadequate. If unchecked, this can graduate to developer impostor syndrome.
The effects of developer impostor syndrome
Developer impostor syndrome negatively affects the sufferer, their productivity, and the development industry as a whole. The problem is, it’s easy for developer impostor syndrome to spiral out of control. Sufferers can become unwell, depressed or burnt out as they try to keep up with perceived goals.
Developer impostor syndrome also causes problems for the industry. This is because people that pursue an interest in the field are more likely to leave the industry early on. Or, they may never make their way to becoming a developer at all due to feelings of inadequacy. One of the biggest problems with developer impostor syndrome is the fact that it never really goes away. For programmers that do manage to overcome it, advancements in technology can easily cause the experience to reoccur. However, a firm understanding of the syndrome might help people spot the symptoms when they arise and apply strategies to overcome their doubts. In conclusion, I’d advise that we all read more and more on subject.
"The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania and a complete feeling of: ‘I’m a fraud! Oh God, they’re on to me! I’m a fraud!’ . . . just try to ride the egomania when it comes and enjoy it, and then slide through the idea of fraud." - Tina Fey.
Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence enthusiast