January 19 2019, London

Jo Frachetti

Perfectionism, Impostor Syndrome and Anxiety

Working in the tech industry can sometimes make us feel inferior. It is easy to start believing that everyone knows more, or finds the work easier. When we’re surrounded by so many clever people, how can we not start to judge ourselves against them and our work against theirs? Impostor syndrome - the belief that you don’t deserve to be where you are, and perfectionism - a need to work to impossibly high standards, are exhausting. Learn how to spot these destructive thought patterns in yourself, how to manage anxiety and procrastination and how to start being kinder to yourself, because you’re awesome and you deserve to be here.

Transcript

Note: this transcript was done live, and as such there might be some errors. If you spot any - please get in touch and we'll get them fixed ASAP.

Thank you for the introduction, Scary. It’s amazing to be speaking here to all of you. My name is Jo Franchetti. I’m a developer advocate at Samsung Internet.

I don’t know how many are familiar with what we do, my role as developer advocate is to make sure you all know what Samsung Internet is and you’re all testing in it. It’s a browser with the - we’re the third most popular browser on mobile phone. If you’re not testing in it, you’re probably missing a lot of your audience. My other job is to keep you all up to date in new APIs that the browser is supporting and conversely from that, find out from you what you want from a browser and feed it back to our developers. So, I spend a lot of time travelling and talking to developers, and I’ve been a front-end developer for about seven years, and I’ve worked in many different sectors from small start-ups to big organisations, from charities to agencies, from the Civil Service to attempting to be self-employed, and I’m bad at that because I’m bad at asking people to pay me! I’m also an organiser at Codebar where we teach underrepresented people in tech. I spend a lot of time talking to developers and designers, their teams from all seniority levels through many different walks of life.

I’ve started to notice some trends, trends in behaviours, beliefs, and in complaints amongst people who work in the tech industry. To illustrate some of these, I would like to tell you a story about a friend of mine. Let’s call her Mo. While I tell you about Mo, I would like to see if you recognise any of her behaviours in yourself. So, Mo is a web developer. She’s got a few years experience under her belt and works in a team of other developers in a medium sized organisation. She went to uni like her teachers told her she should but feels she chose the wrong course, but at the time was too afraid to change because it was midway through, so instead graduated and reskilled.

She taught herself with HTML and CSS with a view to becoming a web developer. Developer. She’s had a niggling worry about her skills as a developer because she was self-taught. Sometimes, she doesn’t know the correct names or techniques for the code she’s writing but she doesn’t want to ask her colleagues for help in case she lets on about the things she doesn’t know. She’s worried they will judge her, or, worse, they will fire her. She imagines the shock on their faces. “You don’t know that? That’s so basic!” She goes to tutorials, meet-ups, events, but feels like everyone else is getting the stuff that she finds she struggles with. There are people who are writing new and awesome frameworks and tools while she’s still trying to learn the previous ones. Sometimes, she feels like a fraud.

She follows a lot of web celebrities to help her stay up to date and amazed how the speakers at the events and the people she follows on social media, how much they are able to get done. They’re creative geniuses. They know how to ask for them. Their days seem to have more hours than hers do. And they’ve all got side projects on the go as well. Mo has a few ideas for side projects, and some she can’t seem to finish. She’s worried people are going to judge her for being too unoriginal or simple so she never actually puts them in the public eye. She keeps tweaking them indefinitely. If she’s honest, she doesn’t want to face the side project. She’s been sat at her computer all day at work, she doesn’t want to sit in front of it when at home.

Her worry about keeping up with everybody and feeling good enough bothers her in the work day. Sometimes, she’s so worried she can’t concentrate on what she’s doing and then worried she’s wasted time worrying. She works longer hours and takes shorter breaks, and she still hasn’t asked for help because she doesn’t want to give her secrets away. In order to, she starts to join more events and joining web-related organisations. People often tell her they don’t know how she manages to fit it all in. She smiles and shrugs off their comments because they won’t find out she’s a fraud. When she gets home, she doesn’t have the time or energy to deal with chores or see her real friend. Her diet has become quiet bad because she’s eating so much pizza at these events and drinking more than she used to, but, you know, there’s a free bar.

Even though she gets to bed late, she can’t sleep at night because she can’t switch her brain off which likes to switch between her workload and the jobs she needs to do around the house. Her ability to concentrate at work continues to suffer. She procrastinates a lot instead of getting work done. She will write emails or check social media, anything that stops her getting down to start work. She panics because she feels she hasn’t done enough in the day, and her daily stand-up meetings become a dread every morning because she is worried her team will be asking her if she’s productive enough. Maybe they’re going to fire her.

By the way, her team thinks she’s doing fine. They only see the output of her extra hours of work and not the procrastination that comes before it. Mo constantly looks to external sources to validate her choices. She manufacture believes she’s good enough. She puts down her own work and instead lives for her next Twitter likes, and her boss tells her the project she has been working on has increased revenue. She never sees any increased revenue herself because she’s too ray frayed to ask for a promotion. Promotions only happen to people who know what they’re doing. One day at work, Mo gets an email from a colleague saying she made a mistake in some work, and part of her just kind of snaps. She runs to the bathroom because she knows she’s going to start crying and she doesn’t want anyone to see. She cries uncontrollably for an hour. Once she’s done, she cleans up her face and goes back to her desk and pretends nothing has happened. Everyone else can cope with their workload.

Occasionally, Mo can’t face going into the office so she calls in sick those days but never tells anyone that it’s her mental health that is suffering and not her physical health. The only time that Mo ever feels she can truly relax from work is at the pub with her colleagues. They’re not working either, so it must mean she can stop thinking about work for an hour or so. Her team have a tendency to binge drink, or not. One night after drinking herself into oblivion, she gets on her bike and cycles home. She doesn’t remember the journey, doesn’t remember most of the evening at all, if she’s honest, but she does remember cycling into a railing outside her house and catapulting herself across the road. Thankfully, for Mo, a few days of concussion and bruising and scratches were enough to make her realise that she needed to start facing her fears and her anxieties. She started therapy and learning about the causes of anxiety and stress. She started to learn that the mental health issues she was facing, anxiety related to imposter syndrome and perfectionism, actually plague many people in the tech industry but people don’t often talk about them.

If you recognise any of Mo’s behaviour, I would like to talk you through it now. As an aside, my DMs are open if you want to talk about your experiences as well. Please do send me a message. I would like to give you a short introduction to the issues that Mo faced. Along with some questions to ask yourself and methods of recognition to help you notice if you’re ever going through what she did. I truly believe that the tech industry is an amazing place to be, and the more we talk about these things, the more we can change the face of mental health in the tech industry. And our own mental well being. So let’s get started.

Firstly, imposter syndrome. You might have called it imposter phenomenon or imposter experience. Imposter syndrome describes the feeling that you haven’t really earned your accomplishments. That, by fraud or just dumb luck you’ve ended up in the same place as others, and you don’t feel worthy, you don’t feel you deserve to be there. And to all it a syndrome actually downplays how universal in feeling is. It’s not a disease, and it’s not an abnormality, and it isn’t necessarily tied to depression, anxiety, or self-esteem, but it’s prevalent in highly skilled and highly intelligent people. Just like the people who are attracted to the tech industry.

So where do these feelings come from? People like yourselves who are skilled and intelligent at the end to this that your colleagues and peers are also skilled and intelligent. This can sometimes cause you to judge yourself against others and to do so unfairly and harshly. This judgment can cause you to believe that you don’t deserve the opportunities, the qualifications and the accolades that you earned, or in some way, the skills that you gathered aren’t worth as much as the skills of the people around you. This can be coupled with qualifications or accolades you’ve earned you feel aren’t worthwhile any more, not praiseworthy. Have you only achieved something but, when you did, you felt it came too easy, or that someone made a mistake in giving it to you? Or, once you’ve got it, it isn’t enough, and you have to start working towards the next thing?

Imposter syndrome doesn’t let you feel pride or joy in your achievements. Another problem with imposter syndrome is that our fears can be intensified by a phenomenon known as state ignorance. This is where we doubt ourselves in private but never voice our doubts so we believe we’re alone in thinking that way because no-one else talks about it be either, and this can be exacerbated by social media where people only present their best achievements and successes. People rarely publish their mistakes, or their doubts, or their own foibles. And it becomes really difficult to know how our peers are feeling, or how difficult they find certain tasks, or how often they get stuck, or have to ask for help. And we don’t know whether or not - this means there’s no way for us to dismiss the feeling that we are less capable than those around us, so, with a view to sharing, and sharing how prevalent this issue is, I would like to share with you incredible famous people.

Maya Angelou, after writing 11 books and winning many, many awards, didn’t feel she had earned her accomplishments. She said, “I’ve written 11 books but each time, I think uh-oh, they’re going to find me out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.” Any moment, someone is going to say I’m a total fraud, I don’t deserve any of what I’ve achieved. If you can believe it, Albert Einstein also experienced imposter syndrome. He described himself as “an involuntary swindler whose work didn’t deserve as much attention as it received.”

Talking with others about imposter syndrome is the best way to start recognising your fears for what they are. They are normal but immaterial, and certainly unfactual. And whenever I’m worrying about - about whether everyone around me knows more than me or whether I think I belong, I like to think of something I call Schroedinger’s syndrome. I think my fears are more intelligent and - also, they’re so gullible and stupid that I’ve cleverly tricked them to say I deserve to be amongst them. Now, these two statements currently exist alongside - can’t exist along each other and true, my knowledge is fallible and unlikely, and so is my belief in myself.

You’re going to have a brilliant talk by Sascha later proving how much you know and how much you can give. We may never be able to banish imposter experience entirely, but we can have open and frank conversations with our peers, seniors, mentors, and friends and help to build confidence in some of the fact. You’re talented, you are capable, and you belong here. So, secondly, I would like to talk to you about perfectionism. When I was preparing for my first-ever tech interview, I was given a common piece of advice I’m sure some of you have been told also at some point. If an interviewer of asks you what your weaknesses are, just say that you’re a perfectionist. This advice was given to me by my boss at the time, and it’s the kind of statement that makes everybody roll their eyes, interviewers and interviewees alike know this is a cop-out answer, that you were not revealing any weakness because employers want to hire perfectionists. They do the great and best work, right? They do perfect work. It never occurred to me at the time as I naīvely accepted this older man’s instruction that I had learned to know the real truth behind the statement.

So, Wikipedia says that perfectionism in psychology is a personality trait characterised by a person striving for flawlessness, settle high performance standards accompanied by critical self-evaluation s and concerns regarding others’ evaluations. If you think about it, it sounds great. If I was an employer, I want to hire somebody who cares about other people’s evaluations and has high standards. They sound like a real achiever. Perfectionism can offer a block to your achievements. Imagine you’re constantly trying for perfection - not greatness, excellence - actual perfection. You can’t help but set yourself up to fail. Achieving perfection is not something that happens often.

Perfectionists measure our own self-worth by how able we are to achieve this perfection and by how much we can accomplish. If the accomplishments aren’t achieved, we can be very harsh on ourselves. The trouble is that, for perfectionists, our performance is intertwined with our sense of self. If we don’t succeed, we’re not just disappointed but we feel shame about who we actually are. Imagine you got a bad score in a test, and you tell yourself, I’m disappointed, that’s okay. I’m still a good person. That’s healthy. If your message to yourself is I’m a failure, I’m not good enough, that’s perfectionism.

Perfectionists often engage in something called “catastrophic” or “black and white thinking” where everything either becomes perfect or terrible. Even things that people would call great or good enough fall into the terrible category because they’re not perfect. An example would be a fear of publishing a piece of work because you’re worried that somebody might find an error in it. The idea of somebody finding an error becomes this end-of-world scenario rather than something manageable they could work through once they get there. I was diagnosed as a perfectionist last year, and it was a relief to have a name to put to the stress that I was feeling. Every time I made a mistake, or I had a mental block, I tended to spiral into this kind of depression, and a decision paralysis which made the mental block even worse and made the stress greater.

One time the anxiety I felt being able to do a perfect piece of work manifested itself into crippling neck pain and the doctors had to put me on Valium to make me take a week off work. And the tech industry, capitalism, and our society as a whole love it when we strive for perfection. Build faster, better things. Be the most successful. Earn the most money, and then you can spend it on being even better. Tech employers will often encourage the idea, the unhealthy belief, that we should be constantly striving to work harder to create more, and to learn everything. The idea of being successful and turning a profit is drilled into us from such an early age. We have entrance exams to get into the right schools at 11 years old. And we are led to believe we have to get the right job straight out of education otherwise our careers will be ruined. Perfectionist employees often pressure themselves into tiredness, depression, paralysis, and even burn-out, all while probably continuing to turn in great work but never daring to ask for help because that would be admitting they can’t be perfect.

And much like those with imposter syndrome, perfectionists will often disregard their own accomplishments because they’re not enough. As soon as they get something that they would working towards, it’s instantly disregarded because that feeling of perfection that is impossible to achieve is never felt, so they instantly start working towards the next thing, and the next thing, and it’s an unsustainable and unhappy way to be. It can quickly lead to overwork and to burn-out. So, if you’re not sure whether you’ve ever had perfectionist tendencies, I would like to ask you a few questions to consider: firstly, one that got me, would you consider yourself a perfectionist? Now, if you answered as I did something along the lines of “oh, no, there’s no way I’m good enough to be a perfectionist” … [Laughter]. Then, I’ve got news for you! Have you ever felt like you can’t start a project because you can’t decide how to start?

Sometimes, figuring out the perfect way to start is an actual blocker even to to get that started. Have you ever left a project unfinished because you couldn’t get it exactly how you wanted it? The project feels not quite perfect yet so you keep adding bits, and you keep tweaking bits, and you are still not ready to actually show it to anybody or ask anybody’s opinion of it yet. Have you ever worried and worried about a project and put it off and delayed until the last second right up in the deadline when you’ve finally been forced to do some work and output something? And then felt surprised and maybe a little bit silly about how it was all fine in the end? And how everybody actually thought your work was great! Have you ever felt afraid or ashamed about asking help from a colleague or a peer because maybe that will show that you don’t know something? And that you can’t manage something? Perfect people can manage and everything. Better just to try that Google search than turn to your colleague.

Have you ever found yourself repeatedly scrolling through social media or watching reruns on Netflix or even tidying your house when you know you should be doing something else? There are two sides to this question. As I mentioned before, perfectionists tend to procrastinate when they don’t know how to start or finish a project. Not working on the project means you can’t ever be a failure because it will never be finished. The other side to that is that perfectionists, and to be honest, capitalism as well, want us to be working and improving. When we’re not working, maybe we feel like we should be, but by allowing ourselves downtime, we’re actually being lazy. This is the kind of feeling that makes us check our work emails at midnight, or be constantly present on work Slack. Maybe you want to prove your dedication, or you want to one-up your colleagues, or, for whatever reason, that kind of behaviour needs to be kept in check.

You need to allow yourself real downtime, time when you’re not thinking about work, or when you’re not feeling guilty about not working. So what can we do both as perfectionists and friends of perfectionists to make the tech industry a safer kind of place to work? So, as I said earlier, allow yourself time. Sometimes, you just can’t tackle a problem. It doesn’t mean you’ll never be able to tackle it, it just means you can’t do it right now.

Give yourself some time out and don’t let feelings of guilt or shame take over. Take a half an hour walk, or a whole day or two away from the problem. Schedule a start time for when you’re going to try again in the future. Set deadlines, goals, targets, and schedules that are realistic. Either set them for yourself or get someone to help you set them. Too much freedom can often be stifling to perfectionists. We need something to aim for and something to improve on. Given a blank canvas, we will panic or procrastinate, or start multiple projects. And tell somebody about the goals that you have set. When you tell somebody about it, it makes you feel more concrete about it. It’s easier to keep a promise to yourself other than - remember, perfectionism isn’t about high standards, it’s about unrealistic standards.

How many projects have you thrown away because they weren’t perfect? How many times have you struggled for hours on a problem because you were too I a frayed to ask for help? You’ll probably be surprised that not only will nobody else in the these imperfections that you’re seeing, they will think that your work is great. Acknowledge that you are your own most harsh critic. Most people don’t expect perfection, only perfectionists think that they do. No-one is going to judge you as harshly as you judge yourself. It’s okay to make mistakes. Everybody does. It’s even okay to release imperfect code. It’s okay if somebody calls you up on the mistake you made, thank them, learn from it, and both move on through lives. The world will not end.

Consider how you would react if somebody said the things you’re thinking about yourself to one of your friends. And taking things through to their logical conclusion, instead of the catastrophic black-and-white thinking of if I made a mistake in front of my colleagues and that’s the end of everything, consider what the end of everything looks like. Consider the worst possible outcome of your fear, and then be honest with yourself about how likely that scenario actually is. Then you can start to consider how events would play out and how bad or not it would actually be. Teaching yourself to do these things can save you hours of worrying.

The more I’ve spoken about my experiences with perfectionism, the more people have told me about their similar experiences. The tendency for intelligence and achievement in the tech industry is perhaps unsurprisingly that so many people suffer from imposter syndrome and perfectionism.

The more we talk about it, the less we will feel stigma around it. If you’re a mentor, consider asking your men tease what they worry - mentees what they worry about outside of the curriculum. If you have a mentor, consider asking them if they’ve felt imposter syndrome, or had a problem starting or finishing projects. If you’ve not got a mentor, consider getting one.

Talk to your managers. If you’re worried about how you’re managing your time, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to your colleagues about it, talk to your friends, or talk to me. I’m always happy to chat, and I’m on the Codebar Slack or Twitter. Everybody goes through rough periods. We don’t have to downplay it. We can validate our and others’ experiences. It’s okay to say, “Yes, this is hard sometimes.” The more open and communicative about mental health, the more pleasant we can make the tech industry for everyone.

The final issue I would like to talk to you about, and that I would like you to watch out in yourselves, is anxiety. Now, anxiety is a natural and normal feeling. Worrying about a new experience, or a deadline or a scary situation is understandable. However, anxiety becomes a problem if you’re feeling it all the time. Or, if you’re feeling it for a long period of time. Now, we learn anxiety as babies. We rely entirely on thinking we’re lovable enough to give us something we need. Sometimes, that need to feel loved and feel accepted, and to feel worthy stays with us for the rest of their lives, and we need assurance that we are doing okay.

In the last few years, we’ve been given powerful tools for checking how we’re doing in comparison to everybody else - Instagram, I’m looking at you! And, these tools are a great way to get instant validations on our decisions and life choices. Posting on social media gives us a means of presenting the lives that we want our lives to be, and getting validation in the forms of likes and comments.

But we can’t help comparing the actuality of our lives with the beautiful idealised illustrations that other people have put out there which can stoke our fear that we are doing less well than others. Anxiety has many symptoms to look out for: increased heart rate, heart palpitations, feeling a tightness or a weight on your chest, and finding it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep, none of which we want to deal with on a regular basis.

Both imposter syndrome and perfectionism can be causes of anxiety and impact on your mental well being. Record numbers of people are experiencing poor mental health, according to the World Health Organisation. And, a good prediction of depression is self-criticism, which perfectionists and those with imposter syndrome are very, very good at. Worsening being self-critical not only leads to depressive symptoms but then makes the criticism worse, and it’s a horrible loop.

It’s also been shown one best protections against anxiety and depression is self-compassion, something perfectionists are not very good at. How can we improve our self-compassion and self-care? Because, truly, it does take practice and it takes patience. Firstly, we want at that to change where we look for validation.

We’re used to the ideas of external signs of success. We are trained into it from when we’re very young. Our parents, teachers, and grades tell us we’re doing okay. Sometimes, we move on to a job, and we start feeling the need for that same validation, but we can find it less readily. We start looking to unhealthy sources for indications about whether or not we are succeeding. We want bosses to tell us we’ve done a good job. We want to be on the highest possible salary we can. We crave the next Twitter or Instagram like. One or two likes on social media can feel good, and, sure, a pay rise will feel great, and soon that feeling wears off and we’re back to feeling insecure. Self-validation is the idea that you accept your own internal experience with thoughts and feelings.

It’s knowing that, in yourself, you’re good enough, and that your experiences are worthy, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to agree with or feel good about every single thought and experience that you have, there are some thoughts and feelings that you know aren’t justified, but accepting them allows you to calm yourself and to manage your emotions more effectively. How can we learn to self-validate?

Firstly, instead of resolving to instantly change your behaviour, first learn to recognise it. If you find yourself engaging in negative thoughts about yourself, or procrastination, or checking your work Slack too often or whatever behaviour you’re concerned about, acknowledge and consider it.

Once you’ve reached a point where you can notice that you’re engaging in a bad habit, then you can start to consider reasoning with yourself over it or reflect on why you’re doing it. If you’re feeling insecure, consider whether it is a societal pressure, coming from you or a societal pressure making you feel that way. If you feel procrastinating, schedule in a start time. If you’re checking your work email at night, sure, check it, and turn your phone off and put it down. Don’t berate yourself for it. Acknowledge it, accept that it happens, reflect on it, and move on. Consider what might be a … issue. If you have trouble getting to sleep at night, it’s because you’ve not spent enough time reflecting on the day and all your experiences.

The time when your brain does that, “Remember the embarrassing things you’ve done in your life” and you’re lying there sweating? You can avoid that by spending some downtime either before bed, or whenever is best for you, thinking about your day, and how it went, and how you feel about it. Consider only the facts and try not to make assumptions. “I’ve got such and such done today, and I feel good about it..” great. “I didn’t do X. Worried about that. My friend cancelled on me for lunch. I’m angry. Fine. These are all fine.

“I’m a failure and I don’t know anything” is an assumption, not a fact. Try and consider where that thought has come from. Are you being driven by a need for perfection. Are you believing the stories of capitalism, or, dare I say it, the Patriarchy? Put management methods into place for your procrastination. Consider using apps like the Pomodoro Technique that can help you set time for when you’re working and when you’re not.

If you’re applying for jobs, don’t be afraid to ask probing questions how they support employees with mental health. Schedule and work and rest hours, that way you can’t feel guilt over when you’re working and not. Allow your friends to help you through catastrophic thinking. The number of times that I have had a friend just say, “And then what?” When I’ve described my panic scenario, I’ve gone, “Yeah, then, it will probably be okay.” Sometimes, you need that extra nudge to remember that it’s not the end of days.

And finally, get in touch with what happens, what helps to keep you calm when you’re feeling anxious, tired, or in need of a little me time. For some people, that’s a walk around the block. For some people, it’s taking a bubble bath, getting a bubble tea. It has to come from you and not somebody else. These should be things that reduce your blood pressure and not raise it. Posting to Twitter doesn’t count. Texting your crush doesn’t count. Eating a kilo of chocolate doesn’t count!

And you’ve got a brilliant talk coming up on self-care later this afternoon from Taylor which I’m sure will tell you more, so I’m going to leave you with this: self-soothing is the things you can do for yourself, to give yourself time to feel validated and happy.

Why am I telling you all these things? Because I never want anybody else to go through what I did, or to feel alone or unsupported. Because, I really think that, by talking about it, we can increase awareness and learning about mental health in the tech industry, because you deserve to feel happy and comfortable, and, as evidenced by the brilliant line-up that you’ve got coming today, the tech industry, wonderful, empowering, and it can be a brilliant place to be, and you deserve to be there.

Thank you. [Cheering and Applause]

Pic of Jo Frachetti

Jo is a Web Developer Advocate for Samsung Internet who is passionate about VR, Web Bluetooth, PWAs and great CSS.

@ThisIsJoFrank
Sketchnote of talk Sketchnote by Drawnalism Picture of talk Photo by Paul Clarke Picture of talk Photo by Paul Clarke