The Mechanics Of Imposter Syndrome


Like many working in IT, I have experienced imposter syndrome. What is imposter syndrome?

Wikipedia states:

Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon, impostorism, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience) is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their skills, talents or accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.

My Experience

For me, it is primarily a feeling of unease about my competence as a programmer. For most of my career I have thought about it in the following way.

  1. If I think about it, I have generally gotten more positive feedback than negative.
  2. I can logically conclude it is more likely that I am compentent than not.
  3. However, this is not conclusive and I lack the information to know exactly my level of competence.

While I do logically conclude I am competent, even skilled, there is a grey area. This leaves room for feelings of fear that ‘perhaps I was just lucky those times my work went really well’ or ‘I don’t really know that I am competent’.

As it is based on feelings, not so much my logical thoughts I can mostly ignore it.

Too Simplistic

I suspect this is how most people experience it and stop there. It is very likely just unfounded fear, so we can feel it but try not to act on it.

However, I think there is a specific missing piece of information, a truth, that makes it more insideous. This is something we instictively know is true and it serves to devalue what we know and have acheived.

The stuff I know, well anyone can learn it!

The truth is that everything I have learnt and acheived, well anyone could do that!

How do I know this is true? I know it, because I know every step I went through to learn what I know. I know that I had to make many mistakes along the way. I know I didn’t have lightning bolt moments of understanding, rather through consistent effort I built up my knowledge.

I know that anyone could follow the same steps I did and have knowledge and capabilities similar to my own. If anyone can do it, am I really skilled or even competent? I am know that I am NOT special.

Now, anyone may be a bit strong, there may be a base level of intelligence required, but I know it is not high. I know how I had to struggle and work hard to reach my current knowledge.

How does this relate to imposter syndrome?

I consider imposter syndrome to be based on 3 statements.

  1. The stuff I know, well anyone can learn it.
  2. There is a lot of important stuff I don’t know.
  3. The stuff I don’t know, that is really hard to learn.