Crushing the Impostor Syndrome

Hey friends. You look really good today. Nice shirt.

So, the other day, someone I work with (a genius, I might add) told me that they didn’t actually know anything about their job. I laughed it off and said they knew so much more than I did, they didn’t need to worry at all. Then they laughed at what I said, and said that I knew more than them!

What the heck.

They are lying.

Or are they?

This is a phenomenon called the Impostor Syndrome. You achieve things, you do assignments, and you go through school and work, hoping that nobody will realize that you have no idea what you’re doing. You say, “oh, I got lucky on that one,” or, “someone helped me along with that one,” or, “what I did really wasn’t that big of a deal.”

Have you ever thought that?
If not, good for you. Stop reading this and go enjoy your summer.
If so, welcome to the rest of the world.

Impostor syndrome is a real thing. Search for it all over the internet and you’ll find papers upon studies upon books upon articles of countless people going through the same thing.

“I have written eleven 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

Sometimes in classes and at work, I feel like I’m the only one who’s struggling. I’m the only one who’s not sleeping at night and spending countless hours on a single assignment or paper or program. Everyone else seems to just get it. It’s like I’m lying to everyone that I belong at that level, including myself. When I try to confide this in others, they just say, “don’t be silly, you’re great at this.” And all I can think is, “Crap, I’ve fooled them too.”

“The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania and a complete feeling of: ‘I’m a fraud! Oh God, they’re on to me! I’m a fraud!’ So you just try to ride the egomania when it comes and enjoy it, and then slide through the idea of fraud.” – Tina Fey

Students don’t just feel this. Everyone encounters this at some points. But why? Why do we feel like this? Dr. Valerie Young says that, “The thing about ‘impostors’ is they have unsustainably high standards for everything they do. The thinking here is, If I don’t know everything, then I know nothing. If it’s not absolutely perfect, it’s woefully deficient. If I’m not operating at the top of my game 24/7, then I’m incompetent.”

“You think, ‘Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie? And I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?’” – Meryl Streep

One day a couple of months ago at my internship, I wrote this fairly simple application for my team that would make one of their projects run more smoothly. When I showed it to them, I was terrified that they’d just be like, “that’s nice, Cassidy,” then go on with their work. But then a miracle happened. They were impressed. They asked how I did it. They asked if I’d talk at a lunch about the language and algorithm I used. I’m not saying this to brag. I’m saying this out of pure shock.

I came to a realization that can be explained by the following. I assumed that everyone around me was a super genius programmer, because they seemed like it. But in fact, everything I knew was not in their repertoire. I could teach them as they were teaching me. What?!?


So, how do you destroy the Impostor Syndrome? Here’s a few tips.

  • Be confident. Don’t just wait until you feel confident to act like it. Admit when you don’t know something, and be authentic and accept that you don’t need to know everything.
  • Communicate and seek encouragement. It sounds like silly advice. But sometimes, you need a pep talk. When you’re feeling down about yourself, tell a parent, a teacher, or a close friend. Be willing to accept their encouragement and don’t just tell yourself that they’re just being nice! If you accept and internalize what they say, you might just live by it.
  • Take risks, and get out of your comfort zone. When you tell yourself that you “fooled them again” or that you “got lucky again,” you’re going to start avoiding taking on challenges and opportunities just in case you won’t be able to pull it off like last time. Take that hard class with the difficult professor, take on the tough assignment at work, join a team that you feel is better than you are. You learn the most when you challenge yourself!

So, with that, good luck. I know this was a lot to take in, but I want to tell you that you are great. You are smart. You’re about to go to the best university in the world (in my opinion anyway, people probably have others), take on impressive courses, join clubs I never could, and be successful.

You’ll do great.

Share & Comment0

  • Terrence Andrew Davis


    • Parttimehuman

      Once again it doesn’t actually answer any questions.

    • Cassidy

      I have no idea what this means. But I’m going to assume that stands for “Good on diction.”

  • Anonymous

    Don’t forget the other kind of impostor: The person that people think knows X but really knows X². They do exist and their motivations are often unrelated to what you perceive to be their job.

    • Mark

      Typically they also have superhuman amounts of confidence and are perceived to be better at their jobs because of it. Yes, jealous much.

    • heteroclitejumble

      Yes indeed, I often felt that way when I was working at McDonalds while writing the novel that made me rich. And then there was the time when I was questing along with the others going after the Sangreal, but I actually wanted to shit in it.

  • Jerry Carman

    Hey, I signed in only to say thanks. I needed to hear all of this.

    • Cassidy

      You’re very welcome! I’m glad it helped.

  • Mark

    Thanks. I’ve suffered from this for years, but not all my life – I’ve been trying to think of the actual incident that triggered it but can’t. Still it’s true – I believe that everyone around me is smarter than me and that I’ll be found out and lose this amazing job I have.

  • Prashanti

    Thanks for this. I have always suffered from this but never knew it was a real thing until I attended a webinar on the syndrome. Still cannot overcome it but at least I know what it is. Really nice write up!

    – A fellow CS girl 🙂

    • Cassidy

      I’m so glad to hear it!
      Us CS girls have to stick together. Add me on LinkedIn or something if you’d like to stay in touch!

      • Prashanti

        Agree! We gotta stick together. Couldn’t find you on LinkedIn. I am Prashanti Manda if you’d like to add me!

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  • Keri

    I think this is something that is especially true in computer science. I’ve often thought this could just be due to the nature of the field? It has taken me most of my undergrad to figure out and really understand that computer science and programming are not exact. What I understand now is that there is no “one solution fits all” that will fix every problem, there is no secret solution that everybody else knows that I just don’t, there is often more than one solution to a problem, and some solutions may be better than others, but sometimes that perception of “better” is very subjective.

    That doesn’t mean that I don’t have moments where I still feel like I’m a fraud, but I have had many moments where I was given a project and panicked initially and then was pleasantly surprised when I found a way to work through it. I still often find myself attributing these successes to things like, “I found a really good tutorial” or “I went and talked to x and they explained to me how to fix it” or “I just go really lucky”.

    • Cassidy

      I agree with you completely. One person that I heard talking about it said that people don’t necessarily get “better” at CS over time, they just know to try different things.
      It’s hard to not think things like getting lucky or that someone helped you with it. I definitely think that pretty much all the time. But that one time when it registers in your head that YOU did it yourself and that you actually know what you’re doing? Greatest moment EVER!

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  • TyroneJ

    The Dunning–Kruger effect, which is a real effect (as opposed to a pop-psych thing like the Imposter Syndrome) would indicate that having the Imposter Syndrome is good, and destroying it would be bad. Very bad.

    • myst

      The fact that impostor syndrome isn’t listed in the DSM reflects more on the DSM than on impostor syndrome. Just because it’s not a clinical condition doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

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  • Kyle Cohen

    How do you know me so well? And what sources did you use to find this info?(not doubting your truthfulness, just want to check it out!)

    • Cassidy

      Honestly, I searched “Impostor Syndrome” and read every single article on the first few results pages. 😉

  • Marlon

    I feel that way all the time and when I read this quote by Heath Ledger I felt very relieved that I wasn’t the only one: “It’s kind of a rule of thumb for me to self-doubt going into any kind of project. I always think that I shouldn’t be doing it and I don’t know how to do it and I’m going to fail and that I fooled them. I always try to find a way out.”

  • Carlos García

    Just wanted to say thanks. I identified myself completely with the kind of person you described, and now I can see that it’s been doing me no good to think like that. 🙂

  • Randy Hoover

    I work as a Sysadmin, I fall under this all the time. Glad to know it’s not just me.

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  • Felipe Priess

    Wow i didn’t even knew this was a thing … i always had this syndrome and never knew … thank you for writing this, helped me a lot

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  • Thank you so very much for this! I’m a grad student, and constantly plagued by imposter syndrome. Your advice is so helpful, and it is SO AMAZING to know that women like Tina Fey and Maya Angelou feel this way too!!

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  • My god! They asked you out for lunch? While I’m sure your program was great, I’m affraid you may have completely misinterpreted your team’s enthusiasm. 😉

  • Thank you. This really quells the anxiety I’ve built up over the day of working constantly on a project and doing research and not feeling like I’ve done a damn thing.

  • Jaybee

    This is perfect. Thank you for finally saying what has been on every young adult who has been transitioning into the real world’s mind.

  • onlinetourismmarketing

    I wish I could remember the quote, but I once read someone saying that the person that thinks they know everything is an idiot, the person that always knows there is more to learn is a genius.

    Unfortunately in today’s world, there are a lot of people that come out with confident sounding comments, and other people think they are geniuses because of them…..but the other people (usually senior management) don’t realise that what came out of the “genius’s” mouth was in fact, completely incorrect, or utter bullshit that sounded really impressive.

  • JCfromDC

    Nice article, but Maya Angelou? Well, she DID speak the truth!

  • Anonymous

    I really needed this article. Thanks so much for writing it.

    • Cassidy

      I’m so glad you appreciated it! I hope it helped! 🙂

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  • Are you sure about this, or are you bluffing it? LOL

  • Ian Osmond

    For the most part, do you know who’s immune to Impostor Syndrome?

    Impostors. People who are ACTUALLY bluffing and BS’ing their way through their lives assume that EVERYBODY is bluffing and BS’ing, and therefore, nobody else knows any more than they do. People who just plain aren’t very good at what they do assume that what they know is ALL there is to know, and therefore think that they’re as good as anybody — and don’t notice that their stuff doesn’t work as well as everyone else’s.

    People who ARE competent are aware of how big their area of knowledge is, and what a small fraction if it they know. The more you know about a subject, the more you realize just how complicated it is. Sure, you may be the best there is at fixing THIS kind of automobile engine, but someone else knows so much more about, say, hybrid engines. You MUST be an imposter. You graduated at the top of your class in med school, but you don’t always know exactly what’s making your patients sick — you MUST be an impostor. You keep getting good gigs as a studio musician AND you’re playing in bars and everyone likes you, but you don’t have a recording contract, and other people do — you MUST be an impostor.

    If you think you’re an impostor, most likely, you’re not. If you don’t EVER think you’re an impostor, most likely, you are. Oh, there are exceptions — there are idiots in over their heads who are aware that they are, and there are competent people who are completely aware of their competence. But, on the whole, doubting your abilities is a sign that you actually have abilities.

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  • I feel like you wrote this post just for me. Thank you for this/

    • Cassidy

      You’re so welcome!

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  • Cody Henrichsen

    Thank you Cassidy, this is something that I address with all of my CS students but especially the girls and groups who have not traditionally had representation in computer science. I will be sharing this article with all of my students next week 😀

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  • Hu Trang

    Thank you for the pep talk.

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