You’re Not an Imposter: Why engineers Suffer from Imposter Syndrome and How to Overcome It

From the Career Conversations Series with Jean, Founder of Exaltitude
December 13, 2022
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Do you ever feel like a fraud? Like you’re not qualified to do your job, and someone will find out sooner or later and fire you? If so, you’re not alone. Many engineers suffer from imposter syndrome, in which people doubt their abilities and feel like they are not good enough. Despite external validation from colleagues, friends, or even promotions and raises, those suffering from imposter syndrome may feel self-doubt, like they don’t deserve their accomplishments. Let’s discuss imposter syndrome–why engineers are more likely to experience it, and how to overcome it.

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How common is imposter syndrome for engineers?

According to the Glassdoor survey, 70% of tech professionals have experienced imposter syndrome in their careers. I used to be a part of the Women@ Facebook leadership committee, and imposter syndrome was one of the biggest topics that our members would bring up.

I used to think it was mainly an issue for high-achieving women, but it turns out men suffer from it too. In fact, a study by the American Psychological Association found that men actually experience imposter syndrome at higher rates than women in certain fields, including engineering.

Why do developers have imposter syndrome?

One reason could be that engineering is a highly competitive field. With constantly evolving technology, it isn't easy to keep up and always feel you’re on top of your game.

It could be partly because our industry has a culture of valuing rockstar programmers who seem to know everything, leading us to compare ourselves with others and feel inferior constantly.

Engineers who come from nontraditional backgrounds, haven't studied computer science, or have a college degree may also be more likely to suffer from imposter syndrome because they don't have the same credentials as their peers.

Frequent code reviews, tight project deadlines, and standups with your team can contribute to imposter syndrome for software engineers from all backgrounds, as we constantly prove and defend our work in a group setting.

Software engineering is also traditionally viewed as a “hard” field that requires innate intelligence. This stereotype can lead to perfectionism and the feeling that we must constantly prove our worth.

How is imposter syndrome holding us back?

Imposter syndrome can be detrimental to both our professional and personal well-being. It can make us doubt ourselves and second-guess our decisions, leading to insecurity and lack of confidence in our job.

It can also lead to burnout and mental health issues, as we put too much pressure on ourselves to perform to meet high expectations. Even the most confident person, a senior engineer, or an engineering manager, can have moments of imposter syndrome and feel inadequate. The idea that it is a personal flaw or weakness can also make us feel isolated and ashamed.

The challenges we face in the engineering industry are already tricky, and imposter syndrome only adds to the stress and overwhelm. We need to eventually learn to overcome these high job expectations and embrace our unique strengths and skills.

How can we overcome imposter syndrome as engineers?

Identify your triggers

Everyone has their own triggers for imposter syndrome. It can include code reviews, job interviews, or seeing others achieve things or go places. Journaling or talking to others can help you realize your triggers.

Once you identify what triggers your imposter syndrome, think about ways to address those triggers. Maybe it’s setting boundaries for checking social media or changing your inner dialogue to focus on progress instead of perfection.

Practice self-compassion

Give yourself credit for your hard work and achievements instead of dismissing them as luck. Remind yourself that everyone has self-doubt and it’s ok to make mistakes. Take a moment to breathe and concentrate on the present instead of spiraling into negative thoughts. Realizing imperfection is part of the learning process.

For example, before an important meeting or an interview, instead of thinking, “I’m not prepared enough. I’ll mess this up,” try to reframe it as “I’ve prepared and done my best, and that’s all I can do.” You can figure it out even if you don't have the correct answers.

Don't engage in negative self-talk or feelings; instead, speak kindly to yourself as you would to a friend or colleague.

Remember that perfection doesn’t exist

Unrealistic expectations can trigger imposter syndrome. No one is an expert in everything, so stop comparing yourself with others and their perceived level of skill or knowledge. Confidence comes from self-acceptance and understanding that it’s impossible to be perfect at everything.

Even the most successful people in our industry have moments of feeling like imposters. When I interview successful leaders in Tech for Exaltitude, one of the most common things people say is that they often feel like they don't know what they're doing, but they just keep going and learn along the way.

Focus on growth instead of success

Shift your mindset from “I have to prove myself” to “I am always learning and growing.” Focus on improving your skills rather than reaching perfection or success. Overcoming imposter syndrome is a journey that will happen overnight. Mistakes are learning opportunities, not failures.

For example, during a code review, if you receive feedback or criticism, try to view it as a way for growth and improvement instead of letting it make you doubt your abilities.

True success is when we push ourselves out of our comfort zone, make mistakes, and learn from them—open-mindedness to learning and growing sets successful engineers apart from those who let imposter syndrome hold them back.

Don’t compare yourself to others

Everyone has a unique journey and skill set. Comparing yourself to peers can trigger imposter syndrome and lead to feelings of inadequacy as a software engineer. Think of your own growth and success instead of comparing yourself to others. Remember that you are capable and capable of achieving your goals. Most people struggle with their own insecurities and self-doubts, even if they look successful on the outside.

As long as you work hard, seek feedback, and continue growing as an engineer, that’s all that matters. Trust yourself and your abilities, and don’t let imposter syndrome hold you back.

Seek external validation from a mentor or coach

Having someone to provide guidance and support can help you reframe your thoughts and see your strengths and accomplishments more positively.

Talking to a coach can help you remember we are capable and deserving of our success.

Our Exaltitude graduates say that having a place to ask questions and seek validation for their experience helped them gain more confidence and overcome their imposter syndrome.

Understand your strengths and weaknesses

Confidence stems from self-awareness. Take the time to assess your strengths and weaknesses honestly, then focus on building on your strengths and finding support for areas you may need help with. Your skills and talents are valuable and unique, so own them to boost your confidence. We can train our neural networks to pay attention to the positive instead of letting negative feelings take over our thoughts.

Celebrate your accomplishments

High achievers often dismiss their successes and fixate on things they could have done better. Make a conscious effort to acknowledge and celebrate your accomplishments, even the small ones. 

I personally struggle with this one myself, so I used to maintain a "brag journal" to track my successes and remind myself of my achievements.

Build a support network

Talk to your peers in your field or join a support group to share experiences and learn from each other. Remember that feeling like an imposter is common.

Many Exaltitude graduates say that the biggest benefit of our program is the strong community and support they gain from their peers. Surround yourself with people who believe in you and your abilities and will lift you during times of self-doubt.

If you’re looking for a supportive community and resources to help with imposter syndrome, check out Exaltitude's programs here:

A quick checklist in the moment of imposter syndrome

When you feel imposter syndrome creeping up:

- Take a deep breath and bring your attention to the present

- Remind yourself that everyone has their own unique skills and journey

- Focus on growth instead of perfection or success

- Remember that perfection doesn’t exist

- Shift your mindset to one of growth and learning

- Celebrate your accomplishments

- Seek external validation from a mentor or coach

- Build a support network

Many people in tech feel imposter syndrome in their careers, especially the high achievers, but remember that you are capable and deserving of your success. Keep growing, learning, and celebrating your accomplishments.

If you’re interested in more lessons on Imposter Syndrome follow Exaltitude on LinkedIn for upcoming Career Conversation workshops.

Read next:

3 Steps To Building Workplace Resilience” by Jean.

Exaltitude newsletter is packed with advice for navigating your engineering career journey successfully. Sign up to stay tuned!

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