published on 23 December 2013

Denise Paolucci is a self-taught programmer who works at Dreamwidth Studios. She's been talking about a cultural trend nearly everyone experiences, but few want to talk about: impostor syndrome.

According to Paolucci, "Impostor syndrome is that feeling that you don't know what you're doing, that you're not as competent as everyone around you, and that at any minute everyone around you is going to figure out that you're faking and and expose you as a fraud."

When you're suffering from impostor syndrome, you convince yourself that you're the only person who feels that way, so it's spread through a vicious cycle of silence. Denise is trying to change that by providing a forum to discuss the issue, and to help people understand they're not the only ones experiencing impostor syndrome.

What Are Some Common Impostor Syndrome Thoughts?

Denise said about three-quarters of the room raised their hands to say that they've experienced one of these common impostor syndrome thoughts:

  • "I'm a failure"
  • "I'll never understand this."
  • "Everyone around me is picking up this technology faster than I am."

Denise says that the more people talk about impostor syndrome in public, in person, and within the context of a safe group, then the more people will want to discuss it, and learn how to cope with it. It's part of demystifying the taboo around how people experience impostor syndrome, and the impact that it has on a culture -- like making it impossible for you to take pride in your work or to admit that you don't know something.

Tips for Dealing With Impostor Syndrome

Denise provided some great guidance for how to deal with impostor syndrome:

  • First off, be willing to talk about the issue with others and check in with your friends to get more perspective.
  • Watch yourself for self-deprecating language that minimizes what you're saying or devalues your contributions, and don't try to dismiss compliments. List out your accomplishments and really own them.
  • Politely make quick corrections in other people's language when you hear some of these symptoms of impostor syndrome.
  • Be willing to ask questions early and often.

How Managers and Leaders Can Help

Impostor syndrome is really difficult to change if there's not leadership and buy-in from the top. If you work with a management culture that doesn't accept failure, then it can create an environment where people try to cover up or ignore their mistakes and breeds a culture of only having overly confident people or people who are really good at faking it.

Denise suggests that you talk to your managers, show them the evidence, and encourage them to do the following things:

  • Be willing to help other people out and don't be dismissive of questions, especially if you're in a position of power.
  • Be willing to make mistakes publicly, and don't make a big deal when people ask for help or admit defeat.
  • Be sure to highlight the accomplishments of people on your team, especially if they put a lot of effort into it.
  • Don't assume that everyone knows something. Be sure to document everything.

For even more, be sure to check out her deck:

Let us know if you've experienced impostor syndrome, and how you dealt with it.

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