Before I get started on the serious stuff – the whole reason for you reading this, I have a short announcement to make….
I have an incredibly dark sense of humour. And although some of what I say may seem pretty dark, please be reminded that there is a way through this. You’ll find your way – there is light at the end of the tunnel.
As our old pal Pythagoras once said…
“Above the cloud with its shadow is the star with its light. Above all things reverence thyself.”
Which I interpret as meaning “There’s no light without darkness, so give yourself a break!”.
I hadn’t ever really experienced anything like it before being hit by it like a tonne of bricks when I left behind a lifetime of working in retail, to retrain as a software developer. I’d been in my job for 12 years, so it had been a long time since I’d started a new job, never mind an entirely new career.
I retrained over the course of 16 weeks, and as much as Imposter Syndrome was trying to destroy every last shred of self-confidence I had, I made it through with my sanity (only just!) intact! Changing career was the best decision I ever made, but it was also one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I’m by absolutely no means, a risk-taker! But I left my job, and with that my regular income, to become a full-time student, and just hope that someone would give me a chance and a ‘proper grown-up’ job once I finished.
Now, I’m an Analyst Programmer, and work for an excellent company in a fantastic team. I’ve been there almost two years now, and there literally isn’t a day when I don’t think about how lucky I am to be where I am right now. (But it wasn’t luck! I did this myself – it was all down to hard work and determination!).
I also trained as a Mental Health First Aider in 2019. That’s a whole other thing I can tell you about another time, but I would highly recommend it to anyone who might be thinking about doing it. It feels massively empowering to know that you’re equipped to help someone who might be having a mental health crisis. It’s something I’m hugely passionate, for various reasons, but essentially it all boils down to not wanting anyone to suffer in silence. Talking openly about mental health provides a safe place for others to open up about their own. And this is really at the heart of what we’re about at humans of code.
Anyway, I digress! Today I want to talk to you about Imposter Syndrome, and how I did / didn’t(?!) deal with it.
Mental health is a subject very close to my heart, and something I’m passionate about speaking openly about. The more we talk about mental health, the more we can reduce the stigma around it. And if we reduce the stigma, we can start to give people their mental health and their lives back.
The chances are that we’ll all experience Imposter Syndrome at some point in our lives, and it’s important to understand that even if it never leaves you entirely, you CAN learn to live with it!
So, what exactly is Imposter Syndrome?
It’s the belief that you’re not as competent as others perceive you to be. It’s feeling like a fraud. It’s the constant fear of being “found out” for who you “really” are. It’s feeling like you don’t belong in the situation you find yourself in – believing you only got there through sheer luck. You might be pair-programming with someone, and think “they’re going to realise I don’t know anything”. Or you might be writing an article, and the whole time be thinking “Am I even ‘impostery’ enough to be talking to people about this?!…. “
I hadn’t actually heard of Imposter Syndrome before my career change. But it’s something that quickly made itself known to me. It can be triggered by things like starting a new role, a new project, starting college or university, or changing career after 19 years of being firmly stuck in your comfort zone…..
The emotional journey of a career changer could accurately be described as a “rollercoaster”. The kind you might get on without fully appreciating how many surprise drops, twists and turns there are. Having an awareness of this early on is so important, so you know the signs to look out for and you can recognise them in yourself and in your peers.
If you’re one of the lucky ones who has never heard of or experienced Imposter Syndrome, first of all – congratulations! And second, you might be thinking it sounds made up, or that it’s just a case of worrying too much, or over-thinking things. If ONLY that’s what it was!! I can understand why people don’t understand it, and that’s cool. If you’re one of those people and you’re reading this, hopefully it’s because you want to learn more about it. Thank you! Read on…
Here’s a visual representation of just a second in the life of someone who is battling constantly with their inner voice.
It’s EXACTLY like this! This couldn’t be more accurate. It’s constant, intrusive, negative self-talk. Some people might know it as their “inner critic”. A little bit of that is probably perfectly healthy. It’s what makes us strive to do better, or not half-ass something. It’s the voice that encourages you to see a task through to completion and take pride in a job well done.
When it begins to spiral out of control however, is when it’s constantly there, putting you down, telling you that you don’t deserve to be where you are, or that you’re a failure. It’s like being mentally and emotionally abused by yourself. You doubt yourself and everything you know. You might believe you’re taking up the space of someone more deserving of what you have, that you’re not worthy of anything, and that you’re in a constant state of fear of being “found out”.
I already had Anxiety and Depression before Imposter Syndrome came along, so I always had a million of these thoughts racing through my head. I struggled to focus on just one thing at a time, and if I made a mistake that would be all I could focus on and I’d struggle to mentally move beyond that.
And there was that classic thing we all do – instead of focusing on the positives – like finishing all the extensions from my homework, I would focus on little things that I wasn’t happy with. Like not quite understanding a new concept straight away. I would strive for perfection, all the while believing that what I was doing would never be as “perfect” as everyone else.
I would prepare for things meticulously – such as job interviews – and with 100% success I should add! However, far from me thinking what a sensible person would think – “I got the job because I did my research and was well-prepared, and the best person for the job” – I would think “Oh balls! Look what I’ve done now! I’ve gone and got that job I wanted!”, or “They must have phoned the wrong person… I’m going to start working there, and they’re going to realise I’m not as good as they thought, and I’m going to let them down, then they’ll get rid of me.”
These thoughts can send you off in a vicious cycle – believing you only did well because you stayed up all night, memorising a company’s values and principles and working them into your answers, rather than realising you did well because you were a strong candidate for the job!
The problem with Imposter Syndrome is that you can become a mentally tortured victim of your own success. The more you achieve (through “luck”), the more you believe you will lose when you get “found out”. And as I eventually discovered, if you don’t recognise what’s happening and deal with it pretty sharpish, then your Imposter Syndrome can become all-consuming and can lead you down the dark path to Depression.
People who suffer from Imposter Syndrome typically will not talk about how they are feeling, because they would be revealing themselves as a “fraud”. This is why it’s so important that we speak out about our experiences with it. Because once we start doing that, we begin to normalise it. And once we normalise it, it begins to lose its grip on us.
So, what can we do to take back control of our lives?
It’s not going to be easy, but it will be worth it!
- You have to accept that you will never know everything – nobody does! Get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. Instead of looking at whatever is making you feel that way, as a barrier holding you back, look at it as an opportunity to learn something new.
- Don’t compare yourself with others! We’re all guilty of it. Why are we actively choosing to torture ourselves like this?! Everyone’s circumstances are different. Also, you’re only seeing what they’re choosing to show the world. You can’t see what’s going on in their heads any better than they can see what’s going on in yours. They may be looking at you thinking “Woah! They’ve really got their shit together! I wish I was more like them!”
- Hang on to the good times – they can be few and far between! It’s quite the rollercoaster! But that’s cool – if rollercoasters weren’t more fun than they are scary, there wouldn’t be any theme parks, right?!
Any time I was having a hard time and wondering what the hell I was doing, thinking I could give up my job and learn something new in only 4 months, I had a couple of trusted friends I would talk to about it – maybe over Slack or WhatsApp. They would do something I didn’t expect – they’d reply telling me I’d made this huge, brave decision to walk away from my old life to make a better one for myself. They’d list the things I’d achieved, and reminded me why I was doing it. This was absolutely baffling to me! Why weren’t they telling me I’d made a huge, expensive mistake?!
Seeing this from someone else’s perspective was like someone turning the light on in a dark room! Because I was able to recognise that they were right! I had done some difficult stuff to get to where I was! So I would take screenshots of their messages, and save them in a folder on my phone, and when I was back in my pit of despair, I’d eventually remember what helped last time – and that was talking about it. To my friends. Who made me see sense!
- Thoughts are NOT facts! Just because you truly believe something, doesn’t make it true. Just because you think you’re a fraud, doesn’t make you a fraud. Just because you think you’re doing a terrible job of something, doesn’t mean you’re doing a terrible job. Just because you think you don’t know something, doesn’t mean you don’t know it. The brain is a terrible practical joker – especially when you least need it to be. It’s probably gaslighting you right now. Don’t listen to it!
- You didn’t come this far to only come this far. DO NOT GIVE UP! Hold yourself accountable. Remember what drove you to do what you’re doing. When I decide to do something big, I tell people about it. That way I know I’ll have to go through with it, or else face answering questions about why I didn’t do it. (That said – if something’s making you truly, deeply unhappy, choosing to walk away from it can be the best and bravest decision. Just don’t make that decision alone.)
- Be resilient! – “So far, you’ve survived 100% of your worst days. You’re doing great!”. No arguing with that, eh?! My old judo club took its motto from a part of this quote…
“A little more persistence, a little more effort, and what seemed hopeless failure may turn to glorious success. There is no failure except in no longer trying. There is no defeat except from within, no really insurmountable barrier save our own inherent weakness of purpose.”
~ Elbert Hubbard
This quote is about the importance and the willingness to persist. It’s about doing something over and over and over again, trying a different approach each time, to get a different result.
It’s about never giving up. It’s about repeatedly getting back up again.
It’s about picking up the pieces and starting over again, even though it might be the last thing in the world you want to do. It’s for all the people who tried and tried and almost quit, but tried again one more time, and got it right.
- We’re all just winging it! Nobody has their shit 100% together. Even the people you look up to and admire – they’re just stumbling through life sometimes too, believe it or not! Being an adult is hard! I frequently find myself thinking “let’s give it a go! What’s the worst that can happen?!” because I don’t have all the answers. So far, nothing *too* bad has happened……yet. (There’s still time though!)
But, how do you even begin to silence the noise when it’s in your own head?!
Well in the spirit of being open and honest, I’m not going to lie – the medication helps a LOT!
I also learned how to take time out for myself. I was continually told by friends, the internet, strangers – “take up a hobby”, “get into mindfulness….” But I wasn’t in the right headspace for any of that. That would’ve meant putting my worries aside, and how could I do that when I had so much to worry about?!
Among (many!) other things, I also started listening to night time stories to send me off to sleep. This was mostly because I couldn’t be alone with my thoughts – the “noise”. So I’d have to drown it out to get to sleep. Then as the dark clouds eventually began to lift, I could see what was going on around me. And it wasn’t all as bad as I had thought. I could spend less time worrying and more time on myself. So I would bake! And it turned out it was something I was good at. Then I took up drawing – turned out I was good at that too! And suddenly I was acknowledging that there were these things that I was good at!
I’m also much better at asking for what I need. I’ve learned over the years that you can’t rely on people remembering things like the training they’ve said they’ll give you, or that you’ve asked for. If they’re not equipping you to do your job properly – give them a prod to remind them! It’s your future! Nobody else cares about it as much as you do!
Most importantly though, I now work for a company that has supported me and valued me from Day One. I started as a trainee – so there was never any expectation that I would know everything. I work in a great team with an absolute wealth of knowledge, so there’s always someone around to ask for help.
And I can acknowledge that they didn’t become fountains of knowledge overnight. They’ve been working in their roles for 5, 10, 15 years some of them. And I see them ask each other for help, because nobody knows everything (nor are they expected to!).
With hard work, and the right support, you can achieve anything you set your mind to. We never stop learning. We all learn to ride the rollercoaster until it feels slightly less scary. Like the Dodgems… There will be unexpected bumps along the way, and there might be some you go absolutely barrelling towards with a wry smile on your face, because you’ll become better at steering yourself out of trouble again!
Life After Imposter Syndrome
Honestly, I sometimes struggle now to relate to the shell of a person I became. I’ve gone from “I can’t do this”, to “I AM doing this!”, to “I only went and bloody well did it!”.
During a conversation with my People Manager at work, I was asked what I thought my strengths and weaknesses were, which I was completely unprepared for. She suggested that my greatest strength was my willingness to learn, and my weakness was my lack of self-confidence.
I had inadvertently let the doubt begin to sneak back in unnoticed. And by her telling me I should be more confident, I realised that meant she h ad more confidence in me than I did. And so I must be doing a good job (or as my own sense of humour would tell me – “not a shit job!”). Which gave me the confidence boost I needed.
Would I go through the soul-destroying pain and anguish of career-changing again?! ABSOLUTELY!! (Although, I have no intention of ever doing it again. I’m more than happy where I am thanks!) It was one of the best experiences of my life! It literally changed my life. I met some of the greatest people ever while I was doing it, and I love them dearly! I have a job I look forward to going into in the morning, and I’m not going to lie – the money is pretty sweet too!
Would I do anything differently? I’d openly acknowledge how I was feeling at the time, because now I know how common Imposter Syndrome is – particularly among career changers.
Anyway, to recap! Some of the greatest advice given to me, which I share with you now…
- Get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable
- Don’t compare yourself with others
- Remember the good times!
- Thoughts are NOT facts
- You didn’t come this far to only come this far
- Be resilient!
- We’re all just winging it.
And one last thing! This one really stuck with me, as a consummate perfectionist – the reason you feel like you’re failing is because you care so much and want to do the best job possible. As a perfectionist, there is probably nobody putting as much pressure on you to succeed as you are yourself. Take it easy. You’re doing better than you think.