Burnout: My struggle with Imposter Syndrome

May 02, 2014

Reading Time: 8 to 10 minutes

Sometimes the assumption from others is that my job is easy. I sit in front of a computer all day and type on a keyboard. How stressful is that? Very. I always equate it to running a marathon in your head. You are constantly practicing, making quick decisions, acting on instinct, always driving, and generally being amplified by Caffeine. When you begin piling on all those responsibilities and doing too much for too long, your brain will give up and you'll hit burnout. You know that exhausting feeling after a good, long run? Think that, but all the time. You are constantly tired, easily distracted with seemingly simpler tasks unable to consider starting something. It's a monster I had to face yet again in my career.

What is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter Syndrome is a psychological phenomena where you are unable to internalize your accomplishments. Even though there is plenty of evidence to show your accomplishments, you still are convinced that its 'luck' or 'good timing' that got you there. A really great talk by Julie Pagano called "It's Dangerous to Go Alone: Battling the Invisible Monsters in Tech" is worth watching as she delivers amazingly helpful information in that talk.

I've been here before

To put this into context, I have been programming for roughly 18 years now. I got curious at a young age and never really lost the addiction of solving problems, especially with code. Family members would send me puzzles as gifts and I would solve them almost as fast as I could open the box. However, I almost gave all of that up around 8 years ago and I wrote about it last year. Faced with two really badly executed contracts, it put into question my inexperience with client work, but not my technical skills as a developer and that almost caused me to quit.

So what happened this time?

After unpacking this recently, I can remember roughly 8 months ago a pivotal moment in my career at my previous job. It was a rather casual conversation regarding my progress and performance. For the last 16 months I had been the sole person building out an ever expanding server infrastructure while automating it with Chef. By then I had also spoken at 4 conferences and had been heavily involved in several major side projects. For those familiar with Imposter Syndrome, you might see where this is going.

At this casual conversation about my progress and performance, it came up about my performance in context of the development team. While I was applauded for my overall accomplishments, I was told the team had lost confidence in my deliverability and ability to achieve newer goals in system administration. That one conversation shattered my self confidence as if it were a glass statue just hit by a sledgehammer. My initial reaction was confusion and anger. How could I not have gotten that feedback sooner? Why am I not getting help? This quickly devolved into saying things like "I'm not good enough, I can't do anything". Not very long after that conversation, it became denial. I'd buried the problem and thought "I can prove it to them, I'll work even harder!"

The invisible mountain on your shoulders

If you check my twitter feed or even this blog, I've done some really crazy and cool things in my life. However, I am generally modest and humble about all of them and am usually the first to doubt my abilities. None of that was enough to feel like I accomplished anything in life so I stacked on more responsibilities. I had taken on several large side projects, maintained a few open source software projects, and started attending more events than I could possibly schedule. Before I knew it, the task list more than filled up weekends and weeknights. I was running and soon forgot why I started to run.

Hitting the brick wall

Ringing in the New Year is a good time to reflect and give some serious thought about the past year. For me however, it slowly became a scary realization that I was burned out from technology. I was dreading going back to work, my side projects languished, and I started stressing out about all the little things. By this time I wasn't even sure I could continue doing server administration or programming at all. I wasn't good enough to do it, despite handling 25 servers and a data center move while over 1.5 million requests slammed the servers each week. You would think I've reasonably proven that I can grow and scale servers right? I didn't think so and that is where Imposter Syndrome gets the better of you.

Around the same time I swore off tech conferences entirely for the year, almost never wanting to return. Depression about my career prospects was beginning to sink in heavily and once again I was back in a similar place roughly 8 years ago. I was exhausted, tired, and in tears.

The Turning Point

The stress was really beginning to break me and it was starting to spill over into my relationship with my husband. At one point there was an intervention. He saw how much everything was draining me emotionally and wanted to help stop the pain. Close friends were getting worried and I decided it was time to evaluate my career options. It wasn't just myself putting me in this situation, my job was also providing additional stress and I needed to leave. Slowly, I began asking around for opportunities and trying to find other places to work.

I ended up doing several job interviews and weighing my options. Even going so far as seeking career advice from some close friends with my situation. Do I choose to stay and hope for the better or maybe go with a new job and try to hope for the best? Quit all together? It was hard to decide while still working day to day in technology. My personal investment was seemingly outweighing my own mental health and that was becoming dangerous.

Luckily, I had already scheduled time off to attend a Furry Convention. One place I could be silly, see friends, and generally have a good time away from technology. I remember packing up my laptop just in case and stashing it in the hotel safe. The only time I took it back out was when it was time to head home.

I needed that weekend off to decompress, de-stress, and reflect. I woke up the next morning and sat down with a cup of coffee to write my resignation letter.

Picking up the pieces

I'm fortunate to have amazing support from my husband and some close friends through this part of my life this time around. I was able to seek some career advice and get some perspective on the last 8 years of my career. It was a really slow process that involved a lot of emotions and that recurring self doubt. I remember gaining a lot of confidence when I began interviewing at other companies and having to go over my accomplishments. That was when things really began to sink in and build me back up as a person. Not only was someone else impressed with what I had done, but I was too. For the first time, I thought there was a good chance I could continue enjoying what I love.

It's not over yet

I wish there was a way to fast forward my progress, but its been a slow and steady recovery since the New Year. I'm now at DNSimple and beginning to get my footing there. What has been the hardest part of working there is actually taking feedback and internalizing it. The team has put lots of trust in me to do my job and my opinions matter because of my experience. Honestly, it's still hard to enthusiastically say I work at a great company and love what I do, but I feel I'm building that love and enthusiasm day by day. Meanwhile, I am slowly reconnecting to my past commitments and starting over again.