"Should We Even Be Here?": Three Perspectives on Imposter Syndrome
How a designer, writer, and developer deal with the ever-present fear that we are, in fact, frauds.
First off, let us introduce ourselves.
Angela (left) is a User Experience Designer at Viget. Although she started her career as a visual designer, she ended up pursuing her interest in UX, becoming an apprentice at Viget before getting hired on full-time.
Elyse (middle) is a copywriter. She joined Viget as an intern a month after graduation, completed the apprenticeship program, and then simply refused to leave.
Ola (right) is a Front-End Developer. Following careers in development and research and graduating from a coding bootcamp, she joined Viget as an apprentice and now codes full-time.
The three of us work in different disciplines, and come from very different backgrounds. But we have two things in common: we're new to our jobs, and we've all experienced imposter syndrome — that is, the persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud. Through our conversations, we've made a discovery. Imposter syndrome impacts just about everyone...but not everyone knows that. Why? Because self-doubt is not a thing you broadcast to the world at large, especially when you're just starting out. And when nobody talks about it, we just assume that we're the only ones who occasionally wonder what on earth we're doing here.
So, do we have all the answers to dealing with imposter syndrome? No. But we are going to talk about it. This article is meant to mimic the conversations we've had over the past few months — usually after work, and often with snacks. Sorry we couldn't include the snacks.
What does imposter syndrome look like for you?
There’s a pretty good article about the different kinds of imposter syndrome. I closely identify with “The Expert.” As the expert, I feel like while I’m hoarding information, I still haven’t learned enough. I balance my anxiety of not knowing everything with acknowledging the fact that not knowing everything at this point is okay. I can always ask for help.
Based on the same article, I fall into the “Superwoman” category. I tend to work twice as hard and twice as long as everyone around me, because I’m convinced I’m only half as good as they are. I think it has something to do with my background — or rather, the lack thereof. It can take a while to stop identifying as a recent college grad. My box of crisp, perfectly-weighted business cards declares that I, Elyse Kamibayashi, am employed in a full-time capacity as a copywriter. I'm a professional. But sometimes I forget. Sometimes I still think of myself as a student, and then I think that everyone sees me as a student, and then I think: "If I'm a student, and everyone thinks I'm a student, what am I doing here?" See how this goes?
I relate most to the “Natural Genius” imposter. I want and demand my work to meet a very high standard — one sometimes others express as unrealistic. If it takes me longer than I anticipate to deliver on a goal, especially after so much effort, I start questioning my abilities. Suppose I start the day off on a roll, knockin’ out a batch of tickets here, applying a freshly learned approach there. All good so far. A seemingly benign problem pops up. Now, hours later, I am mortified. I feel hopelessly stuck. I’ve analyzed every suspicious folder, file, and line in the project, exhausted all possible variations of a Google search, experimented with suggestions from the 15+ open browser tabs, and slacked a developer for a hint. Frustration - consciously kept at bay - finally makes its way and drapes over me. I followed all the steps, and yet I am still “failing." My fears are now confirmed: the problem is me.
Can you remember the first time you felt it?
Oh, I’m pretty sure it was going to my first design Meetup. I was still in the Urban Agriculture field, but I was increasingly curious about design. I started helping farmers and non-profits build their websites. I remember walking into a design Meetup and just feeling like such an outsider. It was a tough feeling to shake. Speakers would talk and I would just sit there wondering what language they were speaking. I didn’t feel like I belonged at all. It took a really long time to shake that feeling even after getting hired here.
Before my first copywriting internship, I made the mistake of googling all of the other interns in my cohort. At that point, I was just getting into copywriting and knew very little, beyond what I had gleaned from binging Mad Men. After tracking down every intern's LinkedIn profile and portfolio site, I remember telling my family that there must’ve been some mistake — that the acceptance email was probably meant for another Elyse. One with a portfolio. And experience. I spent a large part of the internship agonizing over the fact that I wasn't nearly as qualified as everyone else...instead of appreciating the fact that I had been given a great opportunity.
It was the second week into my bootcamp program. Needing guidance, I hopped onto my program’s online office hours with a mentor. A student ahead in the help queue was screen-sharing his first capstone project and kept using words I didn't recognize, like “API”, “jQuery”, “parameters”, etc . To make it worse, an alarming number of colorful $ signs and special characters kept appearing as the student scrolled and confidently talked his way through his code. In that moment, I became very aware of how much I didn’t know and how much I needed to learn to “transform” into a proper developer, never mind that it was - my second week coding… ever.
Has the way you experience imposter syndrome changed over time?
Yes, very much so. I feel like the more I learn, the more comfortable I am in the community. It’s almost as if I’m slowly learning a language and understanding more of what is being said around me. I finally have a voice. Instead of feeling like I’m not good enough for the job, I’ve switched to feeling like I should be working hard to get better.
It does get easier. I’ve gained confidence (and a portfolio), and I’m slowly learning how to stop comparing myself to other people. That’s all the pre-internship research was, anyway. I was trying to see how I would stack up against the other interns, in the hopes that I could bolster my confidence by feeling like I was their equal. Bad decision. Confidence by comparison never works out the way you want it to.
By shadowing and pairing with other developers, I’ve come to understand that roadblocks are just a part of programming. I’ve accepted this is part of the ever-evolving role and it’s what drives development to be such an excitingly innovative field.
What helps you deal with imposter syndrome?
With imposter syndrome, it’s important to have cheerleaders advocating for you. A scary amount of my friends also have imposter syndrome. Fortunately, we do not see each other through the imposter syndrome lens and truly see the best in each other. We empathize when we feel low, and we congratulate each other when we have wins. It makes imposter syndrome easier to deal with when you have an army behind you fighting it.
I usually retreat to the safety of my headphones. Do something that gets you out of your head — anything to stop the spiral of despair. Maybe that means talking to someone, browsing the interwebs for inspiration, or going for a quick walk.
I recognize the imposter blanket once the toxic thoughts start to creep. If I’ve reached this point, I’ve likely been staring at my screen for a few hours. First order of business is to pause and step away to recharge with a change of scenery. This gives me an opportunity to reflect, retrace my steps, and plan my next ones. I also keep an open line of communication with my supervisor and mentors. I’ve found these relationships help me keep perspective and erase traces of imposter paranoia.
What’s one helpful thing a mentor has told you?
“Everyone feels this way at first.” It made me realize that hey, I’m learning and growing. I should reframe it in a positive manner. Feeling good about yourself is not a bad thing! Living with constant anxiety is more of a detriment to your health and learning than it is a helpful nudge.
“It’s not all about you.” Okay, the two people who said that never actually said it explicitly. It was suggested much more gently and kindly by encouraging me to focus on what actually matters. They helped me remember that wallowing in imposter syndrome doesn’t just hurt me. It hurts team-members. It hurts the work — work that I love, that I’ve wanted to do for years, and that I am actually capable of doing.
“Don’t compare yourself to *insert developer with years of experience here*.” Honestly, I have learned so much by witnessing experienced developers work. Seeing them face the same issues, accept the blockers, and troubleshoot their challenges has been more powerful than any words.
What can companies do to mitigate imposter syndrome in less experienced hires?
One thing Viget does well is create a safe space to talk. There is openness here that I really respect. Creating a safe work environment helps mitigate imposter syndrome because it provides an area to vocalize insecurities. I’ve been in spaces that have made it hard to vocalize insecurities and problems. It causes a lot of miscommunication and problems that could have easily been fixed in a safer space.
Give us the space to succeed...and to fail. That means giving us the opportunity to do work that challenges us. Don’t see our failures as proof that we’re still inexperienced — see it as proof that we’re willing to do whatever it takes to grow, including taking risks and getting it wrong.
And to all you senior folks (our managers, mentors, or more experienced team-members) we want to learn from you. We’re probably taking notes on everything you say. But sometimes we need you to stop talking and give us the chance to test out our ideas. Let us fill the silence — let us try to carry the conversation, or start a new one. We’ll admire you even more if we know you can listen as well as you can teach.
Viget’s culture is based on a learn-and-share approach, which has been invaluable to me. They encourage the team to ask questions, try new things out, and share findings - both good and bad. This judgement-free environment, where you are aware of what everyone is doing and learning in real time, helps defog the perception that everyone else is just innately born with these impressive skills.
Is it okay to feel like a fraud? Yes. It's completely natural, and you're not the only one. Imposter syndrome is only really problematic when it starts to drain the joy from our jobs — when it distracts us from the fun of solving difficult problems with people we admire. That's when we have to stop designing, stop writing, stop coding, and straighten out our priorities. It's when we remind ourselves that, at the end of the day, we wouldn't care so much about being frauds if we didn't care so much about our work. We want to be good at our jobs because we love what we do — and that is a terrifying and wonderful gift.