Sep 2, 2020 - Sara Kassabian    

How to tackle impostor syndrome while working remotely

Isolation can cause impostor syndrome to flourish. We explain how adopting a growth mindset can help stop impostor syndrome in its tracks.

Now that the pandemic has shifted office operations at countless companies across all industries from in-person to online, many workers are witnessing the informal modes of communication and recognition that come with occupying a shared space all fall away. When you're working remotely, there is simply no opportunity for chance encounters, which means giving and receiving feedback from colleagues and management requires extra effort. It can be easy to feel anxious about whether or not the right people are noticing your hard work, and even when they are, that nagging feeling of doubt, or feeling like an impostor, can derail your efforts before you even begin.

What is impostor syndrome?

Impostor syndrome comes down to feeling inadequate or undeserving of your success despite objective evidence showing you otherwise, explained Taylor McCaslin, Senior Product Manager, Secure:Static Analysis at GitLab, in a presentation on the topic at GitLab Virtual Contribute. Impostor syndrome creates a negative script that can obstruct your progress on meaningful projects, slow your journey to achieving your goals, and suck the energy out of your days.

So how do you slay the vampire that is impostor syndrome?

The growth mindset

Impostor syndrome manifests in different ways for different people, and in this blog post we introduce different strategies for stopping these negative thought patterns. But one universal approach is adopting a growth mindset. On her blog Brain Pickings, Maria Popova summarizes the differences between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset:

"A 'fixed mindset' assumes that our character, intelligence, and creative ability are static givens which we can't change in any meaningful way… A 'growth mindset,' on the other hand, thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities."

There is no turnkey solution for combatting impostor syndrome, but thinking about times of challenge as opportunities for growth is one way to stop being so hard on yourself.

Types of impostor syndrome

Sometimes remote work can leave you feeling isolated, a cognitive space where impostor syndrome thrives. Whether you've worked remotely for years, or just recently started working remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, impostor syndrome might be showing up for you a lot more now than before.


Perfectionism is the ultimate trap and creates a vicious cycle of over-thinking and procrastination. The fear of getting started is often rooted in insecurities about laying bare the imperfections that are guaranteed in first iterations.

Software development seemingly tries to correct for perfectionist tendencies by prioritizing iteration over perfection, speed over polish.

"One thing that I'll mention about a perfectionist vampire is that this is why agile is structured the way that it is," said Taylor. "We do these iteration cycles and do innovative work to avoid this build trap where you want something to be so perfect that you never actually ship anything. So it's interesting to see software development taking some of the cues from the struggles of perfectionism to try to get something out and learn quickly."

When you're working remotely, the options for procrastination are about as long as your household chore list. At GitLab, we recognize that friends and family come first, and that sometimes it's better to step away from your devices and go for a walk or start a load of laundry when your brain can no longer compute.

When it comes time for the perfectionist to buckle down and produce results, the mantra ought to be: "don't get it perfect – just get it done." In software development, it's always better to ship small, unpolished changes rather than pressuring yourself to send a finished product in one working session. Remember, in the impostor syndrome roshambo – iteration beats perfection every time.

The superhero

While the perfectionist is often afraid to get started, the superhero is afraid to stop. The superhero will push themselves harder and further than everyone else to try and prove to themselves and their colleagues that they are not an impostor.

"[Superheroes] feel that they need success in all aspects of their life, at work, as parents, as partners, and they may feel stressed if they don't get to accomplish something," Taylor explained. "This is something where you can deal with what's called Clark syndrome, where you're trying to be a superhero. At night you're trying to be a parent, during the day, you're trying to do all of these different things that split you in lots of different directions."

Remote work means there is more time in your day to, well, work. While great in theory, for the superhero, remote work means that you can easily reach burn out faster than the speed of light. The pressures of producing results, managing a growing team, and being the most supportive family member can send a high-achiever into overdrive.

If you recognize yourself in this description, it may be time to assess your burnout levels. If you're in the red zone, it's time to talk to your manager to see how you can better balance the demands of your work with your health and wellbeing.

A note to managers: It is important to recognize that the responsibility of supporting superheroes doesn't just lie on the individual. It is incumbent upon managers to recognize when a team is underresourced and overperforming – is it fair to continue demanding more from your superhero just because you're confident they'll rise to the occasion?

The natural genius

The struggle is part of learning, but the growth mindset is particularly challenging for the natural genius to wrap their heads around.

"When the natural genius has to struggle to work at something, they think that they're a failure," said Taylor. "This is someone who, maybe, school came easy for them or a particular subject made sense, or maybe they were just someone who's an awesome programmer that self-taught themselves. They're used to skills coming easy. And when they have to put in the effort, their brain tells them, 'Oh, no, like you have to work for this. You're not good at this. You are an impostor.'"

The natural genius effect is particularly acute in the tech industry, where you're collaborating with a lot of sharp minds with deep knowledge of technology and computers. But as Taylor pointed out, there is no one person with a complete and total understanding of everything about computers and technology.

You may be collaborating on code produced by someone who knows all about a complex technical topic that is unfamiliar to you. It's easy for the natural genius to conflate a lack of understanding of one technical subject with a lack of knowledge in all technical subjects. While working remotely, it's even easier to get stuck in your head, and asynchronous collaboration means you're not communicating in real-time.

Sometimes, in a quest to prove their smarts, the natural genius can overcorrect their feelings of impostor syndrome and dip their toes into the Dunning-Kruger effect, which describes a cognitive bias where people with low ability overestimate their capabilities. Don't fall into the trap of trying to write complicated and clever code to impress yourself and your techy colleagues.

A tip: Don't be so hard on yourself. Instead, think about how you would approach your niece and nephew who may be having trouble with a particular subject in school. Would you admonish them for struggling? Hopefully not. Instead, check your ego at the door, embrace a growth mindset, and remember that learning something new is hard, but that doesn't mean you're incapable.

The lone ranger

"Soloists, as I call them, feel like they have to accomplish tasks on their own, and if they need to ask for help, it makes them feel like a fraud or a failure," said Taylor. "When in reality, this is not true. It takes an army to build a company, to raise a child, to build a successful career. This is one where asking for help is not a sign of weakness. In fact, it's actually a sign of strength."

The lone ranger complex is alive and well in a remote work set-up. Without your colleagues nearby, the impulse can be to fumble through a challenging workflow instead of reaching out to a colleague with your questions.

We are encouraged at GitLab to be a manager of one, meaning the individual is accountable for themselves and their own time, which could create an environment where impostor syndrome flourishes. Still, the company worked hard to encourage collaboration and communication through our handbook and the GitLab tool itself. Collaboration is one of our core values, and we have many methods for communication with colleagues when you might get stuck with a question that isn't documented in our handbook. Post to our #git-help channel on Slack, ping your manager in an issue, or create an MR for some broken code. Just remember, when you find the solution, write it down.

Our document everything policy and emphasis on collaboration helps to slay the lone ranger vampire at a company-wide level.

The experts

The expert feels as though they need to accumulate every single piece of information before they are qualified enough to dive into a new project or new role.

There are far too many smart and qualified people who feel as though their competence is measured only by what they've already accomplished, and their incompetence is measured by what you are striving to achieve. This insecurity will lead people to collect certifications and do exhaustive research before taking the plunge by diving into a challenging new project or applying for a new role.

Women-identifying individuals are particularly vulnerable to "the expert" fallacy. Research indicates that women-identifying folks are more likely to talk themselves out of opportunities or not apply for promotions or new roles when they don't meet the total list of qualifications.

GitLab has established two mentorship programs that help our team members lean in to new opportunities: CEO shadow and the Minorities in Tech (MIT) Team Member Resource Group (TMRG) mentorship program. The CEO shadow program is a (formerly in-person, now remote) rotation designed to give future senior leaders insight into the operations of the company by following GitLab CEO Sid Sijbranij throughout his day. Earlier this year, the MIT TMRG launched a new mentorship program that connects underrepresented minorities that work at GitLab to senior leaders.

What can you do about impostor syndrome?

Impostor syndrome is fueled by the negative scripts we use to narrate our life, so one of the methods for combatting impostor syndrome is to reframe your thinking.

It can be tough to identify your negative thoughts in the moment (meditation and yoga can help here), but once you can identify a negative thought, challenge it.

"Ask, 'What is objectively the answer to this negative thought? Is it true? Is there any grounding evidence that suggests that it's true?'," Taylor explained. "And then you want to reframe that. Now that you've looked at your negative thought in an objective light, you probably have some very tangible points to be able to take that energy then and say: 'Actually, I had this negative thought, but instead I'm feeling these things because of X, Y, or Z'."

The growth mindset can be a helpful way to combat feelings of impostor syndrome. The idea that success is rooted in learning from mistakes and catalyzing your potential, as opposed to achievement itself, will help rewrite the script that holds so many of us back.

More questions about impostor syndrome?

Thanks to Taylor for putting together the presentation that this blog post is based on. Watch Taylor's presentation from GitLab Virtual Contribute 2020 in full below:

Cover image by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

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