Three signs you may be suffering from imposter syndrome

by lc 2 min read21st Jan 20207 comments


[This was originally posted by me to a different forum in which some of its content would be more novel. Not only is it pretentious and salty on its own, it's even more so in this context, so most people will probably dislike it.]

You do not have imposter syndrome, because imposter syndrome does not exist.

In most professional domains, no one knows how competent they are, exactly. Unless you’re in a field where there is an agreed upon, systematic method of ranking success, like sports, you may only glean your competence through signals. Especially if what you’re actually considering is something like your “maximum potential”, or trying to compare yourself against the entire population of professionals instead of the ones nearest to you, an uncomfortable amount of uncertainty is probably completely valid. Just because you have a lot mentally riding on your keyboard incantation ability doesn’t mean you should have some definitive intuition for where it is, even after years of experience.

Of course, sometimes people do have good reason to know where they stand, and sometimes people refuse to fall on an answer for suspicious cognitive reasons. In addition to having varying levels of uncertainty, you can generally overestimate your competence, correctly estimate your competence, or underestimate your competence. The latter is considered unusual because humans have a cognitive bias for overestimating their own positive traits; i.e., people will systematically think they are better at computer programming than they actually are. In fact, this a worse problem than it first seems, because not only do people have this bias, they also have a crippling difficulty in meta-reasoning about their own biases . People not only overestimate their level of competence, they also underestimate the degree to which they are susceptible to cognitive biases in general. When people are shown the research that shows people overestimate their own intelligence, they don’t instantly feel sad about being less intelligent than they thought they were. Instead they say: “Well I’m glad I’m not like those other people, who are so stupid as to fall for those cheap cognitive biases. I’m way less biased than the average person.” If they are smart, they will make some pithy half-concession to themselves about this being a little correct, to “prove” they are not so naive, and then go on internally believing they’re a genius.

This failure in meta-reasoning about one’s own reasoning difficulties is what deludes people into inventing a syndrome as transparently, mind-bogglingly stupid as the titular one of this post. For the insecure, who are often the actually incompetent, the idea of Imposter Syndrome provides a mental placation for doubts about their own ability. That nagging sense of inadequacy can be explained away not by reality creeping up on their inflated sense of self, but by the DEMON of IMPOSTER SYNDROME running into their ego and smashing all of the nicely placed silverware.

I find it insightful that whenever someone says they have imposter syndrome (how you could know you have imposter syndrome and still have it I will put aside), it never seems to suffice to tell that person “You are an engineer, because you engineer things. You may be a bad engineer, but that’s not really for me to say.” When you drill down, this syndrome seems to always be about relative standing among other code monkeys, and never imposter syndrome about something concrete, like the question “Am I someone who architects buildings?”. No one is ever really confused about whether or not they can in fact maintain Apache servers; they are just either making an exaggerated show of fishing for compliments or suppressing their own correct thoughts about being average.

Absent selection pressures, fifty percent of the people reading this statement will be below average at their jobs. You, the reader, in particular, are included in the broader population. It is a perfectly rational and reasonable thing to wonder if you have only deluded yourself into believing you are good at your work-not just wonder abstractly, as a remote possibility, but irritatingly, as something that may be highly probable. No pathology is required to explain this behavior in people. I and the people I work with wonder all the time about how good we are at our work, and it’s because we have a lot of our self-image riding on it, not because we suffer from a delusion. The solution in general is to accept the fact that you are average if that’s what is the case, and deal with it. Maybe it means continuing to focus on an activity because you like it even if you’re not any good. Maybe that means getting a more realistic understanding of how long “getting good” will take. Maybe it means giving up on your dreams of becoming a concert pianist. The worst thing, of course, would be to continue to center your life around some hobby only because of your own inflated self-perceptions.