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What Is 'Impostor Syndrome' And How Do You Deal With It?

No matter where or how often you’ve found success, if you feel like you don’t deserve it or someone is going to “find you out”, you may be suffering from “Impostor syndrome”. Programmer Tommy Refenes, one of the developers behind the hit game Super Meat Boy, recently explained how he recognised, and dealt with, the condition.

Image by Allen Skyy / Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

At this year’s Game Developers Conference, Refenes gave a talk on “Impostor syndrome”, a condition apparently common among “high-achieving individuals”.

According to Wikipedia, those affected by the syndrome are unable to “internalise their accomplishments and [have] a persistent fear of being exposed as [a] ‘fraud’“.

In his GDC talk, Refenes gives the example of being asked to present at a convention back in 2015, along with the likes of Jonathan Blow (designer of popular games Braid and The Witness) and Ron Gilbert (Secret of Monkey Island and Maniac Mansion, among many others). Refenes found the idea ridiculous:

I felt really strange about it. I felt like maybe [they] needed another person, or felt sorry for me and I was thinking “Why the f**k would you want me up there? You have all these titans and some dips**t that made a game 5 years ago that’s been working non stop ever since but has yet to put out anything and the things he’s been working probably won’t see the light of day… I’m not a titan… I’m a titanic failure.”

Refenes goes on to say that he had to tell himself to “knock it off” and to take the request at its word. Towards the end of his talk, Refenes provides some sound logic in dealing with the “impostor” feeling:

It takes a lot of guts to wake up every day and jump into the unknown. It takes a lot of confidence to rely on your own abilities and put yourself, and your work, out into the world … If you’re a person who’s put even the tiniest little bit of yourself or your work out there… guess what? You’re not an impostor, you’re not pretending, and that tiny little voice in your head that says you are a Titan, start listening to it, because it’s right. You are a Titan.

In programming terms, this reminder is what Refenes calls his “thought sceptic thread”: a process that runs parallel to his normal thinking and reminds him of his accomplishments, the work involved — reality, essentially.

If you find yourself going down the same path, try to separate the emotion from your thoughts and look objectively at your successes. Hopefully, you’ll see that you didn’t cheat or bribe your way through — you’ve earned your accolades.

Impostor Syndrome [Tommy Refenes]

This post was originally published on Kotaku Australia.


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