Hydrate, but be sensible: dealing with impostor syndrome

I want you to imagine yourself at work and you have an empty water glass in front of you. OK? Now, fill this glass up to about a third with “Responsibilities”. Cool, that looks good. Secondly, let’s add just about another third’s worth of “Other people’s expectations” and lastly, let’s top it off with “Your own expectations”. If your glass is just full you’re not like most people. If your glass is overflowing and causing water damage, you’re normal and just like me.

If somehow your glass was already overflowing after the first step, you have a different kind of water damage to deal with (hint: ask for help and delegate). The type of water damage I want to talk about comes from mainly the third thing we put in our glass, or potentially a combination of the second and third.

The extent and the consequences of our water damage can differ depending on who we are as people, what our background is, and what we do for a living to name a few. People working in tech are generally quite ambitious, so the last thing (which is supposed to be a third and create a nice balance), I would say is often closer to a half of the glass. 

Now, the order in which we fill our glass doesn’t really matter. If you were to add “Your own expectations” first, and then “Responsibilities” and “Other people’s expectations”, you might think that others are expecting too much from you, or that you have too many responsibilities. This could of course be true, but in that case your best option is still to lower your own expectations (or delegate). I know, outrageous, right? I know you know this, but math is the law here. We can’t fill our glasses with six thirds, or even four. I’m totally simplifying here, but the fact of the matter is still that the only thing we can truly monitor and adjust is our own expectations, and those have to be based on our circumstances, also known as The Water Glass. In this universe of analogies there are also the three coasters upon which the glass stands: Time, Experience and Support. Out of these three, at least two must always be present.

If you’re feeling annoyed by this statement, or simply think I’m wrong, we are very much alike you and I.


“You can always work harder!”

Can you, really? I think people with water damage are extremely hard workers, and hard work tends to add to “Your own expectations” or come from “Other people’s expectations”. Meaning more water. If it’s the latter you might need to talk to someone and explain your circumstances so they can either give you the missing coaster or adjust that water flow. Seriously, you may not have more than one glass.

“I don’t even know if I have water damage”

Have you ever been disappointed with a good outcome because it wasn’t perfect? Or maybe had the silly thought that “I’m not perfect enough to be a perfectionist”? I have. Perhaps have there been times when you’ve been really afraid of making mistakes? I’ve always questioned why the heck I should aim for anything other than perfection, regardless of my circumstances.

“How can I lower my expectations and still not disappoint other people?”

Let’s try rephrasing this. “How can I accept that I’m doing my best given my circumstances?”. The problem isn’t your performance, but what you expect to perform given what you know, the extent of your experience, the time you have and the state of your water damage. By accepting that there is water everywhere and taking care of it you’ll actually be able to contribute more, while reducing the amount of water. And listen, you’re not disappointing anyone. 


“Ok, so what do I do about water damage?”

This kind of water damage does not appear overnight, and it sure won’t disappear that fast either. After a couple of breakdowns I started talking about it with some of my coworkers, mainly to explain why I was being a weirdo. It turned out that I was not the only one who had these kinds of struggles. Hearing from other people, who I look up to, that they too have doubts, gave me some perspective. I started using the weekly updates we share with one another at work to publicly write about my insights and struggles, and the response was great!

I’ve worked hard to hush that inner critic of mine, while also trying to remind myself that everyone is actually on my team, rooting for me to succeed. It still happens that I freeze while pairing because I’m afraid of saying something stupid so that they’ll know what a fraud I am, because I should of course already know everything. Right? When that happens I try to imagine the coasters with the glass on top of it to see if it looks alright. Do I have at least two coasters? Are my own expectations reasonable given the previous question?

My greatest insight has probably been that I know more than I give myself credit for and that it’s really important that I let every bit count.

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