Imposter Syndrome – My Experience + Sucking the Venom Out

So, something quite insane and personally significant happened this past week.

The week before had been a very difficult week in which I was up till 3 AM multiple nights working on things. At the same time I was dealing with the stress of selling our house and possibly being “homeless” because we didn’t know if timing would be on our side in terms of the move. The tipper was my wife. I’ll tell you one thing, nothing is worse than your wife being mad that you aren’t spending the time to be healthy, or time to take care of the family, because you’re up at 3 AM working. I love my wife. She is without a doubt the best thing that has ever happened to me, so know that putting her in this light is to paint a better picture of the issues that I’m working through.

My last post was on the Amanda Blevins talk at the VMUG Usercon in DFW. In it, one of the things that peaked my interest was when she talked about “Impostor Syndrome.” Either because I was distracted (or because I had 3 hours of sleep) I didn’t look into it or think about it anymore after that.  I do remember she talked about it as an issue in mental health, but I didn’t get what it was, or why/how it would impact my life.

Well the next week, a friend invited to take me to lunch. I had just screwed up and caused an outage for a product. There was a vendor in town, so I thought he wanted me to be part of a group. Over salads, we discussed how we both had been dealing with a lot of stress at home and at work, and how I felt as though I was not able to keep up as much as I wanted to, and many things were weighing on me. “You have impostor Syndrome!” my friend told me. “If you don’t know what it is, look it up.” It was the mention again of “Impostor syndrome” that stuck with me. I left lunch, and on a whim looked up impostor syndrome, and I have that thing to a T.

Impostor Syndrome

I’m pulling a lot of the next part of this blog from information from this: article

“I must not fail”

This thought is really easy for us to get into our head. I think for me failure is a constant, not something that happens now and again. Another engineer and I refer to our automation testing as “Incremental Assessments”. We both appreciate this as it helps us fail fast and learn what we missed. Once the testing shows good it’s then moved into a more production workload.

I always loved learning through trial and error, but lately that became difficult to the point of depressing. It morphed into “Every failure wasn’t learning, it was me failing.” This paired with the normal “Don’t screw up” voice that goes through everyone’s head during a normal workday became a crippling fear. For me this is the hardest to shake. I mean we all fear our own failure, even more, we fear that failure on a public stage where our peers, managers, and senior leadership are aware of said failure.

Remember this is an internal problem. Your own psyche is in a box of your brain, and it may have no bearing on actual reality. For me, people would tell me when I fail, “It doesn’t matter,” or “We know now something we didn’t before.” but it did matter; I still messed up and it rang in my head. How do we get out of our own heads? To combat this, we must listen, and believe. There are people out there that genuinely want you to succeed and grow. If you don’t know these people in your job, find them in your community. The vCommunity is great at this. We all fail, its part of our job. Accepting this and moving on is integral to our career. It may not help as much hearing things from outside of work, and I get that, but you need to hear it and believe it.

“I feel like a fake”

This is so true. I have stated several times I’m not a great automation engineer, I just find what other people have done and adjust to fit our environment. Its what I do best. If I had to start from scratch I’m not sure I’d get far. That’s my mental dialogue. It shows that this has been embedded in me for longer than even I’ve known.

The whole point here is not HOW I did the job, project, etc but that *I* DID it. Of course, others can use this to tear you down or make you feel little, just like any other kind of bullying. This negative feedback doesn’t mean you can’t do it, just that others might be able do it better. I don’t know who out there is the best of the best period, but understanding, and being honest with yourself, and your abilities and contributions is key here.

Remember YOU did the work that was necessary. YOU made the solution work. YOU took what was out there and made it fit the need of the company. Its not about HOW you did it, but that YOU did it, that’s what matters to combat that inner voice. When you feel like a ‘fake’, you feel like you don’t deserve what you have, but, remember you didn’t manipulate things to become that way, and it is not ‘just luck’. I’m blessed to be at a job that continually states they want me there, and are happy I am working there. A lot of people out there don’t have that, and I feel for them. This can be really hard when others don’t believe in you. Believe me, I’ve been there. If that’s you, reach out. Don’t let that negative inner voice win. It is not the truth.

“Success is no big deal”,“It’s all down to luck”

This comes from the previous point, Its about your inner voice downplaying the high points. Removing success as the goal is pretty horrid in my opinion. I know a guy or two that have done the bare minimum and found amazing success, and are they bad engineers? NO! They did exactly what the company needed and made things work for the company. What else were they suppose to do?

“It’s all down to luck”. This is something I’ve really never felt. I’ve always had a bigger issue with being a “fake” in my career. They seem to go hand in hand, but I’ve never felt that luck is what got me to where I am. I understand some may believe this. That somehow they stumbled upon things that “allowed” them to be successful. Unless that thing you stumbled on was a big sack of money, I doubt you stumbled on success. YOU got there.

End Notes

I am religious man. I believe there is more out there than what we see. If you’re not, that’s fine, believe what you need to be believe. BUT believe something, and it’s okay believe in yourself. In my college we discussed the “Worldview” of each person. This was basically created by asking the question, “how you see the world affects everything.” this naturally flows right into the question of “how do you see yourself?” Both are equally important when dealing with impostor Syndrome. Thinking through both can help you combat it.

I think that’s what this all boils down to. Belief. Amanda Blevins had an amazing talk on creating and using your brand, but the majority was based on knowing what keeps you happy and healthy in your career. Again, her mention of impostor syndrome initially put it on my ‘radar’. I summed up her talk as “Be Healthy, Be Happy” because it’s all about taking care of yourself. As Amanda put it, “It’s like the oxygen masks on an airplane, If you don’t put yours on first, you’re not going to be much help to those around you.”

You have to take care of yourself, and the first step is acknowledging you have a problem. I had to have a CIO scream it in my face (well not really scream, but he was loud and visibly worried). Don’t let it get to that point. I really want this to be something to create awareness. Life is more than work, eat, sleep, repeat. Work is more than success and failure. No one can live like that.

If you think you might have Impostor Syndrome, don’t wait, reach out immediately. It’s a warning sign of much worse things to come.

Here are some other points from the link above to help you mitigate the negative effects of Impostor Syndrome. Keep these in mind:

• Recognize impostor feelings when they emerge. Awareness is the first step to change, so ensure you track these thoughts: what they are, and when they emerge.

• Rewrite your mental programs. Instead of telling yourself they are going to find you out or that you don’t deserve success, remind yourself that it’s normal not to know everything and that you will find out more as you progress.

• Talk about your feelings. There may be others who feel like impostors too – it’s better to have an open dialogue rather than harbor negative thoughts alone

• Consider the context. Most people will have experience moments or occasions where they don’t feel 100% confident. There may be times when you feel out of your depth and self-doubt can be a normal reaction. If you catch yourself thinking that you are useless, re-frame it: “the fact that I feel useless right now does not mean that I really am.”

• Re-frame failure as a learning opportunity. Find out the lessons and use them constructively in future. This is a critical lesson for everyone.

• Be kind to yourself. Remember that you are entitled to make small mistakes occasionally and forgive yourself. Don’t forget to reward yourself for getting the big things right.

• Seek support. Everyone needs help: recognize that you can seek assistance and that you don’t have to do everything alone. This will give you a good reality check and help you talk things through.

• Visualize your success. Keep your eye on the outcome – completing the task or making the presentation, which will keep you focused and calm.

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