Overcoming Imposter Syndrome: How to Deal with Feelings of Inadequacy as a Developer

By: Fullstack Staff

Do you struggle with feelings of self doubt? Do you feel like an imposter at work—or like you don’t deserve credit for your achievements? If there’s a nagging voice at the back of your mind whispering, “You aren’t good enough,” guess what? You’re not alone.

That unrelenting uncertainty about your skills as a developer is called imposter syndrome or imposter phenomenon, and around 70 percent of people suffer from it at some point in their lives, writes Time reporter Abigail Abrams. Originally defined in the 1970s by clinical psychologists Dr. Suzanne Imes and Dr. Pauline Rose Clance, imposter syndrome is pretty well-known these days across all industries, and tech is no exception. In fact, a tech industry-focused 2018 study by Blind found that almost 58 percent of developers suffer from imposter syndrome.

The feelings of inadequacy associated with imposter syndrome are a distortion of reality, not a product of actual poor performance, and in fact are most likely to arise in high achievers and perfectionists—especially when they come from underrepresented communities. In the tech world specifically, that means women and people of color are those most plagued by the sense that they don’t belong in their job or that landing their job wasn’t a product of the value they offer, but simply a fluke.

The good news is that imposter syndrome is completely treatable. It will take work, but you can ultimately change the way you think—building feelings of worth, belonging, and competence. By understanding why many of us feel like imposters—and what can be done to cope—you can kick those nagging doubts and become your best programmer self.

What Is Imposter Syndrome, and Why Do People Experience It?

Holly Hutchins, an associate professor of human resource development at the University of Houston, says imposter syndrome is the experience of feeling like an intellectual fraud because of an “inability to internalize professional success.”

Typically, Hutchins says, people who experience imposter syndrome tend not to take credit for success—attributing it to things like luck or teamwork—yet are quick to blame themselves for failures. This can lead them to avoid any situation in which they could be evaluated, like a review, a promotion, or even just an opportunity to take on a new project. It can also cause people to overwork themselves in an effort to make up for perceived failings.

Programmers are particularly at risk for imposter phenomenon because learning to program is so difficult, which makes it easy to compare yourself to others—who might be further along in their journeys, or maybe learn faster than you, or are already more accomplished—and judge yourself to be falling short, says Buffer CTO Sunil Sadasivan.

There is a “literal learning curve to programming,” and it can take ages to reach the inflection point at which everything clicks, Sadasivan says. Different people hit this point at different times, and it’s during that interim period when self-doubt can start to fester. That gap, however long it is, can make even the brightest and most gifted people feel like they are falling behind and will never be good enough.

How Imposter Syndrome Derails Even Successful Programmers

Imposter syndrome doesn’t discriminate; it doesn’t care how high on the ladder you ascend. Legendary Mozilla programmer David Walsh still believes he is an imposter—even to this day. The industry is a huge part of the problem, says Walsh. He points out that as a web developer, you are competing with anyone with a laptop, anywhere in the world. Your efficiency as a programmer is measurable, too; you can see how much better someone else’s solution is. To make matters worse, programming languages, frameworks, and APIs can become redundant overnight, so you have to keep up with trends, or risk seeming out of touch and less valuable as an employee.

UI developer Caryn Farvour notes that high achievers tend to experience imposter syndrome more often and more acutely. It doesn’t matter how much objective data there is to prove that someone deserves their position and success—deep down, that person can still believe themself to be a fraud. That’s exactly why, in the case of coding bootcamps, someone might be accepted to a competitive coding bootcamp, excel in the program, and even land a great job, but still not feel “good enough.”

Ironically, imposter syndrome is most likely to strike right at the point when you achieve success, says developer Keri Savoca. She describes imposter syndrome as a “defense mechanism”—albeit a misguided one that ultimately hurts us—that kicks in because we are averse to giving ourselves credit for our achievements, even though we’d likely praise someone else for achieving the exact same thing. Those who experience imposter syndrome are very quick to be hard on themselves, yet would never treat others the same way. So how can you unlearn these negative thought patterns and start giving yourself the benefit of the doubt?

Women looking disappointedly at a laptop – concept representing Imposter Syndrome

How to Cope With Imposter Syndrome

As mentioned above, there are ways to minimize your imposter syndrome—but they aren’t quick fixes. Here are some practices you can adopt and some habits you can shift to counter your feelings of self doubt.

Build a Support Network

The worst thing you can do when you have imposter syndrome is to keep it a secret, says Julie Zhuo, VP of product design at Facebook. For years, Zhuo says she tried to “fake it until she made it” while denying herself the opportunity to receive support and advice from people she trusted and cared about. “What I’ve learned is that the more honestly you can admit [your own particular worries], the more willing others are to help. So tell your best friend about how you felt like an imposter at work today.”

But don’t stop there. Start connecting with others who feel similarly. That might include colleagues, fellow bootcamp students, or even strangers in online communities. Take the story of Faith H. Wallace, who had been a college professor before she began a career in programming. When she first started learning to code, Wallace says she felt like giving up. That’s when she turned to a friend—someone with 10-plus years of industry experience—for mentorship.

Even better? Turns out mentorship is especially powerful when it’s reciprocated. So, when Wallace’s programming mentor needed help with writing, Wallace was able to tap into her own 10 years of experience as a professor to return the favor. “It’s been a few years now, and neither of us needs the type of mentoring we thought we would need, but both of us are highly successful, and I believe it is because we treat each other like equals,” she writes.

You can even take this idea to the next level—by finding someone else whom you yourself can mentor in programming. It might sound counterintuitive for someone who isn’t confident in their own abilities to offer mentorship to someone else, but teaching someone else is actually a great way to combat your own imposter syndrome, says bootcamp grad Garrett Levine. By mentoring someone who is just beginning their coding journey, you can see just how far you yourself have come, even if you’ve only been at it a relatively short amount of time, or are a recent bootcamp grad. The benefits flow both ways: You give back to the community and in return get perspective on just how much you’ve learned.

Be OK With Not Knowing Everything

As a junior developer just out of coding bootcamp, there will be lots of things you don’t know. And while that might be intimidating, it’s important to remember that it’s not a reflection of you; most everyone feels that way in their first job and it’s simply a function of being new to a particular industry and a particular company. Keep in mind, too, that your colleagues are not expecting you to know everything. They remember what it was like to be new and will hopefully be supportive of you in your first few months. At the very least, what they will expect is for you to be honest and transparent about any gaps in your understanding, so they can help you grow and track your progress—and in your job search, you’ll want to look for a company where you’ll feel psychologically safe to admit those gaps.

Tobias van Schneider, founder of Semplice, claims, “There is nothing more liberating than calling yourself out or admitting you don’t know how to do something.” As he sees it, “Then your dirty secret isn’t a secret anymore. You’ve been found out, and that makes you free.” In a perfect world, he’d be right, and for many white men, admitting you don’t know something is likely to result in an offer of help or advice. That, in turn, fills in your knowledge gaps, which can help you feel more on top of your work and diminish your imposter syndrome even further. It’s a virtuous cycle.

For women and people of color, however, the risk of admitting ignorance or failure is far greater. As this article indicates, women are often more adversely affected by their mistakes than men, and the same behavior that is praised in white men as a sign of humility and personal growth might undermine the credibility of women and individuals of color. That disparity is rooted in underlying societal biases against women and people of color. Underrepresented groups regularly find themselves battling the assumption of incompetence, a framework in which any “flaw” can be taken as confirmation of that incompetence. White men, on the other hand, are systematically understood to be competent and must exhibit repeated, blatant incompetence before experiencing negative consequences.

So how can women and people of color safely ask questions and grow without jeopardizing their standing or job prospects? The answer is psychological safety. In order to take risks—like asking questions—employees need to feel that they are inherently valued and trusted and won’t be negatively affected by any of their good-faith efforts to grow or contribute. Women and individuals of color in particular should look for supportive environments where others like them feel they have been able to learn and grow. Need to ask a question? Ask another woman or person of color and build bonds of trust there until you feel you can deal with the emotional labor that may come with asking a white male member of your team.

New developers are especially hesitant to ask questions when they don’t understand something, says web developer Travis Rodgers. No one—regardless of race or gender—likes to feel dumb or give the impression they don’t understand what’s going on, especially if they already feel like an imposter, but this fear of course only perpetuates imposter syndrome in the total inverse of a virtuous cycle. Rodgers urges developers to ask any questions they have, no matter how dumb they sound in your head. “I guarantee you will not only learn and grow faster as a developer, but there will be a huge burden lifted from your shoulders.”

While not strictly true for women and people of color—the risk of asking questions, as we mentioned, is an emotional minefield that can weigh more heavily than the imposter syndrome itself—it’s absolutely important to find ways to learn and grow. And software engineer Lily Chen did exactly that. She resolved she would never pretend to know more than she did when working with her team. That didn’t make it easier to ask questions, however. “Every time I wanted to ask a question or needed help understanding something but find myself hesitating for fear of appearing less than perfectly knowledgeable, I’d take a deep breath. No matter how dumb the question might sound to me, I’d ask anyway.” Chen was lucky enough to work in a supportive environment, such that her questions were met with understanding and direct help from her peers, empowering Chen to build applications she never thought possible.

Imposter syndrome isn’t the same for everyone, and it’s important to recognize systemic obstacles that make it harder for some to overcome their self-doubts. But the people for whom imposter syndrome is hardest to overcome are the people who most need coping strategies, so what can each of us do on our own that doesn’t require risk or help from others?

Celebrate Your Wins

It is important that self-taught developers, in particular, learn to celebrate their successes, says Arrie Pieterse. As a self-taught developer himself, Pieterse became self-critical to the point that it hindered his growth. Taking responsibility is good, he says, but if you’re going to take responsibility for your failures you also need to take responsibility for your wins.

One way to track your successes, recommended by developer Sihui Huang, is to make note of all the times you’ve gotten stuck on a problem and eventually solved it. In a notebook or Google Doc, record the problem and how you went about solving it. Do this every time you overcome an obstacle. That way, when you’re feeling stuck or experiencing self-doubt, you can revisit your list and you’ll be reminded of all the problem-solving you’ve done and are capable of, which can help you to see: Hey, if I’ve managed to do all these things, I can do this new thing, too. Make this a practice, and though it might not seem like it at first, over time you’ll begin to internalize your successes instead of just your failures (or even just perceived failures).

Back-end engineer Shubheksha Jalan has her own version of this exercise: She writes down every single tangible professional win she’s ever achieved. Those wins include solving specific problems, as well as getting a scholarship, speaking at a conference, starting a new job, and shipping a software project. This strategy has helped her immeasurably throughout her career. When you’re feeling like an imposter, your brain won’t be able to recall these events quickly enough, so it’s helpful to have them written down somewhere as proof to yourself.

Woman standing looking at a laptop – concept representing Imposter Syndrome

It’s Not About Curing. It’s About Coping.

While some sufferers are able to banish imposter syndrome forever, most are not—and setting an unrealistic goal for your personal growth is only going to feed into your imposter syndrome and make matters worse. Before even implementing the strategies above, work to come to terms with the fact that you may never stop feeling this way to a degree (though it will likely lessen over time as you do begin to implement these recommendations).

The best advice we can give you is to remember that your actions speak louder than the voice of doubt (which is why a catalogue of your successes can be so valuable) and that sharing whatever the voice in your head is telling you with others who know what imposter syndrome feels like can validate your experience and help to quiet the voice. Imposter phenomenon doesn’t have to stop you from becoming the best developer you can be.

Case in point: Even after graduating from Fullstack Academy’s Grace Hopper Program, securing a job at a tech startup, and being able to program a web app back to front, Stella Chung says she still suffers from the occasional bout of imposter syndrome. She’s come to recognize, however, that the feeling is not rational or a result of actual shortcomings on her part, an understanding that’s been the key to loosening the phenomenon’s grip on her. And her moments of self-doubt really have come fewer and farther between with each new project.

And look at it this way: Feeling the tug of imposter syndrome doesn’t have to be all bad. Fullstack alum Shawn Wang thinks feeling like an imposter can be a good thing. Feeling like an imposter often signifies that you’ve launched yourself into the unknown, and since most of us want to live a life full of new challenges and adventures, imposter syndrome can be evidence of success in that regard. While that doesn’t mitigate the destructive power of self-doubt and certainly doesn’t mean you don’t need strategies to help you cope, it can be a way of changing your perspective. After all, if you’ve accepted that you may have always these feelings to an extent, reframing them as evidence of your own bravery might ultimately even help to minimize those feelings even more.

Always remember that virtually everyone who has ever achieved anything has experienced imposter syndrome. In fact, it would be weird if you didn’t feel it, says writer Ayodeji Awosika. “You know who doesn’t have impostor syndrome? Counterfeit innovators, con-men, hucksters, and hacks. Psychopaths don’t have it. People who are doing work they’re super over-qualified for don’t have it. Wildly overconfident people to the point of delusion don’t have it.”

In other words, not the kind of people you want to be.

The truth is imposter syndrome is part and parcel of becoming a great developer. With practice, you’ll learn to take these feelings in stride as you continue to grow and succeed in your programming career.

Want to find an educational environment where teachers, students, and administrators alike understand the experience of imposter syndrome and discuss it openly? Explore the Grace Hopper Program, our all-women’s coding bootcamp where women (cis and trans, as well as non-binary folks) don’t pay full tuition till they receive a full-time offer in their field.

Images by: Annie Spratt, Steinar Engeland, Brooke Cagle

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