It’s a Feeling, Not a Syndrome



Updated August 7, 2023

Chances are you’ve heard people talk about feeling like an impostor, although they probably referred to it as having “impostor syndrome.” While this phrase is commonly used, it’s misleading because it tends to oversimplify the issue, but it does help you easily communicate the feelings you’re experiencing. It also does a good job of capturing a feeling of being overwhelmed or inadequate that you may be struggling with. While this may seem like a good thing, there are some negative consequences that come from using the term.

The solution is not to label yourself as having a medical syndrome that needs to be treated; it’s to recognize your feelings so that you can work towards improving yourself and building confidence. Slapping a label on something you’re feeling doesn’t make it go away, but recognizing that feeling is the first step towards self-improvement.

Additionally, the term “impostor syndrome” tends to imply several things for some people:

  • You either have it or you don’t.

  • It’s abnormal.

  • As with many medical syndromes, you likely won’t get better without treatment.

None of these points are true, at least for most people. Think of it more as a natural feeling you have, like stage fright or feeling uncomfortable. It may come on suddenly and with varying intensity, but it’s a temporary feeling that will eventually pass. It’s good to remember this when you’re having these feelings so you can manage them and try to reduce the accompanying negative thoughts.

On top of all that, what most people don’t understand is that there’s no officially recognized “impostor syndrome” among medical professionals. There is not a single mention of impostor syndrome in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which provides a common language and standardized criteria for classifying mental disorders and is widely used by mental health professionals.

In fact, the term impostor phenomenon was first described by Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Dr. Suzanne A. Imes in 1978.* Clance and Imes first defined the impostor phenomenon as an “internal experience of intellectual phoniness,” or, in other words, feeling like a fraud. While their study focused on high-achieving women who experienced these feelings, further research has revealed that both men and women are equally susceptible to the impostor phenomenon. Clance and Imes’s study also showed that these feelings are prevalent in highly successful people and those that have worked hard to build their careers.

In essence, impostor feelings can happen to anyone and can come on at any point in one’s career. Rather than trying to fight it, it’s more effective to embrace it and use it to motivate yourself to improve. Let’s dig deeper into what you can do when you suddenly start to feel like an impostor.

Knowledge Gaps

As programmers, we’re expected to know a wide array of things in order to do our jobs. On top of fundamental skills like writing code that compiles without errors, we also need to know how to design our programs to be future proof, how to write automated tests so we can be sure the code works as expected, and how to deliver results consistently and efficiently.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed with the amount of knowledge required in order to complete our day-to-day tasks, in addition to answering questions from project stakeholders, defending our technical decisions during code reviews, and planning for the future.

There will be plenty of times throughout your career where you won’t know the answer to a question or won’t know what someone else on your team is talking about. It happens to software engineers of all levels, not just junior engineers. The thing that makes good engineers stand out from the rest is that they are humble and aware that they don’t know everything, and they use that knowledge to learn and grow.

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