Countering Impostor Syndrome Culture

Mask CC-BY 2.0 Caitlin Regan

Impostor syndrome is the feeling like you’re a fake and that your success is due to luck, even though you’re a high-achiever. Impostor syndrome is more likely to occur in people from marginalized groups in tech.

Most articles and talks I’ve seen on impostor syndrome focus on changing the person who has impostor syndrome. But what if society is actually creating impostor syndrome? What if there were ways people could not trigger impostor syndrome?

I recently gave a talk at FOSDEM on how we can all counter impostor syndrome culture. The video is here and the slides are here. The rest of this article is the cliff notes version of the talk.

The Making of Impostors

Anyone can experience impostor syndrome. However, one of the things my talk touched upon is that people from marginalized groups in tech experience impostor syndrome very differently.

Why would a person from a group that’s underrepresented in tech feel impostor syndrome? Why would they feel like all their accomplishments are due to luck? It could be the push back they get when they brag about moving to a more senior role. Women in particular are socially trained not to brag about their accomplishments. Their fears are valid, as studies have shown women are punished when they ask for raises. People of color may face racism from white people who assume they’re a cleaning person rather than a programmer.

These messages tell people from marginalized groups that they don’t belong in tech. That they’re only here because of luck, or worse, because they’re the token minority hire. Privileged people make people from marginalized groups feel fake. They make them feel impostor syndrome.

The first part of cultural change to combat impostor syndrome needs to be for privileged people to confront their biases and internalized misogyny and racism. Confronting the bias in your hiring and promotion processes is crucial.

Supporting people with Impostor Syndrome

You’ll have to watch the video for the deep dive, but here’s some quick hacks for how you can support people with impostor syndrome:

  • Ask “What questions do you have?” People with impostor syndrome are afraid to ask questions because they might be judged for not knowing something. When people ask, “What questions do you have?” the default answer is, “No.” By changing the phrasing you normalize asking questions.
  • Praise effort, not static characteristics. Research shows praising someone for being “smart” causes them to derail when they face a tougher challenge or failure. If you praise the amount of effort people put into a task, they’re more likely to see a set back as a growth opportunity.
  • Use “I feel” or “I appreciate” when praising others. When someone tells me, “That was a great talk,” my impostor syndrome says, “No, it’s not. If only you knew how much I struggled with it…” However, if someone says, “I was inspired by your talk,” or “I felt excited by your talk,” they’re sharing how they feel. I can’t argue with how you felt about my work. Similarly, the phrase “I appreciate” is sharing a feeling of gratitude. Rephrasing praise may help others accept and internalize it. This is the first step towards dealing with impostor syndrome.

Those are some very simple ways that you can support people with impostor syndrome. However, privileged people can’t just focus on the easy changes. Everyone needs to confront their biases in order to stop creating impostor syndrome