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Processing my experience with Imposter Syndrome

Cindy Cai

That all too familiar feeling — the fear of everyone around you discovering your incompetence. The self-doubt at the front of your mind every hour of the workday. The shame that fills you every time you admit defeat. The certainty that you are in fact, a fraud.

With the drive towards diversity in STEM related fields, the term “Imposter Syndrome” has simultaneously made an emergence.

First identified in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, they concluded that while the phenomenon is widely experienced, women are much more likely and intensely affected by Impostor Syndrome.

This has steadily rung true in my own personal journey towards becoming a Software Developer. After a myriad of conversations with fellow female classmates musing over if we were ‘good enough’, I watched as they slowly dropped off throughout my studies until I could count the number of women in any given lecture hall on one hand.

While I was fortunate enough to be offered a full-time graduate job during my final year of studying, I had never attributed it to my own success. Just pure luck. (Or the need to hit a gender quota.) And when I started said job, that feeling ramped up and ran rampant. I felt the need to prove myself, and to prove to others that women could succeed in tech. I felt the need to fake what I knew to come across like I deserved to be there.
So I hid away — tucked myself in corners so no one could see my tests failing, avoided meeting new people to avoid conversations I knew nothing about, kept quiet during workshops when asked for questions…

If I become as invisible as possible, no one will realize that I don’t belong”, I thought. But it was clear that this wasn’t sustainable, and inevitably my walls of safety soon came crashing down.

My company is heavily invested in upskilling graduates. We spend months focusing on mastering a group of concepts and hold a review to present our knowledge to a group of developers. Given my determination to disguise what I did and didn’t know, we can probably guess the consequences.

“You seem like you really lack a lot of confidence in your knowledge”

That one stung deep, I’ll admit. They figured me out. They’ve all discovered that I really am a fraud. That I don’t belong here. That I was given this job by accident. I was devastated, but I also felt… relieved.

In retrospect, I was stuck in limbo before. I knew I needed serious improvement, but I was scared and unmotivated to do anything about it because I thought it was all in my head. “It’s just that pesky Imposter Syndrome I’d tell myself. Hiding what I didn’t know and not asking questions ultimately held me back from valuable lessons. Through that process, I believe that I was on the path to becoming an actual Imposter. Having someone else tell it to me launched me into action to get off that path.

Yes, I was terrified of being so exposed, but I was also able to finally push my ego aside. Everyone saw how much I didn’t know, so there was no value in hiding it anymore. I finally learnt how to say “I don’t know” and be at peace with that.

Your peers are your resources. Don’t be scared to ask for help.

Since opening up, I’ve come to discover just how willing to help everyone is. I’ve found you will learn so much more from making a mistake than never even having the courage to try. Mistakes create a feedback loop for knowledge to evolve and grow rapidly. I’ve accepted that failing does not equal failure.

A mentor of mine told me right away “Own your failures, don’t let them own you.”

I in turn took this to mean telling everyone who would listen how badly I fucked up that review. It was liberating.

In fact, if you told me a year ago I would be talking about my failures online, where everyone could see, I would have laughed in your face. Or cried at the thought. But through experience, I’ve come to learn that everyone has a story of failure to tell and insecurities they hide. The more it is talked about, the more failure is normalised, and the more others feel safe to share their experiences.

Everyone has areas of improvement that someone else is an expert in, but that means the opposite must be true too. There will always be room to exchange knowledge.

Beliefs also play a strong role in how we behave. Individuals with a growth mindset embrace challenges. They believe that failures are opportunities for growth. On the contrary, those with a fixed mindset believe their basic abilities, intelligence, and talents are just fixed traits. They avoid challenges in case they fail, viewing it as a flaw in their natural intelligence or talent.

I chose to become a software developer because there is always an opportunity for growth. Ironic, given how clearly I was stuck in a fixed mindset. The truth is, I never would have grown with that mentality.

I’ll admit, taking on challenges isn’t easy, nor is it particularly enjoyable most of the time. But you have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. This year, I aim to drive the conversation and break down the stigma surrounding failure amongst my peers. There will absolutely still be moments where anyone, at any stage in their life will feel like an imposter, but the important thing is to not let it control your actions and define you. You start becoming less of an imposter and more of you.

and you belong where you are because of your achievements.

This article was originally published here.