Types of Imposter Syndrome
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“I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.'” ~ Maya Angelou
Imposter syndrome was first identified by Doctors Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in a paper in 1978. At first they thought it only affected women but further research indicates it affects people no matter their gender. It is a feeling of inadequacy, a sense that you are not qualified or talented enough to do your job. In many cases it’s a feeling that you can’t live up to the expectations of a job because you are a fraud.
In her book “The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Imposter Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It” Dr. Valerie Young breaks down Imposter Syndrome into five subtypes to better address the different ways it affects people. These types are based on research by Dr. Young into the internal rules people create for themselves when dealing with fraudulent feelings of inadequacy. Most people who struggle with Impostor Syndrome will be able to identify with one of these types.
The perfectionist sets very high standards for themselves and if they don’t meet them feels like a failure. The expert feels like they should know every little thing before being competent. A person who is naturally gifted will feel inadequate if they struggle to learn or do something. The soloist feel that they have to do everything on their own, they are a fraud for asking for help. Finally the superhuman will push themselves harder than their coworkers to prove they are not an imposter.
Imposter Syndrome hits us all at some point in our education or career. Typically this happens when we’ve just moved up, started a new job or gotten into a new school, however it can occur at any point. When it hits it affects each of us differently and may even affect you differently the different times it surfaces. These types are guides to help understand how Imposter Syndrome is affecting you or others. Use them to identify behaviors that may be due to an underlying Imposter Syndrome that you can address and overcome.
Understanding Imposter Syndrome
What is Imposter Syndrome?
Generally it’s a crippling feeling that you are a fraud and in imminent danger of being found out. For the majority of developers this is part of the journey. It’s also a phase that repeats itself over time.Imposter Syndrome is officially defined as feelings of inadequacy relating to professional endeavors even though experience and knowledge are proficient for the task.
The really nasty thing about imposter syndrome is that the smarter you are, the longer it takes to hit you. It tends to hit you harder when it shows up later in your education or career. In general, it occurs at the inevitable plateau in learning happens while you are sludging away to the next learning spike.
Symptoms of Imposter Syndrome.
A sense that success is impossible and that past successes and hard work were only due to luck.
The idea that you are incompetent even though you consistently demonstrate competency.
A fear of not meeting expectations of others or being uncomfortable with receiving praise or congratulations.
Being disappointed with your accomplishments and under pressure to do better the next time.
When do developers get Imposter Syndrome?
The majority of the time someone suffers from Imposter Syndrome occurs right after they’ve gotten a promotion. They usually have to take on new responsibilities and feel they are not good enough or won’t be able to find a mentor. Junior developers, just starting out, may fear that they do not know enough about coding or the business to be useful. They are concerned they will break an existing codebase or that they don’t know where to put their focus when working on a larger project.
When moving up to mid-level, developers may be worried they will not get as much mentoring or support. They fear being overwhelmed by the amount of work or that they are moving up in their career too fast. Senior developers worry that they are no longer the learner, and don’t know enough to be an expert. They are afraid to ask questions or appear unknowledgeable.
The Five Types Of Imposter Syndrome
Strong and independent, the soloist accomplishes their tasks without the assistance of anyone else. They believe they can get everything done on their own without help from others. The Soloists views themselves as a failure if they need assistance to perform a task. They have a lot of trouble asking for help with anything, even something they are not good at doing.
They derive their value or sense of self worth from their independence and autonomy. Asking for any type of assistance is tantamount to admitting they are not good enough. If they are not careful, the Soloist will reach a point where they will stop learning or taking on difficult tasks. They will reach a point in their careers where they cannot go any further without guidance, but not being able to ask for it will cause them to regress. Unfortunately, failure at higher levels doesn’t drive them to seek assistance, instead it drives them to feel inadequate and to hide behind lesser tasks.
Being independent is not a bad thing, but to overcome the Soloist Imposter Syndrome you must realize there is no shame in asking for help when you need it. When faced with a difficult problem, seek advice from a lead or co-worker with more experience.
The Expert is an extremely knowledgeable person who doesn’t feel they are good enough no matter how much information they gather. They believe that before taking any action they must know everything about a situation. When the Expert doesn’t know an answer or have detailed knowledge of a topic they feel less experienced than their colleagues. No matter how much they learn or know about a topic they will feel unprepared.
The self worth of the Expert is wrapped up in their knowledge base, how much they know about a variety of topics. Because they measure competence on what and how much they know, the Expert fears others finding out that they don’t know something. If not careful this can lead the Expert to miss growth opportunities because they either feel they already know the topic or that they don’t know enough to be of use and learn. They may even lose out on potential jobs because they don’t feel they have enough experience for the role. Within the job they can derail a project because of analysis paralysis, complaining they don’t have enough information to make an informed decision.
To overcome Expert Imposter Syndrome, begin with practicing just-in-time learning on small or side projects. Rather than hording knowledge, begin to mentor junior developers or volunteering at a code school.
Possessing the most common form of imposter syndrome, perfectionists sets almost impossible standards for themselves. They always strives to be their very best, no matter what the costs. They will burn themselves out striving for excellence. Perfectionists feel a sense of inadequacy when they cannot accomplish everything or learn every skill. They tend to be very task oriented and when they can’t check off every task they begin to feel they are an imposter.
If not careful the Perfectionist can become a control freak or micromanager. They start to take on the attitude that if they want it done correctly they will have to do it themselves. On the other hand, their insecurities can prevent them from even starting a project until the “perfect time” or cause them to delay working on something until they “know” they will get it right. Even small setbacks engender feelings of incompetence and self doubt. They do not see mistakes as learning opportunities, they see them as evidence that they are an imposter so they avoid, minimize, and even hide mistakes. The perfectionist struggles to feel accomplished even when they are successful. They are never satisfied with their existing success because they think they could have done it better.
To overcome imposter syndrome the Perfectionist must learn to celebrate their accomplishments and find contentment in a job well done. Mistakes are a way of learning and becoming better, you won’t truly understand something until you’ve messed up a few times.
The Natural Genius
The Natural Genius places their identity and self worth in their ability to quickly pick up a new skill. They don’t like anything that challenges their sense of genius or the idea that they can learn anything with ease. Natural Geniuses feel insecure if it takes too long to pick up a new skill. They will see themselves as an imposter if they are unable to acquire new skills or learn new technologies immediately.
The Natural Genius sets extremely high expectations then judges themselves based on getting it right the first time. They feel like an imposter if things don’t come easily and they have to exert any effort. This may lead to defensiveness or frustration at the training material, blaming them for not teaching correctly. If not careful they will quit when learning gets too tough. They run the risk of becoming “Hello World” experts, only knowing the basics but nothing deeper.
For the Natural Genius to overcome their imposter syndrome they need to see themselves as a work in progress. Many things worth doing take time to learn and involve making mistakes and failing along the way.
The Super Human
The Super is a person whose sense of inadequacy causes them to work harder than anyone else developing a certain type of work addiction. They work harder than everyone else around them to prove to themselves and others that they are worthy. The Super Human Imposter is addicted to the validation that comes from overwork, not the actual work itself. That validation that comes from working harder than anyone else gives them a reprieve from their insecurities about being a fraud.
They tend to set very high expectations of themselves in order to measure up to those around them, then they work extra hard to meet those expectation. Expectations can take the form of family tasks, work obligations, and even volunteerism. They have a strong need to do it all or else be considered a phony. If not careful, this need to succeed in everything will quickly lead to burnout. This will in turn affect not only their ability to perform creating a self fulfilling prophesy but also their mental and physical health.
To overcome this type of imposter syndrome, train yourself to get validation internally and not rely on external validation for a job well done. This will build up your confidence in your own abilities and help you become able to accept constructive criticism and feedback.
Tricks of the Trade
Imposter syndrome is a signal.