We need to talk about the imposter syndrome

Charli Bregnballe
6 min readSep 19, 2023

We need to talk about the imposter syndrome. The rising prevalence of this condition of persistent doubt and anxiety has become a growing concern that requires our attention and understanding.

Intro

I am not sure if the Imposter Syndrome is a product of the modern world, but it seems to me that it is becoming more and more common.
During my job as a manager for developers, I get to meet a wide range of tech professionals on different levels and with different experiences and backgrounds. Imposter Syndrome seems to be present at all levels, ages, experiences, and throughout different backgrounds among individuals.

Understanding and addressing imposter syndrome is crucial for fostering self-confidence and promoting a healthy sense of accomplishment in individuals.

Imposter Syndrome

It is a phenomenon where individuals doubt their abilities and competencies, despite education, skill, achievements, and successes.
Oddly enough, it is more common among well-educated successful people.
It is estimated that ~70% will face it one way or the other during life.

The definition:

Persistent doubt concerning one’s abilities or accomplishments accompanied by the fear of being exposed as a fraud despite evidence of one’s ongoing success

The definition is pretty good, but I want to highlight the essentials.

Persistent doubt concerning one’s abilities or accomplishments accompanied by the fear of being exposed as a fraud despite evidence of one’s ongoing success

The persistent doubt. It is highly individual but it can come in various shapes and formats and is not necessarily constant. I’ve seen cases where the feeling of self-confidence works as a metronome, where it constantly switches between insecureness and disbelief, and confidence and secureness.

Imposter metronome

It can occur relating to tasks, feedback, or accomplishments, but at times it also seems to have a mind of its own and shift unpredictably.

Why is it

I highly doubt that we can find a single course or reason behind this feeling. It can be related to a wide range of things and experiences throughout life.

There are some factors though, that I see repeatedly in the context of imposter syndrome.

Toxic Culture

I’ve seen cases where the environment’s toxicity triggers insecureness and imposter syndrome.
It can be related to fear of failing or a very competitive environment.

Perfectionism

Perfectionism does not necessarily equal imposter syndrome, but when perfectionism works against the individual and creates a pressure of high performance and expectations it can lead to a feeling of not being good enough.
The high standards that some perfectionists can hold themselves to can trigger this feeling, especially during adversity.

Past experiences

When looking back in time, we often find answers to questions regarding mentality and personality traits.
Bad experiences can lead to an intensified feeling of not being good enough.

Comparison to others

When you go to social media everyone is showcasing their achievements. We are exposed to people who are always happy, always out eating, and always on holiday.
If we compare ourselves to others, we must make sure we do it on equal terms. And that is not through carefully selected, set-up images and posts on social media. They do by no means represent real life.

Transition and change

Starting a new job, or learning a new technology, a little self-doubt is natural. The nervousness and tension can become overwhelming and become a disadvantage if it is not controlled.

Internalized criticism

And worst of them all, the internalized criticism.
How people are towards themselves says a lot about how they feel.
I’ve seen a lot of cases where people are very hard on themselves and talk to themselves in a way they would never dream of talking to a friend or colleague.
They hold themselves to standards that are bound to fail. Standards they never would expect colleagues or friends to redeem.

How to deal with it

The first step is to talk about it. Normalize it.
We need to acknowledge this feeling, and whenever it appears, dive into it, figure out what triggers it, and try to understand the underlying cause.
Coping with imposter syndrome on your own can be quite challenging, and for many, these thoughts are considered off-limits even though they are widespread.
Hiding them can reinforce the feeling in both the individual and the surrounding people.

We need to stop the constant comparison. It is poison.
This often happens on social media, where we are exposed to other people’s successes, achievements, and shareable moments in life.
The thing is, when we look at other people’s achievements and compare them to our own, we do it on unequal terms. We have no idea about what is actually behind these posts, and the sacrifice for the success.
Most of the time we do not get exposed to the insecureness that can rest in the person behind the post.

The worst part of it is we compare our inner to people’s outer. Meaning that our feelings, mind, and the state where we know everything, are compared to these carefully selected moments of success. And we do not only compare ourselves to 1 person, but to a lot. Often we are competing with the entire world. Getting overwhelmed by the bombardment of other people’s success can trigger a feeling of not feeling good enough.

Before the internet, you would know people in your town. Classmates, people from sports, etc. Each person had the opportunity to excel in a particular area. And most people were. Simply because the talent pool was smaller. Fewer people = smaller talent pool.
But that was OK. We were not exposed to not being good enough in the same way.
We didn’t compare ourselves to the entire world, just the people around us. There’s always someone in the world who excels more than we do, but within a single class or sports team, it’s not always the case.

There is no good reason to constantly compare yourself to others. Everyone is different. They have different backgrounds, skill sets, and minds, and thereby prerequisites to excel.
We need to compare ourselves today with ourselves last year instead. Make self-improvement the thing we measure.

Positive aspects of imposter syndrome

The imposter syndrome does have a few positive sides that are worth mentioning.

Imposter syndrome can frequently foster humility, which has its advantages, it prevents taking things for granted and promotes a mindset that doesn’t elevate oneself above others. This humility often leads to more compassionate and empathetic interactions, facilitating attentive listening skills.

Another advantage is that it can be a driver for progress, in a healthy way. It can drive individuals to continually improve and often this improvement can be a good antidote to the feeling.
I’ve seen cases both where it stalls individuals, but also the other extreme where it drives them to stress and anxiety because they are so focused on improvement that it is damaging.
Somewhere between those two lies a good and healthy driver that can fuel progress without sacrificing mental health.
The self-doubt itself is very common.

Conclusion

One way to spot a potential imposter syndrome can be to notice how they receive compliments. Sometimes those who find discomfort in a compliment or discard it can be victims of imposter syndrome.

Helping friends and colleagues tackle or deal with imposter syndrome can help them gain perspective and confidence in their abilities, ultimately leading to great personal and professional growth.
And simply a higher quality of life.

So, next time you sense insecureness in a friend or a colleague, PLEASE make sure to tell them that you think they are doing great! No one ever was convicted for being too nice to other people, nor did it ever give a bad result complimenting someone. In general, we should complement and elevate each other more.

I am by no means pretending that I hold the key to dealing with this, but I do think it is very important to learn how to deal with negative emotions.
Because how we deal with these emotions is certainly the key to success.

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Charli Bregnballe

Empathetic IT leader with a motivational and growth-focused mindset. Building exceptional teams and software through visionary leadership