Have you ever felt that you’re an amateur among experts? That you’re unqualified for a position you received? Do you ever feel tense when your coworkers watch you, but when no one criticizes your work or when someone actually compliments your work you feel they don’t know “the truth?” Do you often dismiss praise as luck, trickery, or circumstance? Do you feel that not knowing how to solve an issue is shameful?
You likely have impostor syndrome. And you’re among company.
What is Impostor Syndrome?
Impostor (or imposter) syndrome is the struggle to recognize one’s self as competent in their craft or field while viewing colleagues—likely with similar experience or education—as proficient. The term was coined by psychologists Suzanna Imes and Pauline Rose while studying insecurities in professional women. It is also known as “perceived fraudulence.”
Self-doubt can happen to anyone occasionally, but impostor syndrome is chronic self-doubt. And often there’s a pattern to why there are doubts, but not everyone with impostor syndrome will have that same pattern.
Studies on Impostor Syndrome
Despite a plethora of studies, there is no concrete factor—no sole origin. It can be a byproduct of certain personalities, mental health conditions, experiences from the sufferer’s childhood, none of these, or a combination. For some people it can even be the result of decades of inequity. Or they might feel like they were only hired to meet equality standards rather than for their merits. They may see that most of their coworkers don’t share part of their own identity and feel out of place, even if they have the skills for their job.
In 2020, a summit for professional women hosted by KPMG stated that 75% of the 750 women polled experienced impostor syndrome at some point in their careers. InnovateMR studied businesses of different sizes and received a response of 65% of professionals feeling symptoms of impostor syndrome. Some studies even noticed younger professionals more commonly felt impostor syndrome than older professionals. The concept of lacking experience heavily plays into how professional a younger worker may feel.
Are you worried you may be the only impostor in GameDevHQ’s program? You shouldn’t be. In our Professional Unity Developer Alliance page on Facebook, 76 of the recent 181 applicants (a bit above 40%) disclosed they felt they had impostor syndrome. And that number will likely grow as more applicants are reviewed.
The Five Categories of Impostor Syndrome Sufferers
There are five groups consisting of popular reasons why someone feels impostor syndrome: the perfectionist, the superhuman, the natural genius, the soloist, and the expert. It is important to remember anyone can have traits from multiple groups. See if any of these sound relatable to you:
- The Perfectionist – The perfectionist is unhealthily fixated on how something is executed. Any flaws in any part of the process are damning to them. In a supervising role, they may micromanage others.
- The Expert – The expert must know anything about their job practices and everything about their job practices. They can’t be uncertain of the answer to a question; they must have solutions. They may feel dread or stress at the thought of never knowing enough.
- The Soloist – The soloist cannot have help; help means they aren’t good enough. They believe that a professional can always perform on their own.
- The Natural Genius – The natural genius must understand something quickly and execute it at high quality in a short time window. Taking a while to understand something is embarrassing to them. They expect to have no issues on their first try.
- The Superhuman – The superhuman must have the same level of quality in different roles, whether multiple work roles, or roles in a mix of personal life and professional life. They might stay at work later than most coworkers to compensate for their insecurities. Vice President of Marketing and Communications at InnovativeMR Brittany Nichols confesses in her article that she “always made a habit of being the first through the door and the last to leave.”
If you read any of these reasons and thought “Oh, that hits close to home,” it’s okay. Those are popular categories because several people just like you have similar insecurities.
It’s Okay to Feel Like an Impostor
“I’m gonna tell you a secret about everyone else’s job: no one knows what they’re doing. Deep down everyone is just faking it until they figure it out.”
-April Ludgate-Dwyer, Parks and Recreation
A quote that brings me comfort when I think about going into a job and realizing I’m not as good as I should be—something that happens often—is from April Ludgate-Dwyer on Parks and Recreation. Husband Andy Dwyer confides to April one episode that he has no idea what he is doing at his job. She explains how she felt the same way and had to pretend she was competent until she really was. But interpreting this quote at face value is unhealthy. Thinking you are just “faking it” reinforces impostor syndrome. My take from this quote is not that people fake it until they are good, but that there’s a good chance someone was just as unsure of their talents when they reached whatever position I reach. It doesn’t cure my self-doubt, but reminding myself of that quote sometimes helps me think my peers will be empathetic and give constructive feedback.
And here’s a thought: if you feel you’ve fooled others, doesn’t that mean you were doing something right at that moment? Doesn’t that mean you actually do know what you are doing, at least at certain times? And if you’re “fooling” your coworkers nearly every workday, doesn’t that mean you consistently know what you’re doing? It’s hard to fool someone by not doing anything. Nor is it likely you would trick someone by doing something wrong. So couldn’t it be that you, being the trickster you feel you are, have enough talent to trick yourself into proving you’re genuinely a professional?
Also, there are times you should feel like an impostor. As a Unity developer, you are going to experience updates and new features all the time. You might have to study an updated list of commands. Perhaps the syntax changed as well and you are confused about what all needs to be included. Maybe Unity split what was once one menu into multiple after adding new settings for each section. Being familiar with an older version of Unity only to work for a company using an updated version (or, more likely, being familiar with an updated version and working for a company using an older version) will always result in some confusion. You can be an expert and still learn something new on the job.
Pushing Through It For Both You and Others
Impostor syndrome isn’t something to ignore. Those suffering from it create intense pressure to do better to the point they will do worse, reaffirming their doubts. Fear and guilt can drain anyone. The resulting burnout harms productivity and quality for everyone.
It can also place someone in a never-ending loop of wanting to rise higher and being too scared to try. I have ignored many, many years of applying to positions because I always feel that my work is too shoddy. I panic at the thought of stepping into a salary position and being fired because I shouldn’t have been hired in the first place. I’ve ruined several portfolio pieces by getting so burned out I just stumbled through the last steps on an art piece to finally be done with it. It’s difficult to tell when doubts are rational or irrational, so just recognizing the symptoms won’t fix you, me, or anyone else with impostor syndrome. But it is a good start.
On an NPR podcast, host Diana Opong and Suzanne Imes (yes, the same one that helped coin the term) refer to trauma therapist Aundi Kolber’s advice: naming reality–acknowledging difficulties hindering us and others–helps us get through it. Until you can come to terms that your doubts are impostor syndrome, you’ll be stuck thinking you are incapable of improvement. Imes suggests making a list with three columns: things you are not very good at doing, things you are pretty good at doing, and things you are very good at doing. This helps us remember that having opportunities to develop in one area does not mean we are failing in others. She also recommends reminding ourselves that if we did okay before, we can again. Like I wrote, if you feel you are tricking colleagues each work day, it means you are actually doing your job well. And if you have done your job well several times before, you can do your job well several times in the future.
We need to normalize feeling like a fraud and discuss it more in the workplace. Adjust what you believe makes yourself “competent.” The bar is usually too high. Encourage and engage in constructive criticism when appropriate. Share stories about not understanding something when a coworker is embarrassed for not understanding something. Remind yourself that your doubts come from a place of caring. If you are concerned about your work, it means you want to succeed–that you aren’t content being mediocre. A real impostor doesn’t care about that, but you do.