Lesson Sunday

Imposter syndrome is very common in both the tech industry and at Epicodus. In this lesson, we'll define imposter syndrome and discuss why it's a big problem in the tech industry.

What is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is the fear that we aren't good enough. This feeling often persists even when we are successful at something. When we experience imposter syndrome, we doubt the quality of our work and worry that sooner or later others will realize we are frauds. Doctors Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes coined the term in the late seventies. Their research focused on ways imposter syndrome affects women in particular, though it can (and often does) affect people from all groups.

Imposter syndrome is an issue in many fields and it is especially common in the tech industry. In fact, according to this 2018 study from Blind, 58% of employees in the tech industry were currently experiencing imposter syndrome at the time they were surveyed. According to one quote from a software engineer in the article, "[I] still feel like an impostor after 14 years in the business."

There is also evidence that imposter syndrome disproportionately affects people from underrepresented groups, as this 2018 article in the New York Times discusses.

Here are some common symptoms of imposter syndrome:

  • Anxiety
  • Self-doubt
  • Fear of being exposed as a fraud
  • Comparing oneself to others

There are many other symptoms, too, and imposter syndrome can affect people in a wide variety of ways.

Just as it's common in the tech industry, we've found that imposter syndrome is common at Epicodus as well. Epicodus is an intensive program and students often report feeling constantly behind. There is always more to learn and the tools we use in the tech industry evolve more quickly than we can keep up with them. That feeling of being underwater often continues with a first job and beyond. In fact, the experience of being deluged with information at a new dev job is colloquially referred to as "drinking from the firehose." As we get more experienced, we're asked to solve more challenging problems, often with little documentation at our disposal. It can be easy to look at others around us and think they are doing better - when in fact, as the study above shows, they may be experiencing similar struggles.

As a former Epicodus instructor, I often had students come to me saying they felt they were struggling more than everyone else in their cohort. This self-assessment was usually inaccurate though the feeling was all too real. Students and developers may have the feeling that they must "fake it until they make it," but this can lead to the feeling that they're only faking it and never making it. You will often solve problems while only having a murky understanding of what's really going on - and that's an inevitable part of solving problems in tech. That's why the following meme is so popular in the dev community.

Meme showing a common feeling in coding.

The meme above states "My code doesn't work and I don't know why. My code works and I don't know why."

You may have already experienced this feeling at Epicodus - if not, don't worry, you will experience this eventually! And it's totally fine. Sometimes we'll go searching for answers and we'll learn why our code is or isn't working. But other times, as this meme demonstrates, understanding will remain beyond our grasp. Unfortunately, this experience can contribute to feelings of imposter syndrome. If we don't understand something or can't get something working, there must be something wrong with us! We might be tempted to look around, only to find that other people seem to understand the problem or have solved it. Then the self-comparison begins. That's imposter syndrome at work.

If you're experiencing imposter syndrome, remember that it's a common experience and you're not alone. It's okay to experience it. Having imposter syndrome doesn't mean there's anything wrong with you, even if it may feel that way.

Here are some strategies for dealing with imposter syndrome. We are including strategies both for dealing with imposter syndrome if you are experiencing it as well as strategies to help others deal with it. It's important not to make assumptions about whether or not other individuals may be experiencing imposter syndrome. At the same time, we can still take steps to help prevent or reduce imposter syndrome in our community. These strategies are by no means exhaustive - they're just a start!

Strategies to Deal with Imposter Syndrome

  • Don't compare yourself to others. Instead, look at the progress you're making. Think about where you were yesterday, last week, or even before the program, and how much you've learned since then.

  • Reward yourself. You are going through an intensive coding program. That's hard - and it's supposed to be! You've made a choice to face new challenges and problems everyday so you can learn. That's really impressive.

  • Ask for help. It's okay to ask questions if you don't understand something.

  • Communicate with others. Don't be afraid to tell others what you are experiencing. That can be as simple as admitting you don't understand something or it can be an opportunity to talk about imposter syndrome.

  • Talk with your instructor. In a scheduled meeting with your instructor, discuss concerns you're having about imposter syndrome.

Strategies to Help Others Deal with Imposter Syndrome

  • Affirm the work that others are doing. Let others know when they are doing good work.

  • Don't be dismissive. This is a given - don't be dismissive of others. If someone asks questions or presents their ideas, be receptive.

  • Do not offer advice or solutions unless they are asked for. Constructive criticism and feedback can be useful - but it will rarely feel constructive unless it's requested.

  • If someone needs support, be willing to listen. Even if you're not experiencing imposter syndrome yourself, you can still listen and be supportive. And if you are experiencing imposter syndrome, this can be an opportunity to share your experiences together.

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