Programmer Imposter Syndrome: What It Is And How To Get Over It

Daniel Daines-Hutt
Daniel Daines-Hutt
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Do you ever get the feeling that you’re just not good enough? Like you’re a fraud and it’s only a matter of time until you get found out and lose your high-paying programming job?

Or maybe that any success you’ve had so far is just blind luck?

Well, you’re not alone in this. In fact, this question of feeling like you’re not good enough and how to get past it came up repeatedly in almost all of our recent Developer AMA's on the ZTM Campus.

It’s a terrible experience and anyone can suffer from this, but it’s increasingly common in professional roles - especially if you’re just starting out in a new industry but it's also common with people who've been in a role for a few years. In fact, there are specific reasons why programmers can keep feeling this way, which will become clear soon.

The good news is that in this article we’re not only going to explain these anxiety and imposter triggers and what they are, but we’ll also look at how they might be affecting you specifically.

Better still, we’re also going to give you some tips and tricks on how to get past this feeling of being an imposter so that it no longer has control over you.

Sounds good? Well, let’s dive in!...

What is imposter syndrome?

Sometimes known as the ‘imposter phenomenon’, ‘imposter experience’, or even ‘pluralistic ignorance’, Imposter Syndrome is a feeling that you’re unworthy of your current success.

You feel that somehow you’ve tricked everyone and it’s only a matter of time before everyone realizes and it all comes crashing down.

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The thing is, it’s all in your head. In fact, top performers in multiple fields also suffer from this in some shape or form. Even Albert Einstein thought he was undeserving of the level of praise for his work, while Tom Hanks can’t understand why he keeps getting hired!

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What is the cause of imposter syndrome?

You might think it’s because of a disease, a mental illness, depression, or even general anxiety, but the reality is that imposter syndrome is not explicitly tied to these.

Sure, these issues or mental states can be a trigger of imposter syndrome and vice versa, but the actual root cause of this fraud-like feeling is more likely to be based on your current situation, any large life changes, and how you function as a person. You can be perfectly happy in all other aspects of life and still feel like an imposter.

In fact, imposter syndrome is incredibly common across all races, gender, age, and occupations, although it is more frequently experienced by people who are highly accomplished. The reason for this is they will often look at their peers and their success and feel that their peers are more deserving than they are themselves.

“That person is doing such amazing work... I’m clearly faking it compared to them.”

The thing is, because so few people talk about this openly, you make the mistake of thinking that it’s only you who feels this way.

The reality is we all feel like imposters from time to time. The trick of course is both knowing this, and then learning how to deal with it so that it doesn't stop us from performing our best or limiting our careers.

The 5 archetypes in imposter syndrome and what causes them

So what triggers imposter syndrome?

Well the reality is, there’s a few different things that can cause it based on your personality, current situation and prior life experiences and how you use those to deal with stress.

We can bucket these into 5 groups or ‘archetypes’:

  • The Perfectionist
  • The SuperHuman
  • The Soloist
  • The Natural Genius, and
  • The Expert

Some people actually overlap between a few of these but let's break them down. The sooner you understand them and what’s causing these feelings, the quicker you can recognize the triggers and start moving past it…

The Perfectionist

Perfectionists are driven by the achievement of goals. They set a very high bar for themselves and others, and when it’s not met they suffer from self-doubts and fears.

This is especially common in high performing professionals who compare themselves to their peers, and their successes.

Common signs of a perfectionist are:

  • Micromanagement of tasks
  • Trouble handing off tasks or delegating, and when they do, they get frustrated if it’s not 100% perfect
  • Connecting their self worth to their ability to achieve goals
  • Slumps when goals are not hit
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The thing is, there is no perfect state. Even if it's achieved, it's over as soon as it's accomplished, and so living like this creates large highs and lows.

Olympic athletes struggle with this as they train their entire life for this one event, and even if they win, they get depressed after.

So how can we get past these archetype triggers?

  • Learning to love the process and not the end goal
  • Celebrating small wins and not holding off for the big ones only
  • Gratitude and analysis of where you are and where you were
  • Removing success from your self worth
  • Understanding that mistakes are the ONLY way to learn effectively
  • Being happy with 80% good enough

You don't need to know every answer or have the most polised project to get reach your goals...

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The SuperHuman/Martyr

The superhuman feels like a fraud among their peers. This causes them to put in more hours, longer days, weekends etc. Anything to help them feel like they are deserving of their success and mask their fears and insecurities.

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The thing is, this excess workload brings exhaustion and poor work quality, which then causes a lack of external activities, often sacrificing social interactions, hobbies and personal relationships.

This type of archetype is very often seen in people who have recently found success, and this happens a LOT in programming.

Why?

Well, what other industry can you go from being a waiter struggling to pay bills and learning to code on your days off, to getting a junior position with a 6 figure salary almost overnight?

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This life change is a huge shock to your system and you can feel like a fraud but know that you are good enough to be where you are right now!

So how can you get past this?

  • Again, learn to enjoy the process and not the end goal. You need to remove yourself from the endorphin high of completion
  • Recognize that you’ll actually be more efficient and complete things faster, when you rest and take time for yourself
  • Don’t work weekends unless it’s a life or death situation. The more rested you are the better you’ll be at noticing what's important and prioritizing. Focus on the 20% tasks that produce the 80% of results instead

The Soloist

The soloist tries to do everything on their own. In their mind, they feel that asking for help may seem like weakness, and they'll be seen as a fraud.

If you work in tech then chances are you may be slightly introverted and that’s totally fine. You have to understand though that asking for help is actually a sign of strength.

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It shows you’re willing to accept when you can’t do something right now, and that you’re willing to learn so that you can do it in the future.

Oftentimes this leads to you being far more confident and removing any self doubts about yourself. Communication is key for this archetype. Ask for help. Tell people you don’t know. Try to learn.

Sure, as programmers there's a lot of Google-Fu, but you can also lean on your peers and management.

How?

The key is to try and figure out a problem yourself first but to not "spin your wheels" for hours on the problem.

If you're stuck, start by asking a peer.

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If they aren't sure either, ask your boss by explaining what you've done so far to try and solve the problem on your own. Even better if you can outline a few potential solutions you've found but just need their help identifying the best one.

Trust me on this, your boss will appreciate the fact that you tried to solve the problem in multiple ways first but also didn't waste your whole day trying to be a Soloist hero (which is counter productive).

They’ll see this as a plus in your skillset. It’s far better to have an employee who accepts their flaws and keeps learning and working on them, then it is to have one who never learns or asks for help.

You’ll get tasks done faster and avoid burnout!

The Natural Genius

A combination of the soloist and perfectionist, the Natural Genius measures their self worth with the ease they can do something.

Often extremely talented or praised from an early age, these people pick up tasks easily. The problem being is that when things are hard, they suffer from self doubt, procrastination and self sabotage.

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So how can we get past this?

  • Understand that you will never know everything in your field. Tech changes so often and it’s a constant learning process. Learn to enjoy learning! Not only that, learn to learn more effectively
  • Focus on learning the right things and not everything. It’s one of our key goals here at ZTM, to teach you what you need to know to do 80% of your job. The rest you can pick up as you go. This is a key skill for all aspects of life
  • Realize that making slow progress is still progress. When something is feeling tough or like too big, break it down into smaller chunks (could be a task, project, topic you're learning)
  • Ask others for help!
  • Focus on the path to your goal. Don’t learn everything. Learn this one thing and then the next. Measure that progress
  • Embrace the difficulty and enjoy the challenge. You have to understand that learning by doing is one of the most valuable and effective ways to actually get good at something.
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Building your first project or learning a new skill on your own will be excruciating and feel like it's taking forever, but throughout that process you are learning so much... way more than any tutorial. And the feeling you'll get once it's done will be pure joy and make you want to try something just a little harder next time and then it snowballs from there.

This is how we structure courses at ZTM because we understand this. Our goal is to get you creating something as early as possible in your learning process, but it works for your own external projects too. You start building and go back to different tutorials and search google any time you get stuck... this is also training you for the real world because in the real world you aren't following along with a tutorial, you are "figuring it out"

You just have to make sure that you start and build and don't get stuck in 'tutorial hell!'.

The Expert

The Expert places their value on how much they know on a topic. If they don’t know something, they feel like they’re a fraud and so they’re constantly learning.

That’s not a bad thing as it can lead to more knowledge, but the expert will often avoid opportunities unless they meet or exceed all criteria, or procrastinate and never start something which is madness.

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Not only will you learn more by doing and learning what you need when it’s needed, but sometimes job offers will ask for 2 years of experience for languages that are 6 months old…

This archetype can actually lead to a lot of self doubt and then ironically, being dicks to people who know less or make a mistake.

This is another archetype that is common amongst people learning to code and anyone learning a new skill.

We see it all the time... They feel like they need to get to some perfect (or expert) level before they can actually get hired or even move on to the next topic.

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They try to memorize every piece of syntax and take 10 courses on the same language before they feel "good enough". This tends to just lead to taking 10 more courses, and so on.

So how can we get past this?

  • Realize you will never know everything, nor will you know the answer to every possible question in advance and that’s fine. Being able to learn what you need for now, add to it and adapt is a far better skill to have
  • Focusing on learning what you need to know when it's needed rather than all in advance
  • Teaching others can often help you learn faster and also help you see that it’s ok to make mistakes and not know everything
  • Understand that you have value. You deserve your current success regardless of how much you know, but for the value you create

Seeing this over time and experiencing this ourselves is a big reason Zero To Mastery courses and career paths are set up exactly in a way to help prevent this and snap people out of this mindset.

We teach you only what you need to know to get hired (or promoted) because the best learning comes from actually building things yourself and then working on a team at a real company.

It's not about knowing it all. It's about knowing the most important things to get you here, and then learn the most important things you need to know to take you to the next level.

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The rest you can pick up or find out on the way.

9 tips to help you deal with imposter syndrome and get through it

So now that you know the types of imposter syndrome and what the signals are, let’s look at 9 simple ways to work through them.

  1. Understand that imposter syndrome is an ongoing thing. It will never go away but you can learn to work through it. Everyone who is highly successful suffers from this at all stages of their career. Some just push through as if they know it never goes away. Others understand the causes.
  2. Figure out which ‘Imposter Archetype' you are and learn what triggers you as well as what your imposter signals are (i.e Are you working the weekend? Or beating yourself up because you think that somethings not perfect?). Noticing these signals early can help you stop the cycle now.
  3. Be sure to rest and recharge. Often exhaustion can be a trigger for anxiety which can lead to feelings of fraud and then us leaning into your specific imposter activities.
  4. Acknowledge your feelings of doubt or perfectionism but try to step outside of your thoughts and emotions. Are these things real or are they in your head? Are you sleeping ok? If you’re rested and you think there's an actual issue, then it's time to…
  5. Communicate with your peers and management. These feelings of doubt in your performance are more than likely in your head. Speaking to others to see that they also feel the same way will help with your confidence. Sharing your feelings with your management will help remove any doubts all together. In fact, they’ve probably felt the same thing, and knowing this, it can help you deal with it also. You’re far more likely to be praised and given positive feedback. And if there is an actual issue, you can resolve it and improve and not dwell on it.
  6. Allow others to help you. You don’t need to do everything yourself. Showing that you’re willing to learn and embracing this removes any hold it has over you.
  7. Stop comparing yourself to others. Everyone is different and we’re all good at different things. Your peers may be the fastest runners in the world but you’re still on the podium or in the arena! You earned where you are right now. You don’t need to be the absolute best to deserve your success.
  8. Keep track of your achievements and celebrate the small wins. Gratitude journaling helps to both remove anxiety while also helping you to see how far you’ve come already. Not sure of your success so far? A great way to realize how far you've come is to help others. If you're a member of ZTM then the best way to do this is to jump into our Discord community and help answer one person's question. You'll be amazed at what you know! This is an actual step that Andrei actually gets every ZTM student to complete when they're learning a new course, simply because it's that valuable and helpful for your growth.
  9. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Adopt a growth mindset and always be learning. Realize you can't know everything and use that as a yardstick. This is especially true in any tech field. Don’t assign your personal value to how much you know on a topic. Learn to value your ability to figure things out when needed instead!

Can we get rid of imposter syndrome permanently?

If we're being honest, it sucks but imposter syndrome never really goes away.

The key is to learn how to deal with it so you can remove that fear and doubt or better still, learn to harness it.

How?

Well, it may seem hard right now but if you can face your issues and doubts head on, you’ll soon see that the image in your head and the actual reality was either nothing at all, or much less important.

Do this often enough and you’ll start to see that fear as the sign that this is something important that you should get done. You can use it as a radar for those big opportunities that you might have said no to before!

Is it scary? Then do it!

And trust me on this. I don’t know your current situation but I have no doubt that you deserve the success you have right now and any future wins also. You got this buddy 😀

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