A new solution for impostor syndrome

A new solution for impostor syndrome

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By now, unless you've been living in a cave with no Internet access for years and years, you've probably heard of impostor syndrome, an extreme sort of self-confidence problem suffered by some very smart people. You've probably also seen the notion that "everyone has it, really."

No, they don't. While a little self-doubt is a good thing, as it keeps you from getting too cocky about your own accomplishments, most people can, from time to time, effectively tell themselves "good job," and believe it. People who struggle with impostor syndrome just can't—and it's something I've struggled with my whole career.

For some, the causes may be partly environmental. Bosses who take credit for your work, coworkers who belittle you, and other toxic behaviors early in your career can compound the problem. These sorts of things tend to happen to women more than men, though men are not at all immune. The good news is that, just as a strongly negative work or home environment can contribute to impostor syndrome, a better environment can contribute to the cure. Here's my story.

One day away from fired, for twenty-five years

I've always had trouble internalizing my own accomplishments. Even when other people raved about my work, or a presentation I'd given, or anything, I just did not have the mechanism in me that would let me believe them. Along the way, I achieved substantial successes and recognition, but to me, it all felt like a fraud. It is somewhat stereotypical to say that I was pretty sure that as soon as my boss found out what I fraud I was, I'd be sacked, but that's the life I lived for many weary years. The truth is, I still do, some days.

Outside of my software development work, I've received awards and approbations for many things, including public speaking, training and lately, writing. When I started writing for Opensource.com, I was more than a little surprised when our editors and the community manager kept wanting me to write more. Many days, I still am. It kind of seems like a dream, and like one of these days I'll wake up and none of this happened—yet here we are. Writing for this site has given me opportunities to meet amazing new people, get exposure for my own writing and advocacy work, and so much more.

"Good enough?" I guess so—I'm still at it. Does all this sound familiar?

Is there a cure? Well, maybe.

A search with your favorite engine will give you lots of articles with "cures," and ways to "overcome" impostor syndrome. For me, none of those things ever worked, even in the smallest way. I just wasn't buying it; the wall was too tall, and too thick, and I just couldn't gain ground on the problem. But then I discovered something really strange at work...

I make no secret of the fact that my teammates at work are people that I trust implicitly. We're using Scrum, so I have a team (nine of us, now) with whom I spend almost all of my working hours. For a long time, I was the only woman on the team, and as a transgender woman, I have concerns for my safety everywhere I go. My teammates know this, and have made it clear by word and action that they care, and are watching over me when we venture out for lunches, team gatherings, company parties, conferences, and other events. I do not exaggerate when I say, "I trust them with my life."

Which sets up a little bit of cognitive dissonance. I trust these eight people with my life, yet I do not trust them to tell me when I've done a good job? How is that possible?

Truth is, it's really not, at least not for long. I've begun to find a crack in that wall of self-doubt, and for the first time in my adult life am starting to feel like maybe I do know what I'm doing. It's a lovely feeling, one that many people take for granted!

It was an "ah-HAH!" moment. None of the articles I've ever found talk about trust in that way, and so none of them had suggested that as a way out of the trap of the doubts that I'd lived with for so long. More and more, I'm feeling more confident about my work, my writing, my advocacy, and my other accomplishments. It's not that I'm getting more praise for those things; I'm not. It's that, at long last, I can believe them.

"Great story, but what about me?"

My solution may be an edge case, but there is a principle here to be had, and a question you can ask yourself: Whom do you trust?

When the chips are down, if your world fell completely apart, whom would you trust to watch over you? Whom is the person you'd like at your side if it came down to a battle? Who's "watching your six" when you go down the dark alleyways of your life?

You trust them with your life—but can you trust them to praise you?

That person or group of people, in my opinion, may hold the key to the path out of impostor syndrome. I've got a long way to go, for it is not an overnight solution. After all, I've had this problem since at least one of my teammates was a toddler. It's not going to fade away quickly. But it's working for me. Try it for yourself, and see if it helps.

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About the author

Ruth Holloway - Ruth Holloway has been a system administrator and software developer for a long, long time, getting her professional start on a VAX 11/780, way back when. She spent a lot of her career (so far) serving the technology needs of libraries, and has been a contributor since 2008 to the Koha open source library automation suite.cvRuth is currently a Perl Developer at cPanel in Houston. You can find out more about Ruth's passions and career at her site....