I am writing this after starting new job just last week that gave me the worst anxiety I’ve had since I first started working as a software engineer. To be clear, it had nothing to do with the job itself or how anyone treated me. In fact, I was pretty surprised to feel imposter syndrome at all because I’ve had a lot of different jobs in the past four years and have been pretty good at transitioning. Let me provide some context before I dig into what helped me overcome this syndrome.
In that first week the logical part of me knew that how I’m feeling is silly because I’ve proven myself many times and worked in multiple challenging environments. Still, the emotional part of me has not caught up yet. My first real coding job was at a startup that was growing rapidly but since then I’ve worked in more corporate environments where work was done at a slower pace and the stack was less than modern. That made my new environment seem more intimidating, which triggered feelings of insecurity. Of course, the other big cause of my imposter syndrome was my own lack of confidence, stemming from some negative experiences I had in the past.
In my first tech job I learned AngularJS, and there were plenty of other jobs available using that framework that I could apply for. Naturally, I did just that – and ended up with several years in a row of pure Angular experience. In retrospect, this was perhaps a more questionable decision, which I discuss in another blog post. Over the past few years I settled down into a role as a front end developer, leaning toward positions where I could find a creative coding niche. I had some interest in learning back-end or other areas of technology, but I was afraid of veering away from my strength (since I started out as a designer with a bachelor’s degree in visual arts, front end was easier than back end). What I didn’t know at the time was that front end developers and designers are sometimes looked down on by full stack and back end developers.
My non-traditional background combined with being a woman in tech were two of the reasons for my negative experiences in the past that led to my imposter syndrome. Often I felt like these things were counted against me the second I walked through the door. That is another reason why, for years I was applying for jobs with AngularJS. It felt like the safest and most secure path, because I knew that framework already and it was hard enough to prove myself without extra burdens. This is something I believe a lot of women and non-traditional programmers experience, and what holds many of us back.
Basically, we learn a technology stack when we enter the tech industry and stick to it because with every new job it already feels like we have an uphill battle to prove ourselves. Sometimes that means taking an extra coding test, because the hiring manager “just wants to be sure” you can handle it. Other times it might mean accepting a mid-level role when you applied for a senior one. Why add more stress and risk failure when it feels like the deck is already stacked against you? It is a big risk too, especially if you are the breadwinner in your family (as I was for three years while my husband was in law school). It also makes the new job imposter syndrome more intense.
A lot goes into the decision of accepting a new job, including the work environment, the coworkers, the location, and other factors. I think for underrepresented folks in tech we often feel the worst imposter syndrome when we are in a job that intimidates us, which sucks because that is also the kind of job where we grow the most. Even if we receive positive signals from our coworkers we might still feel insecure and insufficient. Maybe I decided to take the risk now because a subconscious part of me was aware that my husband was going to start working soon and therefore I could afford taking on a more intimidating job, because even if I failed I still had a financial safety net that didn’t exist before. All I can say for sure is that I’m here now, and that I’m glad I didn’t shy away from the challenge.
I want other women and underrepresented folks as well as nontraditional techies to also be willing to take on an intimidating job without fear, so I’m hoping I can offer some useful advice. One thing that has really helped me with imposter syndrome is reminding myself of everything that I have accomplished. It might seem cheesy, but making a master list of every cool thing you’ve ever done is a great confidence booster. I also think this is a great thing to do because while you can try to downplay your accomplishments, you can’t say you didn’t do the things that you did. These projects are completed, they’re in your portfolio, and they are part of your history.
Another useful thing you can try is a technique commonly used in cognitive behavioral therapy. Start by making a two-column chart. Then list all of your negative thoughts about yourself on the left-hand side. Specifically, the ones related to work. An example might be “my coworkers gave me a ton of negative feedback on my last code review so they probably think I’m an idiot.”
After you’ve listed your most negative thoughts, try to challenge them on the right-hand side. If you’re thinking “well they are all reasonable thoughts so I can’t challenge them,” then I suggest for you to take a look at a list of common thought distortions. In the one listed above, a thought distortion known as “mind reading” is being used. That is because in the example, the person is assuming that all of their coworkers think they are idiots. The problem with this line of thinking is that this person cannot possibly know what their coworkers are thinking, because that would be mind reading. So, that is something the person could write on the right-hand column.
One last thing that I recommend is searching “imposter syndrome” on Twitter. If you’re not on Twitter, I recommend getting an account, even if it’s just to follow other developers. It’s a quick and easy source for tech news, quick tips, and advice from experts. If you search “imposter syndrome” you will see that there are tons of people tweeting about imposter syndrome all the time and their experiences with it. Many of the people who experience imposter syndrome are accomplished and impressive professionals. They have no reason to feel the way they do. Hopefully that will help you see that imposter syndrome is not a reflection of who you are or how good you are at your job.
I know these are just three pieces of advice and there is much more I could say about this topic, but for now I am going to wrap up this post.. I do want to leave you with a book recommendation if you found the charting exercise helpful. It has many useful exercises and assessments, though it is more focused on anxiety and depression than specifically imposter syndrome. It’s called Feeling Good by David D Burns and its one of the best self-help books I’ve ever read. I hope you will feel less new job imposter syndrome after trying out some of these techniques.