Healthy Self-Doubt

Let’s talk about Impostor Syndrome.

At some point in my software engineering/leadership career, it became evident that I was expected to have Impostor Syndrome. Indeed, it became clear that all underrepresented people in tech were expected to have Impostor Syndrome. I noticed this mostly in groups of women where especially the younger women would talk about “my Impostor Syndrome” as one would talk about “my arteries” or something else we just expect people to have.

I have a problem with this, and I’ll explain why. But first, a bit of context. I’ve been a woman in tech since the Dotcom Boom of the late ’90s. Throughout my career, I have been the only woman a lot: in meetings, on a whole floor of the office, in a codebase, on conference calls, at team lunches, you name it. As a Manager, then Director, and then VP of Engineering, I stood out even more. I’m currently the CTO of a startup, and a very small percentage of these roles are held by women. Despite that, I don’t have Impostor Syndrome. I’m confident that I bring a lot of qualifications to my job.

What I do have is what I like to think of as healthy self-doubt. There are plenty of gaps in my knowledge, but I’m confident that I can ask the right questions, figure out the solutions to problems, and understand what I need to learn. I’m confident that I can have gaps in my skillset because I can build awesome teams and rely on others to meet common goals. Where I can’t hire, I can learn. I don’t need to know everything or be everything to be successful. Does that mean I’ve never failed? Heck no! I’ve failed a bunch! So have all the people around me, regardless of demographics.

Healthy self-doubt is an important tool. It pushes me forward and keeps me from complacency. There’s no “resting on your laurels” in software careers. Success requires continued growth, evolution, and learning. Healthy self-doubt helps me know where to focus my efforts, it helps me prioritize. It helps me figure out when I’m in over my head so I can acknowledge that and then do something about it.

Impostor Syndrome, on the other hand, is really rough. I can only imagine what it must be like to worry that you’ll be uncovered as a fraud at any moment. If this is you, please know that I’m not trying to invalidate that in any way.

However, I believe that much of what we classify as Impostor Syndrome is actually healthy self-doubt and I would love for us to distinguish between the two. The danger with calling everything Impostor Syndrome is that it reinforces otherness. The word “impostor” reinforces the message that you do not belong here.

My point is this: if we expect everybody who is a little bit different to think of themselves as an impostor, we’ve totally lost the plot on this whole inclusion thing. Let’s add the notion of healthy self-doubt to the conversation so that we can distinguish between that which propels us forward and that which holds us back.

19 replies on “Healthy Self-Doubt”

The whole thing with impostor syndrome is that the sufferer (sometimes me) is *not* an imposter and *does* belong. So it certainly shouldn’t be taken to mean anyone is an actual imposter!

The difference from self-doubt, for me, is the fear. Self-doubt I may worry I got something wromg or fret about how to fix it. Impostor syndrome boughts are marked (for me) by fears about having my carreer come crashing down.

I suppose if someone has never felt impostor syndrome and has no friends who talk about theirs, maybe they could confuse the two. But once you’ve really seen it I think they’re pretty clearly distinguishable.

Also, anecdotally, I have not found the incidence higher in underrepresented groups. Priviledge is actually a nice breeding ground for impostersyndrome because you *have* been given advantages you don’t deserve, and so feeling you don’t deserve your position isn’t a huge leap.

> Also, anecdotally, I have not found the incidence higher in underrepresented groups. Privilege is actually a nice breeding ground for imposter syndrome because you *have* been given advantages you don’t deserve, and so feeling you don’t deserve your position isn’t a huge leap.

I’d like to add, as a person with a physical disability, that such feelings can also stem from policies and practices designed to support unprivileged or less privileged people, such as quotas and affirmative action. I have occasionally found myself wondering if I’d be in my position if I’d have no physical disability.

Thanks for your comment. I agree that impostor syndrome can affect anybody. What I was trying to get to in my original post is the *expectation* that under-represented groups will suffer from it (whether or not they actually do).

The most pernicious aspect of what I refer to as “Imposter Syndrome” in myself is that every success drives a deeper depression and paralyzing fear that I’ll never be able to follow it up with another success, because “next time” everyone will FINALLY realize that I’m a giant fraud who’s just been fooling everyone for 25 years now into thinking I’m somehow competent. I stay in deeply unhealthy employment scenarios long past the point where it’s obvious that the employer has no respect for me or my contributions, because applying for a job somewhere else means facing the reality that the next company will be able to actually see through the facade. It leads to other really unhealthy things, such as an inability to engage in healthy relationships with my spouse and children, because the belief that I’m a fundamentally unworthy person prevents me from being able to respect myself, so why would anyone else respect me – deep down inside, I know I’m lying to everyone, and every career success only makes me more sad, angry, and scared.

It has taken a lot of work to even be able to admit to myself that what I’m suffering from is a mental disorder, rather than just reality. My brain convinces me that I’m lying to everyone, all the time, about who I really am simply because I managed to actually find the solution to a problem no one else saw.

I know nerdygirl’s point was “If this is you, please know that I’m not trying to invalidate that in any way;” I only stopped to offer my experience to be a counterpoint to say “If these things are you, consider the possibility that what you’re experiencing is a disorder, and go get some help before anything more terrible comes of it.”

Priviledge is actually a nice breeding ground for impostersyndrome because you *have* been given advantages you don’t deserve, and so feeling you don’t deserve your position isn’t a huge leap.

Very well said!

I am a 52-year old straight white male, and I have, at numerous times in my career as a programmer, had the feeling that I didn’t really know what was going on, or how to do what needed doing, and fear of that being discovered. Over time, I learned to ignore that feeling and just proceed studying the problem, and eventually my subconscious would do whatever re-knitting of neurons it needed to do, to allow me to come to grips with learning the whatever-it-was. This got easier over time because my rational self could tell those feelings, “you’ve been a professional programmer for X years, of course you’re not an imposter”.

However, it occurs to me that these (normal) feelings of self-doubt will be much more likely to turn into Imposter Syndrome if you don’t have faith that others (e.g. your boss and peers) will forgive you for not knowing everything, and give you time and help in figuring it all out. I could easily imagine that this would be easier to count on, if you are from a similar demographic to those bosses and peers.

So, I hypothesize that the best antidote to healthy self-doubt turning into Imposter Syndrome, is to let people know that it is expected that they will struggle sometimes, and they need to feel willing to struggle for a while, and also to ask for help in understanding. Which, having a CTO talk about having self-doubt would definitely help with.

I’m not sure impostor syndrome is a gendered issue and I am disappointed to see it characterized like this.

Hi there! I agree that is concerning. My intent was not to characterize impostor syndrome as a gendered issue, but to point out that there seems to be an expectation that under-represented people in tech will have impostor syndrome. My lens on this as a woman is somewhat unavoidable.

Yes, I agree that the self-doubt part of imposter syndrome is usually something you actually want. I’ve found that the difference between healthy self-doubt and imposter syndrome is the reaction to that self-doubt.

In imposter syndrome, I interpret that self-doubt as evidence of personal ignorance relative to other people: it’s something I should’ve known, so it is evidence that I am incompetent. Then, if I’m incompetent, how did I manage to get hired? It must have been a mistake. Uh oh, I need this job to pay the bills, better make sure that no one figures it out. I had better avoid asking questions so no one figures out how ignorant I actually am.

In healthy self-doubt, I realise that it would be impossible for me to know everything, and interpret self-doubt and confusion as an opportunity to learn something new and useful. And that sometimes even the union of all the things that everyone on my team knows is not enough to answer my question! I interpret it as me bumping up against the absolute ignorance of me and my team. Instead of seeing self-doubt as an indicator of personal competence, I see it as an indicator of growth: if I’m not doubting myself often enough it probably means I’m doing something that is too easy for me, and that I should be doing something harder. I am reminded of this article about what doing a PhD is like:

Actually, now that I’ve typed this up, I think imposter syndrome is the fixed mindset, and healthy self-doubt is the growth mindset. In my eyes, imposter syndrome is the natural outcome of the transition from being assessed on a fixed knowledge set that you’ve learned in class relative to the other students in that class, to being assessed based on how you work cooperatively with others against collective ignorance.

I like your thinking about fixed mindset and growth mindset, that resonates with me. Of course, as tml points out, there may also be something deeper going on psychologically that gets wrapped up into feelings of being an impostor.

I’m glad that while you have healthy self-doubt, as do I, you don’t suffer from Impostor Syndrome, also as do I. But why don’t you explicitly come out and say it? As you indicate, not having Impostor Syndrome is as legitimate as having it. And good for you that you don’t.

I enjoyed this post and the comments! I just thought I’d add that I notice a lot of younger people- like 40s and under- who habitually throw around self-deprecating labels when describing themselves without giving much thought to the idea that these labels describe actual diagnoses! I am guilty of it myself and I hear my kids and their friends doing it too. What I term my “hypochondria” is actually probably an average amount of medical anxiety. My kids talk about their anxiety or their ADHD (neither of which are actual diagnoses they’ve received). Maybe it comes from a desire to commiserate or just a lack of self esteem, or maybe even a desire to normalize real challenges that historically have gone unnamed -but it does seem like something that is far-reaching in our current society. I can see Imposter Syndrome being the “buzzword” people use instead of “healthy self doubt” because it packs more of a punch in the race to outdo one another’s mental challenges that some people engage in. The psychological lingo “hits different,” as the kids say.

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