Scrolling through IT community feeds, it's hard not to notice how many memes there are about burnout and procrastination at work. Not so long ago, impostor syndrome was added to the list of popular psychological problems among developers. However, it's hard to take symptomatic signs of an impending depression lightly when you identify them in yourself and feel a real threat to your health. And if the main signs of burnout are fatigue and apathy, then the phenomenon of impostor syndrome is what can accelerate them.
Impostor syndrome is an emotional state in which you do not believe in your abilities and feel that you do not deserve praise or a position you have attained. Prolonged exposure to this state can lead to alienation from colleagues (as they might discover your incompetence) and a refusal to take on promising projects.
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PERFECTIONIST who can never bring a task to a logical conclusion because the result always seems imperfect. Instead of accepting an optimal solution that satisfies everyone, they try to achieve nonexistent perfection. And when they realize they can't reach it, they break down and consider themselves incompetent.
PERPETUAL STUDENT thinks that he constantly lacks knowledge and needs to urgently supplement it by reading a lot and taking various courses. He believes that everyone around him is smarter than he is. He is afraid that sooner or later he will face a task that he will never be able to solve, but must.
INDIVIDUALIST suffers from the inability to distribute tasks among colleagues properly. After all, no one can do the work better than he can. As a result, he overloads himself with tasks of different kinds to the point where he cannot even focus on a task that is initially easy for him.
SUPERMAN wants to achieve results as quickly as possible and be the most productive in the team. For the greater good, he is willing to sacrifice food, rest, and home. The task is set - it must be solved. And until that happens, sleep is for the weak. He does not notice how mentally exhausted he is, which leads to confusion and self-blame for failures.
GENIUS sees successful task solving as a given. In his opinion, work should go smoothly, and the result should be easily achieved. He doubts himself when even the slightest difficulties arise.
Why the imposter syndrome is prevalent in IT
The Impostor Syndrome is not only inherent to IT specialists. The first article about it was released in 1978 and described the anxiety of successful women. The feeling of not belonging was not recognized scientifically, but lately it is increasingly used by psychologists to determine the state of their clients.
In the IT field, the impostor label became prevalent due to the similarity of psychological problems of developers with its signs:
- uncertainty in their skills when performing a specific task, as well as in general;
- defining success as something that happened on its own and is not significant;
- emotional tension and fear of failure;
- feeling the need for a perfect outcome, but it is impossible to achieve;
- feeling that the leadership has unreasonably high expectations of you;
- sensing the need to work and know more for your salary;
- alienation from colleagues because they will figure out the lack of competence.
From the pleasant side, impostor syndrome is considered a temporary state. From the unpleasant side, it is considered chronic. If you don't understand the root causes, it will periodically flare up and subside. To get an accurate diagnosis of the sources and triggers of the problem, it is worth scheduling an appointment with a psychologist. We will discuss common factors that lead to impostor syndrome in IT.
All from childhood
The truth, which has become banal already, but still remains relevant. Impostor syndrome often manifests itself in professionals who were not praised for their achievements at an early age and were scolded for mistakes. In addition, parents and teachers could compare the child with a more successful student in class or with "the son of mom's friend". As an adult, such a person perceives good work as a matter of course and unworthy of attention, and failure as a catastrophe.
There is also the opposite upbringing, in which the child was praised too much. The specialist is used to considering himself a genius and receiving positive feedback. And when something goes wrong for him and others notice it, an error arises within him. He doubts whether he is as good as he thought.
Let's imagine a programmer named Kolya, who got a job as a Junior Developer at an IT company. Kolya had a low salary, tasks matching his skills, and not very challenging tasks. After two years, Kolya worked hard and was promoted to a Mid-level Developer. His salary was significantly increased, he was given bonuses, and assigned new, more serious projects. At first, Kolya was happy, but after three months, he found himself in a depression. How did that happen?
- Kolya tried to do everything by himself, because now he is a Mid-level developer who earns a decent amount for his work. He must know and be able to do everything.
- The tester started finding more bugs, and the project manager started rushing to deliver the project.
- Everyone around him is succeeding, but Kolya is even afraid to ask for help, so that they don't think he doesn't deserve to be a Mid-level developer.
- Moreover, in the article he read, it is written that developers for such a salary as his current salary should be able to do virtual somersaults.
Kolya sits in a comfortable office chair and thinks that he is not a real developer. He doesn't remember how he used to succeed before. He doesn't know how to code correctly now. And he forgot that he is not even a Senior developer, but a Mid-level one. But Kolya no longer believes in himself and cannot see a way forward in development.
Let's try to help Nikolay find the meaning in his once beloved profession, and at the same time understand how to deal with the impostor syndrome.
How to deal with imposter syndrome
The first and most important advice is to make time and seek help from a psychologist to work through internal issues. If it is difficult to do this right now, start small - focus on understanding your sense of self: establish a connection with your personal values and core purpose. Reset to factory settings: remember what you enjoyed about your profession and why you decided to pursue it in the first place.
Accept that knowing everything is impossible
Repeat to yourself every day that not knowing something is normal, until you believe it yourself. Seek answers from communities and senior colleagues. You may encounter haters, but more often developers and other IT specialists are enthusiastic about helping their colleagues. And sometimes it's much faster than searching the internet and libraries. You can also receive feedback on your work from them.
Do not idealize the project, but improve yourself
Use the tools and approaches you already know in your work projects. Do not complicate tasks with excessive perfectionism, as it is often unnecessary. Instead, gradually and unhurriedly learn new stacks, versions, and methods in your spare time, working on pet projects. Plan self-learning and enhance your skills moderately, rather than burning out along with the deadlines.
Ask for more feedback and outside opinions
Don't be afraid of your management. After all, if the director hired or promoted you and you didn't deserve it, then it's their "wrong" decision. You haven't deceived anyone, and to convince yourself as a specialist, ask for more feedback and detailed comments on your tasks. It's useful to periodically go through interviews with other companies and ask for feedback from them to understand not only your level but also to objectively assess yourself in the job market.
Capture your successes
Keep a journal of achievements and record successful problem-solving, positive feedback, and productivity in learning something new – anything you have done well. Even if you doubt that it happened by chance or luck. Describe in detail how you achieved the "accidental" result. You can be sure that the resulting chain of events will reveal the true reasons for your success, which are rooted in your skills and experience.
Don't stay silent
Psychological issues among employees are becoming an increasingly discussed topic in the business community. Managers often overlook them until they escalate and lead to breakdowns and dismissals. Even a good manager risks not noticing changes in a team member while focusing on everyday tasks. It's quite possible that they are willing to help but are unaware that assistance is needed in the first place.
"The no asshole rule"
From a certain point of view, the imposter syndrome can be a catalyst for growth, pushing you to develop professionally, as long as it doesn't lead to depression. It also helps in evaluating the company objectively. If you are denied constructive feedback, lack support, and constantly face criticism, there is a high chance that the issue is not with you, and it might be worth considering changing your workplace. To help you make that decision, we recommend reading Robert Sutton's bestseller "The No Asshole Rule".
The impostor phenomenon is easier to cope with when basic needs are. Try to maintain a healthy diet and establish a sleep routine. When fearing job loss, imagine that it has already happened and create several scenarios of your actions. You will see that everything is fixable and protect yourself from unnecessary anxiety about the future. However, the most reliable solution is psychological counseling from a specialist.