This article discusses mental health issues. Thank you to all the students who participated in the open conversation, as well as to the students who shared a few comments about their feelings with us.
Giving priority to students’ mental health has always been an essential part of MigraCode Barcelona. When setting up the program one of the main concerns was to ensure quality psychological support to the students to prevent their early drop-out. A task that is carried out by the MigraCode mental health team, formed by psychologist volunteers.
September is a delicate moment for many students. During the month, the graduation ceremony for the batch of students that started the course in January will be held. The students will have to present their final project, thus concluding their journey. At the same time, the students who started in July find themselves facing the first more complicated challenges, after the initial enthusiasm.
For these reasons, we decided to have an open conversation about well-being and mental health, to understand how the students were coping with these changes. One of the clear patterns that emerged was that many were experiencing the so-called impostor syndrome. But what is it, exactly?
When we asked the students to provide us with a definition of the “syndrome”, a rather detailed picture of emotions turned up: self-doubt, lack of self-esteem, insomnia, fear of other people’s judgment, anxiety – all somehow associated with the feeling of being in the wrong place, an undeserved one.
These beliefs can create a vicious circle. The thought process of being a fraud and not up to expectations brings feelings of anxiety, of not being worthy enough, and reduces the student’s confidence in their abilities. The ultimate result is that students prefer to distance themselves from their classmates for fear of being less capable and therefore despised. Besides the challenges connected to the program, there are numerous others related to the student’s diverse background that can concur to making the program overwhelming: adapting to a new culture, waiting for legal documentation, being away from family and friends, and having to worry about their well-being.
According to research, impostor syndrome is especially relevant in the tech industry. About 58% of tech employees state that they have experienced some form of the condition within their careers. “It’s especially common in software engineers, developers, and designers. It’s usually worse in people who are new within the tech industry, are part of an underrepresented group, or have come from different professional backgrounds“.
To explore the issue further, we decided to talk about it in more depth with two current MigraCode students, Damian and Natalia, and Luciana, a volunteer psychologist of the mental health team. Natalia and Damian are at two distinct points in the program: Damian is working on his final project which he will present in a few days, Natalia, on the other hand, only started the course a few months ago. Both, however, reported that they have often had to deal with feelings of impostor syndrome as described above, or as we decide to call it, the impostor phenomenon – “to make it sound less like an illness”. They decided to join our conversation because they were interested in understanding what these feelings stem from and what are the possible tactics to block the flow of thought – or as Damian described it “this tangled psychological mess” – that leads one to feel like an impostor.
Natalia describes that her feelings can surface at any time and can be very persistent:
“There are times in which I experience these feelings all day. Sometimes it’s when I wake up, sometimes when I go to bed. I constantly question myself: what am I doing? I spend the days doing the exercises and doubting myself. I get stuck on an exercise and then I panic. How can I help myself?”
On Natalia’s side, a significant role in determining her feelings is the fact that entering the tech world means for her to embark on a career change from sociology, in her 30s. She explained to us: “I’m a letter person. I started to study coding without having any previous experience. The coding program it’s hard. I see that some of my classmates, younger ones, that have no previous experience found it less hard to study and they understand easier. I feel old“.
Damian, on the other hand, already had some experience in coding, and maybe for this reason, he faces more problems when having to ask others for help. As he admits himself, although he knows it can be helpful to rely on others, he prefers to ask Google for the solution to his problems: “when I am frustrated I ask google, I search and search, for hours, I spend days trying to find a solution until I have an answer. I know that I need help but I still have to accept this fact”.
To their questions on how to curb these feelings, the truth is that there is no single answer to why people experience them. At the same time, it is rather difficult to find a single person in the world who at some point in their life has not found themselves doubting themselves. In certain contexts, some external factors contribute to increasing these feelings. For instance, in a workplace, the fewer people who look or sound like you, the less you will feel confident. This is why, for instance, it is essential to reduce the unbalance between women’s and men’s representations in the STEM fields.
Fortunately, there are tactics to decrease the force of these thoughts and make them less corrosive in our lives. One of the first steps to overcoming impostor feelings is to acknowledge these thoughts and try to reframe them. It is very common for people to start comparing themselves to others and starting to isolate themselves. Therefore, it is essential to ask for support from other people and to share your feelings. The response to the negative beliefs of impostor syndrome can prevent people from getting support. However, as Luciana pointed out, “it’s important to understand that you’re slowing yourself down when you don’t ask for help. Other people have been in your same shoes, and have probably experienced these feelings, and this can make everything less scary“.
Luciana also stated that: “maintaining motivation high it’s important. Organizing a routine, not pushing your heart too much. Sometimes we think that we are not good enough, and we need to work extra time, but this approach is not necessarily the most productive. Sometimes we just need to rest and balance everything out. Using a schedule and having breaks. especially if you are stressed, forcing yourself to work will just make you even more stressed”.
Although one of the MigraCode program’s priorities is to create a community, a fundamental mechanism to create mutual support, there are always aspects that can be improved to be closer to the students and to ensure that everyone receives the personalized assistance they need. One topic of our conversation has also regarded the strategies that the program could include to ensure more support, such as 1) anonymous boxes in which students can leave comments about their mental health and suggestions, or 2) collective therapy sessions to talk about common problems that the students are facing.
As Natalia stated: “having this meeting has already been super important. it made me realize that I am probably not alone, that people want and need to talk about impostor syndrome and have a safe place to discuss it”.