Loss of confidence and Imposter Syndrome

We all lose confidence in ourselves at some point in our lives, but for some it’s more common than others, and this can be greatly affected by our jobs. Many other Web Developers like myself will tell you that something called Impostor Syndrome is quite common in our profession and can lead to a loss of confidence and belief in ourselves.

So what is Impostor Syndrome? To steal from Wikipedia a second, ‘Impostor syndrome is a concept describing individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.’

Well that was needlessly over complicated, but the last part is the bit to focus on, it makes us feel like a fraud. You feel like you’ve somehow cheated your way through all your previous accomplishments and at any moment someone could come along and expose you for the world to see. This spirals as time goes on, as your confidence drops you have even less faith in your work and get more concerned about being exposed to your colleagues and the whole community.

Of course, it’s never as bad as you think, you are most likely very competent at your job, but it’s impossible to make yourself believe that at the time. The reason it is particularly common in the Web Development (and other programming jobs) is that coding isn’t visible most of the time, it’s behind the scenes, nobody ever see’s it, it just does it’s job. So there is no way for the client or Joe Blogs browsing the website to judge what kind of a job you’ve done apart from looking at the finished product, but therein lies the problem, the end result might look ok, but the coding behind it might be horrible, full of short-cuts, outdated code and bad practises. This inevitably leads to feelings of tension and fraud as you await the day someone more competent than you (which by this point feels like everyone) inspects your code and reveals your terrible secret.

If left unchecked Imposter Syndrome can cripple you’re ability to work and the loss of confidence can seep into other areas of your life as well. So how can you deal with it?

As with most mental health issues the answer isn’t simple and can vary from person to person, but the first thing I did was talk about it. My girlfriend is always very supportive of me and was happy to listen to my worries for hours, reassuring me where she could and discussing options. One of the first things I realised was that where I was working at the time was not helping, the atmosphere wasn’t positive and it was making the situation worse, so I moved jobs. Obviously this might not be the ideal option for everyone, if you are in a job you like but feel like something about it is compounding the issue, maybe talk to your manager and see if it can be changed.

The second thing I did was the most difficult to accept but also the most helpful, peer reviews. Whether it’s coding or any other piece of work, get one of your peers to review it and give you feedback. I’m not going to lie, if you’re at the height of your loss in confidence this is terrifying, but getting that feedback from others (which is always miles better than you imagine), can do the world of good. Then you have solid facts to work on rather than imagined fears. It’s even better if they can give you constructive criticism on how to improve, because then you know the rest of the work is fine and you know how to fix the problems there are, leading you to produce work next time than doesn’t have those problems and therefore isn’t giving you cause for concern. This process can take a little while, at first I felt like the reviewers were being overly nice to spare my feelings, but eventually it sinks in that you’re just not as bad as you think you are.

And the final thing I did sort of evolved from the second, I poured more effort into my hobby, writing. Writing is diametrically opposite to coding, your work is naked for the whole world to see and judge. There is no curtain to hide behind and any negative or (hopefully) constructive feedback you receive, you can deal with straight away, the fear doesn’t build up because you know you aren’t hiding anything. Obviously this solution is very personal to me, not everybody is going to enjoy writing, but I would suggest trying to find a hobby that is quite open and produces quick feedback. This could be anything from martial arts to painting, the choice is yours.

I’m in a position now where Imposter Syndrome doesn’t effect me day to day, but it could easily return if I didn’t keep an eye out for it. I would encourage anyone who feels like this to talk to someone about it, it doesn’t matter who it is, just tell someone how your feeling and from there you can step forward.