We've got the tools to help you get through your imposter syndrome.
In this episode, we talk about imposter syndrome and how to conquer it with Michael Boroff, mental health program manager at Crossover Health, and Nick Taylor, lead software engineer at Forem.
Ben Halpern is co-founder and webmaster of DEV/Forem.
Arit Amana is a bootcamp-educated software engineer who transitioned to her current role at 37, after being a public-health analyst, and then a stay-at-home mom of two. In her free time, Arit passionately supports those attempting similar career transitions through speaking and mentoring.
Michael Boroff oversees Crossover Behavioral Health services across the nation.
Nick Taylor is a lead software engineer with a focus on the front-end at Forem, the software that powers DEV. He does not get along with spiders.
[00:00:00] MB: I think one of the really important lessons is the importance in power, not just for yourself, but for other people of being real about what you’re experiencing and normalizing that.
[00:00:21] BH: Welcome to DevDiscuss, the show where we cover the burning topics that impact all of our lives as developers. I’m Ben Halpern, a Co-Founder of Forem.
[00:00:29] AA: And I'm Arit Amana, Software Engineer at Forem. And today, we’re talking about imposter syndrome with Michael Boroff, Mental Health Program Manager at Crossover Health, and Nick Taylor, Lead Software Engineer at Forem. Thank you so much for being here.
[00:00:45] MB: Thanks for having me. This is such a great topic we have for today. Really looking forward to it.
[00:00:50] NT: Yeah. Same here. Excited to talk about this.
[00:00:52] BH: Michael, can we kick things off by talking about your research background?
[00:00:56] MB: So I am a clinical psychologist in the San Francisco Bay Area and in the field for about 15 years. And for the last couple of years, I’ve been the mental health program manager for Crossover Health. We do integrated primary health, both virtual and in-person. And historically, a lot of our close partnerships have been with tech employers who use us as part of their benefits offerings. And one of the things our therapists were noticing, especially in our tech populations, there was a lot of imposter syndrome and that actually led to a fairly lengthy meta-analysis research study that Crossover Health did along with Dr. Dena Bravata, looking at what does the research say about imposter syndrome, what do we know about it, who it impacts, what works and treating it. The research that brought me to you all today also doing a lot of research just around mental health outcomes in general and really looking at how do we solve for the mental health crisis that exists certainly in the United States and other places in the world and what actually allows us to improve that system and achieve better outcomes and have it be a better experience for everybody involved with it.
[00:02:07] AA: And Nick, could you also share your background with us as a developer?
[00:02:40] BH: So imposter syndrome affects early career developers, but also can really plague folks throughout their careers. Michael, can you kind of get into the nature of imposter syndrome within an industry like software development?
[00:02:58] MB: Absolutely. And I think it’s important to know, first of all, that imposter syndrome is not something we can apply as a diagnosis via the DSM or the ICD, the kind of code books that healthcare professionals use. It’s one of those phenomena that we know exists, but we don’t have a perfect definition around it. And people do experience it a little bit differently. I think in the text-based software development space, what we see is a lot of really brilliant high-achieving people who have very, very high standards for themselves, lofty career goals, and often they’re surrounded by other people who share those characteristics. And that can be really intimidating. It can create a lot of feelings of not belonging, feeling like not cut out for this, we found out to be a fraud in some way, overworking, really problems managing work-life balance. And then also I think about with imposter syndrome, it’s really important to situate it in a context of social justice and race and power and privilege and all of those things as well. And we do know in the research that folks of color are maybe more prone to experiencing imposter syndrome than others. There are some systems-based reasons for why that occurs and representation when we look at who’s often seen in positions of power and who exists in these workspaces, that also can cause people to feel like they don’t belong.
[00:04:30] AA: Nick, as a lead engineer, I think at least in my experience or anecdotally, when we think of imposter syndrome, I think it’s easier to see that in terms of like an early career developer. Right? But as an engineer with so much experiences you have, what have your experiences been around imposter syndrome?
[00:04:53] NT: I experienced it as well. Maybe not super frequently, but I do exhibit, I can think of a very specific thing that happened to me. This was before I was working at Forem. This was like a few years ago, but I spent almost five weeks deliberating whether or not I should apply for a job because of the job description. Like even with the experience I had, I was reading it over and over like every week and I was like, “I don’t think I have what it takes to work here.” Finally, I did apply and then I went through a bunch of interviews. Anecdotally, it didn’t work out, but it was still a great experience. But thinking back to it now, it kind of blows my mind, like, “What was I doing?” The job could have potentially been off the market by the time I decided to apply. So I really felt it strongly there and like, “Nope, I don’t think I’m good enough to work here.” So I definitely feel it, not maybe as often as earlier career devs, but I definitely do feel it.
[00:06:00] BH: Arit, can you speak about your experiences?
[00:06:03] AA: Oh, I have so many. I would say the most recent showing of imposter syndrome in my life has been around the end-of-year evaluations that we are currently taking at Forem. And specifically my issue is when they ask a question, like, “What were your accomplishments or what were your achievements?” I struggled with that question because sometimes it’s hard to see which part of my work is work and which part is an accomplishment. I struggle with that sense of feeling like I have actually accomplished something. One thing I like at our company is we do 360 reviews and I have been getting back other people’s review of myself and I’m just like, “Whoa!” And not even like pat myself on the back way. No, like I am literally like taken aback at some of their feedback, kind, generous feedback, but at the same time detailed and speaking of stuff that I have done, that they have noticed and impacted them in a positive way. And so I definitely feel like that is an expression of imposter syndrome for me is just being able to see what I do as worthy of praise in a sense. Yeah.
[00:07:34] MB: Can you take in that feedback and accept it as like valid?
[00:07:38] AA: Yes. So unfortunately, I had completed myself assessment before these other people’s assessments came in. If I hadn’t, I’m sure I would have gone back. And I’m sure I still can. It’s just that it’s already been submitted, right? It’s not like a super formal process, so to speak, but it was humbling and at the same time encouraging to see. And I think that’s really where the power of community. When we talk about the tech community, it really like resonates with me because now with the feedback of my colleagues, it’s almost like they have a different lens with which they’re looking at me. And it makes me to examine my own lens and say, “There’s something wrong here or there’s something inaccurate here that needs to be adjusted in the way you mentally see yourself.”
[00:08:30] MB: That’s definitely something that I hear from folks I work with where they really minimize or don’t see their own accomplishments. And when they receive compliments, they kind of brush them aside or give credit to other people for them. They don’t feel worthy of taking that in. I think having that support and having a platform for getting that kind of feedback from other people you get a chance to see how you’re being seen by other people. And it can kind of help to check those inaccurate thoughts that are there and it’s really fantastic that that evaluation system exists and in this case is helping you feel good about the work that you’ve done.
[00:09:12] BH: When I think about my own imposter syndrome, and I always go back to pivotal labs in Manhattan, New York City, like where I sort of started my software career, not working at pivotal labs, but that’s where the NYC.rb meetup was. So like the New York City Ruby meetup. And I felt like not so unconfident in my job itself, but those meetups really made me just like question everything I knew. It seemed like people could like stand around in a circle talking about their work in ways that was so, so, so intimidating, like please, no one asked me what my opinion is on this stuff. Regardless of how I felt about my confidence in the work itself or anything like that, just like the challenge of like, I don’t know, saying anything smart about the work I did outside of the work itself was like terrifying. One of the more fascinating things is, at some point, I noticed that I didn’t feel that way quite as much. It was shocking. I was like, “Wow! I didn’t think I would ever overcome this feeling.” It just seemed like regardless of the progress I had made, I would always feel at least sort of this way. And I have new challenges that come up. I kind of try to remind myself that that particular thing is actually no longer challenging. I look forward to going to a meetup and meeting people and talking about my craft. It helps me through new challenges to kind of remember that like actually that didn’t last forever.
[00:10:49] NT: I feel that because I do this too, but you compare yourselves to others and everybody’s on different paths. And I compare myself to others now, not so much to say I didn’t make it or whatever. I just kind of use it as like a challenge to myself to just kind of strive for more. But I know in the past I’ve been like, “Oh, man, so-and-so’s like, they’re 21 and they work at Microsoft. They’re doing this.” I think it’s a double-edged sword when you compare yourselves to others.
[00:11:25] MB: That’s something I hear so much of with the people I work with, where they kind of compare off from like the people that they started with and where they are in their careers compared to themselves and using that as evidence that they’ve failed or that thought process is so hard. Right? And you think about the long-term impacts of that when you’re constantly doing that comparing and the anxiety that creates pressure and impact job performance. I think going back to the example of applying for new roles, it becomes this block. And Ben, as I was listening to you, you’re talking about how it’s become easier. And I was curious if you have a sense of how that happened, because that’s one thing the research doesn’t have right now is like, “What’s an evidence-based approach to treating imposter syndrome?” That doesn’t exist anywhere in the literature right now. So I'm curious about what made that easier.
[00:12:19] BH: Well, interestingly, like this company we run right now kind of started with some of like the humor I used online to kind of cope with my own imposter syndrome. I made like parody books, which kind of poke fun at like whatever problems I was having. People responding to that gave me a lot more confidence. And even when I began that project, I genuinely was like, “I hope people don’t realize how serious I’m being about this.” Part of maybe what helped me with that particular issue of like meetups and talking to people was the fact that I still enjoyed the meetups and I kept going I think helped. I kind of didn’t let that particular anxiety. It did stop me from talking. I would go to these things and talk to zero people sometimes, but I genuinely enjoyed the participation otherwise and going and listening and stuff like that. And I think over time, like for myself, just continuing to go probably helped. I think like had I been discouraged enough to stop going, it might not have ever gotten better. But generally, just like progress in this regard, we got more progress and just had to overcome some of it just to do new things in my career.
[00:13:40] NT: Yeah. I joke with people in this Virtual Coffee community I’m in, but I call it Structured YOLO, which I started taking risks in my career. I don’t mean stuff like move to Antarctica and abandon your family to take some awesome programming job, but like just stuff that ties into like the being unsure, like for the job application that I was talking about before. So I’m being a little hypocritical, I guess, but I just started taking chances and just doing stuff. And I just told myself, “You know what? I can do it.” And if I don’t know how to do it, I know I can learn it. So it sounds funny talking to yourself, but just saying, “Yeah. Just…” I won’t say it because it’s explicit, but there’s an acronym JFDI, Joel Hooks from egghead says it a lot. He has a tattoo of it actually. You just have to do stuff because if you don’t do anything, nobody’s going to say, “Hey, you’re not doing anything or try this.” It’s a bit of pumping yourself up a bit, but the weird balance of telling myself I can do things, but being humble at the same time and it’s just a weird mix of feelings to say basically.
[00:14:49] AA: Michael, you brought up something that I think trips people up a lot, which is the comparisons. And I was born and raised in Nigeria. And we have several cultural norms around comparisons. So for example, your parents will be like, “Oh, I ran into so-and-so today. Where are they in your graduating class?” And that’s like the precursor to some comparison that’s coming up. Right? And invariably, that person is doing better than you. Right? And that’s something that I’ve also faced too. I became a developer “later in life”. I got my first job at 38. And so trust me, especially like on YouTube, because I have a YouTube channel now, and just social media in general, you get the sense that you have, like I remember reading a tweet where someone said, “I’ve been a developer for over 10 years.” I feel so old. And then later in the comments, somebody asked, “How old are you, if you don’t mind me asking?” And then we’re like, “Oh, I’m 32.” And I just remember reading that and being like, “Wow!” And so definitely feeling as though “I’m late to the party” and the slope, is it any easier for me? Because I was late to the party. Right? So I still have that slope to climb. And I think for me, I wouldn’t say like I’ve overcome it, but one of the ways I manage that tendency to compare is, first of all, understanding that most comparisons are not taking into account all the factors that went into that person’s journey. It’s usually one or two things. You graduated from the same class. You’re both women. It’s just one or two things. And I think if you had the whole entire picture, you will realize that comparing really is nonsensical. And so I try to remind myself of that, that there are more points of difference that really renders comparison nonsensical. And then another thing that I’ve also started practicing is gratitude for that person. And so as opposed to just using their history or their trajectory or their journey as a way of turning the lens back on yourself again, it’s more like just being grateful and in a way happy for them. Right? And whatever good you’re doing in their world and in the world and however you’re making life better for whomever and just being grateful for that as opposed to only interpreting the story of your journey in terms of whether it shows you up or it shows you out. You know what I mean? And I find that once gratitude enters your space, it almost becomes difficult to at the same time be so self-critical. It’s almost like it’s difficult. It’s difficult for like criticism and gratitude to exist in the same space is what I’m finding.
[00:18:18] MB: That is absolutely beautiful.
[00:18:20] NT: There’s also self-gratitude. And one thing I started doing a while ago is I left my job prior to working at Forem and I got like tons of emails saying, “Oh, I’m going to miss you, man.” It was great. And what I did was I’ve literally copied all those emails and I kept them and then I started making a brag board and I use this site called Polywork. It’s another social professional network, but I tag all these things with like an appreciation. And so some of them are like people that have tweeted out something like, “Hey, thanks so much for the help Nick,” or, “Great job on this.” Or sometimes I’ll create some ones that are just like self-five, if you’ve ever watched How I Met Your Mother. And on those days when I do feel like I’m nothing, I look at that sometimes, and that just helps a lot. It sounds cheesy, but it’s just nice. I don’t think anybody gets mad at somebody for saying kind things to them. So I found that helps me a lot when I do struggle with imposter syndrome.
[00:19:31] MB: I think there were pieces of what each of you have said that I think are really important for people listening, struggling with imposter syndrome. There were some really important themes here that you all are talking about, your community and having people you can be vulnerable with about what you’re experiencing. That’s huge. Let’s normalize this. Let’s talk about it. Getting feedback from people who will give you a balanced kind of real perspective on what you’re doing, I think for people who have power to kind of set up structures in workplaces around that. That’s so important. One of the other things I’m hearing is like, “Don’t let these thoughts and feelings cause you to avoid things.” And that’s huge. I think that’s so true of so many of that challenging thoughts and feelings we have in life, like the key is, “Okay, I see these things. I’m aware I’m feeling them and I’m going to move forward anyway in spite of those things,” and I think a really important part of growth and moving through these things.
[00:20:52] BH: Michael, I’m curious, like to build on the conversation about comparisons, just like my thought hearing Arit speak to some of the stuff and like my own feelings is that like some of these the comparisons we make must be like absolute, utter fallacies, just like had we just like picked some random other person to compare ourselves with or just like forgotten that person we graduated with exists or the fact that we’re comparing ourselves to that particular person who happens to be just a bit ahead of us was ourselves like seeking out the comparison, which was going to lead to failure. It seems a little bit too normal and common that you might discover someone who’s doing just a bit better than you. That idea must be like some kind of fallacy. I don’t know.
[00:21:43] MB: Yeah. It is so normal to compare ourselves to other people for so many different reasons. And if your cultural norming around, it was really, really important and I think so many people grew up in cultures where that is common. I think we just also have a society where we have all sorts of things in place that just promote that. And it’s so easy to look at somebody’s kind of presented life on social media or things like that and use that as a means for comparison as well. But again, that’s a piece of the story. That’s not the whole story. I think your comment about that was so right on. We don’t know people’s journey and what advantages, disadvantages they’ve had in life that’s contributed to where they are and what that looks like for us. So it’s really important to remind ourselves so that when we find ourselves getting into that comparison mode and mindfulness has become such an important part of the mental health space now. And part of the reason it’s so important is that we can’t really do anything. If we’re not aware, if we’re not self-aware, we’re not catching the thoughts and the feelings as they’re coming in and deciding what to take action on and what’s just kind of garbage that we just need to let kind of float on its way. And when those comparison thoughts come up, I think it’s important to acknowledge them and remind ourselves of that, that, “Hey, we actually don’t know the whole story. Is that actually helpful to me to do that form of comparison? Let me look at myself. Is there anything that I would like to be doing differently based off of my values, based off of how I’m spending my time? Is there something different that I need to be doing that would help me? And if not, then okay. So I’m doing my best right now and that’s what matters.” And so I think it’s just important to have that self-reflection and think about it.
[00:23:35] BH: That reminds me of one tough comparison moment I had earlier in life. I remember I was sitting in a calculus class in first year of university and had always identified as someone who’s like pretty good at math, seemed like something I could be confident in. And I remember just being in a class and not keeping up with it. And it was like really the first time I’d experienced that in my life. And I was like, “Damn!” I just thought that it would take longer for me to struggle. I’m just feeling like, “Wow! How am I supposed to think about myself?” If I thought I was good at math and I’m not even, I seemed to be kind of like more lost than everyone else, like in this class even. And the coping mechanism I came up with just to feel better about myself, which kind of stuck with me for a while, was to acknowledge to myself that I was actually doing pretty well in my fine arts and just feeling like among my fine arts classmates I’m probably still the best at math and among my math classmates, I’m still probably the best of fine arts, just like without even having a totally finished that thought it gave me enough confidence to feel like, “Sure. I’ll always be able to find something that fits more along that intersection.” And that’s pretty much like that, like train of thought helped guide me through college and through my career and stuff like that and carried me through. And that stood out as an important thing for me and I can still like picture myself in that classroom, just going through that little crisis moment.
[00:25:10] NT: I’m glad you brought that up because it ties into like not everybody learns at the same pace, but I got to tell you when something clicks and you have that aha moment, like once it’s clicked, you know you’re never going to forget this again and it makes all that imposter syndrome melt away.
[00:25:28] MB: Really impressed by the resiliency of you all and just the strategies you all have developed to manage these things as they come up. You all are doing a lot of the things that I would end up suggesting or working with people on. I’m curious, each of you, are these things you just kind of figured out on your own? Did anybody help you with these or you just figured out these approaches all by yourself?
[00:25:53] AA: I think for me, I have been very privileged to have wonderful mentors and each of them are super talented and skilled as engineers. And so I think they have created a space for me to be honest about the processes or the experiences that I’m having. Because they’re engineers themselves, they can understand more of the context or understand more of how maybe a certain circumstance or scenario made me feel. And then just having them also share their weaknesses and stuff that they’re either still struggling with or they’ve also overcome. It also helps me to understand that the way I’m feeling is not so much an indictment on my ability or lack thereof, because if these super talented people also have these feelings and emotions, and it can’t be about the level of technical prowess, so to speak. So that has really helped me to separate. I can’t say that I have totally overcome it, but it helps me in the moment to separate the two. It’s also one of the reasons why early on I decided to be transparent because I think when it comes to the community level, how can we help each other recognize imposter syndrome and take steps to overcome it. I think one of the potent ways to do that is to be transparent and foster a culture of transparency and honesty so that others can realize that, “Wow, this experience that I’m having is actually quite common,” and sever that connection between you’re feeling this way so you must be this. And I think that’s like one of the first steps. If you can sever those two things from each other, then I think it empowers you to start understanding and dealing with your imposter syndrome without taking the hit on your sense of ability or your sense of what I contribute to my job, my company, whatever. I think like at least for me that’s been a key factor in developing these strategies. It’s just having that community and having those tall, broad shoulders to stand on or lean on.
[00:28:44] BH: I definitely find myself relying on kind of like the generation above and below me in terms of introduction to this career. And I find myself like borrowing from like the folks who kind of got just ahead of this when I was kind of needing it the most, but then like sort of it’s that much more open I think like for folks coming in newer, I think like there’s that much more vocabulary and articulation around some of these things that kind of I look forward to new people coming in and kind of teaching me those kinds of lessons and appreciate both receiving and giving mentorship as part of the process that much more than ever.
[00:29:48] BH: So to wrap up the conversation and kind of like end of year start a new year fresh kind of mentality, why don’t we go around and each offer just a bit of advice on the subject to anybody who’s listening just in the spirit of like something, an idea they could start fresh with in the new year?
[00:30:09] NT: Start it off with just hanging in there, leaning on your communities that you’re a part of. If you aren’t part of one, I strongly urge you to join one, reach out to people. There’s a lot of great people not just the developer community but in communities in general that are out there to help you. So definitely lean into that. I think it’s normal to doubt yourself. I doubt myself constantly. But you have to just remember you might not know something yet, but build up that confidence and learning abilities and then the world’s your oyster pretty much.
[00:30:44] MB: My recommendation is really practice being vulnerable and being real with people. We walk around so often thinking we’re the only ones dealing with things and making assumptions about other people and what they are or not dealing with. And I think one of the really important lessons is the importance in power, not just for yourself, but for other people of being real about what you’re experiencing and normalizing that. It’s a really courageous thing to do. And it just has such a huge impact, not just for yourself, but for others who maybe are dealing with that silently as well. So that would be my encouragement.
[00:31:21] AA: I would say two things. The first thing would be not to judge the feelings of imposter syndrome that you are experiencing. And the reason I say don’t judge it is because when you judge those feelings, you limit your ability to move through them. Right? One thing I always say is don’t waste time stumbling over a feeling. Feel it and move through it. And I think what enables us to move through a feeling is not judging it, but acknowledging that it’s there and also realizing that you don’t have to stumble in that spot. You can actually move past. I’m not saying that you will feel it anymore, but you can move through the feeling to the other things that you can then focus on, on the other side of that feeling. So that’s really what I’m saying there is don’t judge your imposter syndrome. I think when you judge it, you really handicap yourself in terms of moving through it. And then the second thing I would say is trust your ability to learn and to grow. We can grow into whatever ability that we desire to have. So trust your ability to learn. Trust your ability to grow. Don’t judge what you don’t know or what you’re not good at. Whether you know it or not, you can grow and you can evolve into that thing or up to that level. So trust that instead.
[00:32:56] BH: I’ll leave off with some kind of like brutally practical advice that it’s often pretty much okay to ask to work on something that’s more up your alley. If you kind of know that there’s this part of a work that you really do understand, and there’s this other part that you’re having a hard time with, it’s often pretty cool more than you realize to tell someone, “Hey, I’m actually just doing a lot better over here and I’d be more productive if I kind of shifted my area.” It depends on people’s situation in their work, but it’s often available to people and like I’ve dealt with that myself. I'm like, “Wow! I can do a lot of stuff, but I’ve been tasked with something I can’t do at all.” And I don’t know if I’m supposed to be able to do it at my level or not or whatever, but the truth is I just am not very good at this. And anytime I’ve ever like asked for a shift in my duties to better set myself up for success and then usually it’s given me a little bit of distance and perspective on the thing I was struggling with anyway.
[00:34:11] AA: Michael, Nick, thank you so much for being here.
[00:34:15] MB: Thank you so much.
[00:34:16] NT: Yeah. Thanks for having me.
[00:34:26] BH: This show is produced and mixed by Levi Sharpe. Editorial oversight by Jess Lee, Peter Frank, and Saron Yitbarek. Our theme song is by Slow Biz. If you have any questions or comments, email [email protected] and make sure to join us for our DevDiscuss Twitter chats every Tuesday at 9:00 PM US Eastern Time. Or if you want to start your own discussion, write a post on DEV using the #discuss. Please rate and subscribe to this show on Apple Podcasts.