Impostor syndrome and depression

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You might have encountered the term Impostor Syndrome, where people feel that they’re somehow “faking it”. This is common with programmers, artists, public speakers, and I suspect anyone who is able to see the faults in their own work, despite others judging that work on its merits.

If you’ve ever started a thought with “You may be impressed now, but if you only knew I was just making it up/not doing it the right way/not really that cool/lucky/had good timing/have no idea what I’m doing”, then you may know what impostor syndrome is like. If you’ve been feeling that way a lot—and I know people with years of experience who still don’t consider themselves “a real programmer/artist/performer/badass”—then you might actually have impostor syndrome.

Impostor syndrome is problematic on many levels. It not only denies the value of your own work, but it also invalidates others who appreciate your accomplishments. It stops others from using you as a role model. It gets in the way of everyone being able to multiply the good that you’re doing in the world. Denise Paolucci from Dreamwidth has a fantastic talk on Impostor Syndrome which I strongly encourage you to watch.

And so this brings me to my admission for the day. For a while now I’ve been experiencing a very odd form of impostor syndrome. Rather than not feeling like a real programmer, I’m not feeling like a real Paul Fenwick.

There’s a set of traits which both others and myself associate with my personality. Curiosity, optimism, gregariousness, adventurousness, knowledge transfer, wonderment, enthusiasm. While I’m sometimes praised for my skills and accomplishments, what I find is that I’m often praised on my personality.

Except that I often feel I’m faking all that. Faking the enthusiasm. Faking the adventurousness. Faking the curiosity. Personality is a skill, it’s something I’ve learnt, and I’m great at faking it.

I’ve not always felt this way. Go back a few years and that enthusiasm you saw was absolutely 85% genuine. Now it feels like it’s more 35% genuine. I’m enthusiastic out of habit and expectation, because that’s the character I play, but it’s not because of how I really feel¹.

If you’re me, then this a fascinating position to be in. I don’t want to say “this is just how I am now”, because those qualities that I’m “faking” are all highly advantageous, and they’re also qualities which are not really gone. Give me the right group of people and I am enthusiastic. Give me the right environment and I am inspired. But afterwards I have a tendency to go back to levels of “meh”, rather than baseline levels of “OMG”.

I still have enjoyment, but I’m lacking drive. Goals feel a lot more arbitrary and less exciting. I don’t find myself wanting to do things as much. And that’s frustrating as all hell; I’m not out there doing great things. I’m not bringing enjoyment and wonder to my friends. I’m not being as social as I should be—interactions with others are a primary source of reward in my life. There’s a lot of good that I’m failing to do for myself or the world. I don’t feel guilty about this, but I’m definitely frustrated.

I’ve been thinking a lot as to the ‘how’ of this situation. A lot of my dysfunctional periods are characterised by ruminating thoughts, and they usually happen when I’m alone. When others are around I still often lack the feeling of drive, but I’m less likely to ruminate, and I’m more likely to be productive. Despite this, I still have a tendency to be more shy than I used to be. Again, I feel like I’m making social engagements because it fits my “character”; or because I’m exercising executive function to do something which I know will be beneficial to me, even though I’m not feeling it at the time.

All this observation is great, but it only gains real value if I can strategise improvements from it. Since I’m very much aware that people make a big difference to how I’m feeling and thinking (and they always have), many of these are social-oriented strategies.

Improvement number one is changing my default socialisation. If you’ve got work colleagues, or a family, then very often those are the people you’re going to socialise with unless you’re making efforts to actually avoid them. I’m pleased to say that one of my BFFs is back in town, and this morning I received a message asking “when can you move back in?” Having lived together in the past, I know that this alone will do wonders for my baseline mental state.

The second is to improve my novel socialisation. I’ve been promising forever to head north to Seattle, Bellingham, and Vancouver. I usually do very well when I’m in high-travel mode, staying in each location for only a couple of days each, and so my plan is to head north next week.

However there are things which I know I’m likely to be poor at, and would definitely appreciate some help. Ones which immediately spring to mind include:

  • Exercise. Without going fully neuro on you, some extra BDNF isn’t going to hurt. If you’re in Portland and having a work bike that I can borrow, that would probably do wonders for raising my incidental exercise levels.

  • Remembering things which I actually enjoy, but for which my motivation has extinguished itself. If there’s something you remember the both of us doing which we really enjoyed, you should feel increased license to encourage the two of us to go do that together.

The very hardest part, but one that I think will stand to provide many benefits, is new mindware that includes functions for breaking rumination cycles. I’m actually totally happy to receive suggestions here. If you have your Cognitive Behavioural Therapy homework that you want to lend me, I’m down with that. If you’ve got something which has worked for you, I’m happy to hear it.

Thanks for reading. Thoughts, comments, and discussion quite welcome.

~ Paul

⁰ This post is tagged with depression not because I’m currently experiencing a depressive episode, but because the lack of motivation and ruminating thoughts feel like hangovers from my episode last year.

¹ Of course, my response to reduced enthusiasm was to go researching dopamine and reward seeking behaviours as they relate to neuropsychology. If I had more than 35% enthusiasm I’d have written an article on this by now. There’s also a cognitive bias known as rosy retrospection, so I probably view my past enthusiasm as being greater than it really was.

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