How can we help others with Imposter syndrome?

This week’s new article is from @nataliyah and it’s focused on a topic that I think we all face from time to time, impostor syndrome:

Impostor syndrome has been discussed a lot at TestBashes and on the Club and a lot of the time the advice given is focused on how we as individuals cope with it. But I got to thinking:

How can we as a community better support each other in managing issues like impostor syndrome?

Whilst external validation isn’t always necessary, a bit of outside perspective can help us sometimes fight those negative perspectives in our head.

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A big one for me is - not telling someone “they will get imposter syndrome”. I started a new role (in my long career) and two senior people told me in the same week at this new job - “You will get imposter syndrome around week 6 if not sooner”. The made me angry and blew my mind as it was reckless and unthoughtful.

I think reframing it is also important, labelling it for what it actually is. It is either a confidence crisis or victim of environment. Some people actually think they have “Imposter Syndrome” because someone told them - that’s the route cause when in fact it’s the result of systemic bias and exclusion in a high amount of cases.

I mentor some young people who thought they had imposter syndrome because that’s what best explained how they were feeling based on information available or what they were told. What’s less explored is why imposter syndrome exists in the first place, the impact of systemic racism, sexism, classism, xenophobia, and other biases was categorically absent when the concept of imposter syndrome was developed, AND what role workplace systems play in fostering and exacerbating it.

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This is something that I have been conscious of in most areas of my life not just in my career. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a career spanning 17 years in QA at a number of organisations - As committed and hard working as I am, without fail - I always assume that the company I join have more knowledge, experience, capability that whatever I contribute in early stages will be common sense. Likewise, it does dawn on you as a person - that what you feel may be common sense, due to the knowledge you have accrued in many organisations - is actually ‘new’ and ‘radical’ to the new organisation.

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Wow… I have problems with Imposter syndrome that build on a massive pile of issues going back to when I was a kid umpty-umph years ago (pick one. Assume it’s a long time ago and leave it there).

My base assumption is that if I find it easy it actually is easy - an assumption that’s usually wrong. My other usually wrong assumption is that I’m normal - and that one I find really hard to lose because I think it’s human-default. The problem with it is that if you’re not neurotypical for any reason, you aren’t normal or average and you’re going to go about things in a way that can look bizarre or impossible to someone who is. Been there, done that, got the T-shirt.

The point being, as someone who is atypical and had next to no contact with other atypical people until I was somewhere in my 30s, I do not “think outside the box”. I can’t find the box to think outside it. This means that I’ll look at things and take to some aspects of a new job as if they’re insanely easy (when the others thing it’s really hard) and get completely lost by something that other folk think is basic.

That messes with self confidence because the more different from the norm your thought patterns are (mine are somewhere around maybe 1% of people think anything like me - on a good day), the less likely it is you’ll have someone around to measure yourself against - and no matter how bad an idea it can be, we all tend to judge ourselves against our peers. It’s a human thing.

All of this is completely outside any possible issues with prejudice and the like: it’s human nature to try to avoid anyone who’s too different, and I fall into that category. I can only pass for normal for short time periods.

As far as helping others deal goes, I’d suggest reminding folks to focus on what they’ve achieved and what they’ve done well. It can be far too easy to lose track of the good things when something has pushed a person into focusing on the bad.

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About 3 years ago I quit a job, I just didn’t match what they had wanted, and a lot of tiny things were stacked against me. I thought maybe I can work through it, I could not. It was not imposter syndrome, but it felt exactly like it was in the beginning, and so I agree with @ajwilson . It’s a hard conversation to have with yourself about whether there is a skills gap, or a confidence gap. You have to have the conversation with yourself, and then with your manager. If you feel unable to talk to your manager, than it’s more likely to be that you really should find another job. I quit after 11 months.

I walked into the HR segment of most of the interviews that I set up after that and explained that I was just at a point where I need to slow down and rebuild, and not aim too high. It worked, one interview came back with feedback “you probably wont like the high pressure”, even though technically they liked me. That was such a life-saver, a stress-bullet dodged. Because the next job interview said I was a fit. I’m so glad that I took a year of “going slow”, because I’m stronger than before now. And I know that I’m competent, I just needed less stress and negative energies.

In a previous job to my big questioning moment, we had a good amount of personal achievement celebration going on, and I think that, that is the biggest buffer against the personal confidence dips of imposter syndrome. Celebrate, and also seek feedback from your manager, and give them feedback in return, they might also be needing your help. People I hear complain about feeling like an imposter and blaming it on the role as a QA are right to do so though. Identifying the source of the ailment as being your role is really raying that you are taking your role too seriously, bugs that escape into the wild are not your fault, the release manager has to carry some of the can and ask good questions before they sign off, the developer who coded it up also has to not inject bugs in the first place, and the product owner has ultimate responsibility to verify that the product generates profits, not you. A lot of the uncertainty we face as QA’s is because we don’t think it’s OK to be honest sometimes and say, “testing won’t catch every unknown risk”. The job we do is hard, and we clearly do it because nobody else likes this kind of work, so every QA is already pushing themselves to do a job others do not find to be fun to begin with.

But mainly, be sure to be getting enough good sleep, that was my mistake that led to my quitting.

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I firmly believe that openly and guiltlessly discussing imposter syndrome and our experiences can help others with this.
When I mentor others or generally help someone who is struggling, I tell them about the things I struggled with. Learning to navigate Javascript nested arrays early on almost killed me! I tell them about how I gave up twice because it was difficult and made me feel incredibly stupid. I make sure they know there’s no judgement and that myself and the QA communities I’m a part of are there to help them through it.

I agree with other comments about not telling them it will happen to them. Though, I do think that letting folks know it’s normal and not a shameful experience can be incredibly helpful. There can be a lot of ego tied up in being “good” at your job and knowing all of the things you’re “supposed to.” Talking about these struggles openly can help others jump that hurdle and realize it doesn’t mean they’re bad at their job or not smart enough because they struggle with imposter syndrome.

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Absolutely!

The work we do is hard, despite a perception that it’s just following instructions. There’s so much about software quality work that’s based solely on judgement - how can any know when something is “good enough”? I take my best guess and apologize when I get it wrong - then take notes so I don’t make that mistake again.

This absolutely nails it. Thank you!

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