Self-Reprogramming: Overcoming Stereotype threat and impostor Syndrome

5 minute read

First a couple definitions;

  • Stereotype Threat: The experience of anxiety when a person has the chance to confirm a negative stereotype about their social group.
  • Impostor Syndrome: When a person is unable to internalize their accomplishments and they feel like a fraud

I am a woman and I am a programmer. I spend most of my day writing code for computers. In a way teaching the computer to take some input, process it, and produce a reasonable output. The process is a very logic driven one. If there is some strange output it’s usually because I messed up along the way in telling the computer how to process the input.

My own brain is a little different. Impostor Syndrome and Stereotype Threat have played a very big part in my self-perception, that is, until I was able to put a name to them, internalize them, and try to reprogram my own brain on what was truth. These were very much so the monsters under the bed. Invisible, but affecting my daily life, and, unknown to me at the time, affecting the lives of many people around me. I’m not sure my self-perception will ever be “true”. I’m not sure that’s really possible since I can only frame it from my perspective, but at least I can get closer.

As a kid I struggled early on in school. I made it to first grade and around November I was returned to kindergarten. I had to play the role of the new kid again and had “Leo the Late Bloomer” read to me more times than I could count. The tests for learning disabilities were inconclusive, but I was definitely behind in my hand and eye coordination. I was told I would have to work harder than all my peers and that things would just come slower to me than others.

School was absolutely rough for me until I was placed in a class where creativity and self-expression was highly encouraged. Drawing unlocked a part of my brain that allowed me to process the world around me a bit easier, but I was still convinced that I was stupid despite my ever increasing grades.

I discovered computers and technology relatively young and decided that working somewhere in the field of computers was what I wanted to do when I was 12. I was the first female member of the technology club in high school (eventually first female president of the club) and despite being very out of place I was welcomed into the group with open arms. In the club we built and program robots to navigate a maze and failure was really a huge part of that. Despite doing something relatively challenging and doing relatively okay I still didn’t feel quite like I was good at programming.

This trend continued into college. Many of my friends would stare at me and class and whisper “you know this” when a question was asked, but raising my hand to answer a question or dare I say even ask a question made my heart pound in my chest. Just thinking about speaking in front of people made my stomach turn. For a while “I’m bad a things” became my mantra. For any and every mistake I made those words would leave my lips and it felt like truth.

Finishing school and starting my first job at a local startup was where I was finally able to start the slow progress of turning around my mental state. I was challenged more than I ever was before; doing things that I had no idea how to do previously. Given a task I was thinking “I have no idea how to do this”, but I had to and I eventually figured it out. It built my confidence so much that I decided that I could handle grad school after all so I left my job to work on a master’s degree in CS.

There are a lot of things one could say about grad school, but for me it was so soul crushing, so doubt inducing, so impersonal and unforgiving that I yet again was convinced that I was a complete idiot. Massive depression followed and I found myself seeking mental help for the first time (and I never did get my master’s). During that process I found myself having to change my thinking and try to rewrite my self-perception. It was extremely difficult for me to hack my brain; I know for many others the process can be discouraging. Still a work in progress (always will be), but I found the following things helpful;

  • Try to catch negative thoughts the moment they happen: This can be very hard and takes a lot of practice, but it’s essential to catch them if you are going to try to change them.
  • Start transforming the negative into neutral: Taking a negative thought about yourself and turning it positive is hard, but neutral is easier to start with: “I’m bad at things” to “Maybe I’m bad at things, but maybe I’m not”.
  • Challenge yourself to difficult tasks: If you fail it’s okay the task is intentionally hard, but if you succeed it’s immensely rewarding.
  • When you succeed or are recognized for your skills take a moment to think about it: It’s hard to internalize success, but when you do well stop and think about it, make a mental note of it, or maybe even make a physical note of it.
  • Find something that you are good at that many people struggle with: This can be challenging especially if you are in a very negative mind-space, but it exists and when you find it you need to remind yourself that it is there.

Though, my most important assets in removing my self-doubt were my friends. A good support group of people that struggle with similar challenges or will push you to try new things or push yourself are extremely valuable. I am very lucky to have a great support network both on and offline, but to get that support network you have to expose a bit of yourself. These people will be aware of what you struggle with and that can be scary, but they will be there when you need help pushing forward to get past these insecurities.

Without my friends I would have never spoken at any conferences. I would have never worked on an OS. I would have never been able to recognize that I am a good programmer and that I am very capable of learning new things and pushing myself to new levels. The process is ongoing and difficult, but self-reprogramming is entirely possible. Many people out there deal with these insecurities every day of their lives. Remember, you aren’t alone.