A few years ago, we were sitting around trying to come up with Halloween costumes. My friend Alex asked me what I was most scared of. “That people will find out,” I said. He laughed, not unkindly, because he knows.
I have imposter syndrome.
It’s the feeling that I’m a fraud. The feeling that people around me think I’m pretty great, but that’s only because they don’t know the real me. The feeling that someday, they will find out, and on that day I will lose… something. Their respect. My job. Something important to me.
It hasn’t happened yet. But, y’know, maybe that’s only because I’m really good at hiding.
Evidence Doesn’t Matter
“But you seem successful,” you might say. “You’re a programmer with a job he enjoys and a family that he loves and good friends who laugh not-unkindly at him,” you continue. “Seems pretty good to me.”
But, see, the evidence doesn’t matter. No amount of evidence can convince my brain that I probably don’t get to keep these things, that maybe they’re only around because of some false face I’m really good at presenting.
Seriously, I know I’m not that good at presenting false faces. But I don’t… know it know it, if you know what I mean.
Your brain is very good at keeping you alive, but sometimes it gets stuck in weird states. While it’s scanning around, looking for threats, it can sometimes peek into the future a bit and provide some predictions. Maybe those predictions come true, maybe they don’t – but you’re probably alive today because of those predictions.
Of course, the thing congratulating itself on those predictions is the brain, so caveat brainiac.
That positive reinforcement loop of “oh-shit-danger-change-behavior-whew-still-alive” is powerful and hard to escape from and not to be underestimated. If you suspect you have an anxiety disorder, you probably know what I’m talking about.
“Boy, it sure would be nice to have a brain that doesn’t undermine me,” you might say.
Yup, I’d reply. That sure would be nice.
And that thing where you’re terrified to make mistakes?
And that other thing where you can’t let yourself feel successful?
And how it’s hard to just accept praise?
Why Am I Telling You This?
I’m telling you this because you might have it, too. You, too, might have a voice that warns you that the people whose opinion matters to you might find out and that would be the worse thing ever.
If evidence doesn’t matter then stop trying to use evidence to get rid of it. It won’t help. Your brain is too good discounting the evidence to keep you safe.
Opinions from friends or respected coworkers won’t matter either. “They’re probably just being nice to you,” the voice will whisper. “They don’t know the real you,” it’ll say. “Don’t talk about it too much, either, or they’ll find out!”
I’m not telling you not to listen to the voice, either. Not listening is a good way to make it yell louder and show up in strange places and start making unreasonable demands.
In my experience, it never stops talking.
Oh Great, What Should I Do?
Listen to that inner voice, and then let it walk away.
Remember to approach yourself with compassion and curiosity.
Recognize that your imposter syndrome probably propelled you and helped you in a lot of ways, made you strive to deeply understand things because you were so scared of making mistakes (even though of course it’s okay to make mistakes).
If any of this sounds like you, then trust that maybe you’re not the best judge of your own abilities. Find a trusted friend or advisor and listen to them when they talk to you, especially when they praise your abilities.
Be vulnerable. Talk about how you feel with people that make you feel safe.
Keep an ego file. No, I’m not joking. Keep a directory of screenshots or a page in Notion or something where every time someone pays you a big compliment you screenshot it or write it down and save it. And on bad days when that doubting voice inside your head is too big, open your ego file and bask. A good review from your manager? Ego file. A message from someone thanking you for helping them? Ego file. Don’t analyze, don’t deconstruct, just listen to what these people said to you and believe them.
I have not beat my imposter syndrome, but I see it, I’m watching for it, I know the sound of its voice. And I listen to it, let it have its say, then escort it off the stage of my mind to make room for other, better things.
I know this doesn’t sound like enough, but it works.