Issue 9 – Peeling Back the Layers: 5 Key Influences Behind Imposter Syndrome

Peeling Back the Layers: 5 Key Influences Behind Imposter Syndrome - peeling an onion

Welcome back to The Modern Software Developer. This is the second part of my mini-series on Imposter syndrome. In this issue, we peel back the layers and discuss 5 key influences behind Imposter Syndrome and how it could be getting worse.

You can delve into more detail in part 1 – Is it really Imposter Syndrome? But let’s recap briefly here with a definition and a brief summary. 

Imposter Syndrome: A psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their skills, talents, or accomplishments and has a persistent internalised fear of being exposed as a “fraud”, despite evidence of their competence.

To Summarise Imposter Syndrome
👉 It’s caused by HOW you think.
👉 This way of thinking is persistent.
👉 Evidence exists of your competence.

With that covered, let’s kick on.

How does imposter syndrome take hold in your mind?

To discover how imposter syndrome takes hold, we need to consider five key influences that, when combined in the “wrong” way, can lead to feelings of imposter syndrome and the consequences that come along with it.

The five key influences behind imposter syndrome as I see it:
👉 Habits
👉 Beliefs
👉 The Subconscious Mind
👉 The Thinking Cycle
👉 Thinking Spirals

Let’s dig a little deeper into each one.


It might sound strange, but your habits are a key influence behind imposter syndrome. Ok, maybe not the habits you’re thinking of; I’m referring to your brain and its habitual thought patterns.

Your brain is highly habitual, which can be a great power, but also a terrible curse.

One such habit is how often you lean on your beliefs. Your beliefs practically define you, so you’re going to encounter them a lot. 

The more you think about them, the stronger they become. the stronger they become, the more you think about them… you get the idea. We’ll discuss why this is important shortly.

In addition to our strongly held beliefs, many of us neglect to pay attention to what we expose our brains to and through sheer repetition; we’ve learnt quite negative or unhelpful patterns of thinking.

Unfortunately, your brain has held on to these unhelpful thought patterns, and they contribute to what you believe about yourself and the world around you.

I want to stress that you haven’t done anything wrong here.

Our attention is constantly being tugged in multiple directions by powerful forces such as the government, the news, societal expectations, television programs, and social media.

These forces are so pervasive that we often fail to acknowledge their influence on us and the beliefs we can form based on them.


The beliefs you hold about yourself are a key influence behind imposter syndrome. Probably one of the more obvious influences, right?

If you believed with absolute certainty that your skills were totally up to scratch, that you worked hard for every opportunity, and you deserved to be where you are right now…

You probably wouldn’t be reading about imposter syndrome.

Your beliefs are a powerful concept, so much so that by definition, you accept them as true or real. You rarely question them, and this is where things can get a bit sticky.

Some of those beliefs might not reflect who you are now or the context in which you currently live, and yet, they are playing a significant role in shaping your reality.

Beliefs can be formed in a number of ways, and I go into more detail about that here – Are your Beliefs holding you back?

The main thing to recognise here is that just like your habitual thoughts, your beliefs have found themselves embedded in your subconscious mind and are given priority status.

The Subconscious Mind

Another key influence behind imposter syndrome is your subconscious mind and, in this context, is effectively responsible for holding on to those unhelpful, habitual thoughts.

Your subconscious programming

Your subconscious mind is your computer; it’s got plenty of storage and is ultimately programmed by your conscious mind. 

It is unquestioning, so everything you expose your conscious mind to seeps down into your subconscious mind, like sending programming instructions to a compiler, telling it how to react in a similar future scenario. Your subconscious mind processes those instructions regardless of whether they are good for you or bad.

In other words, Garbage In, Garbage Out… 

If you surround yourself with negativity and constantly consume negative, unhelpful content, that is what your subconscious mind will deliver back out for you.

Storage & retrieval

With its vast storage capacity, your subconscious mind needs a way of indexing its data for fast retrieval. As such, you can imagine that it creates a whole host of shortcuts linking together ideas, concepts, opinions, beliefs, places, people and anything else you can think of. 

These shortcuts are called neural pathways.

The more these neural pathways are accessed, the higher their priority becomes and the ease and speed of access increase.

To aid its mission of super-fast retrieval, your subconscious mind employs a cache of sorts to save you from having to dig deeper than necessary. But there’s a problem with this cache, at least in this context.

Every time it accesses something from the cache, rather than just resetting its time to live, it seems to increase it exponentially…

The result?

You’re left with unhelpful thoughts that are really efficient to access, and because they’ve been accessed so often, they have a really long expiration date.

Resource management

Thinking it’s doing you a favour, your subconscious mind gets involved in resource management too. It recognises the extra effort it takes your conscious mind to context switch when repeatedly accessing these entries and decides to take on the load so your conscious mind can think about other things.


What makes the subconscious mind so important is this:

Some studies suggest that between 60% and up to 98% of your brain’s activity takes place in your subconscious mind. In other words, your subconscious mind is your autopilot, constantly firing away in the background, and is responsible for so much of what you think, feel and do.

For example, think about when you’ve been driving for a while, and suddenly you think, how did I get here? The reason you didn’t crash was that your subconscious mind has performed those actions to drive your car so many times; it just knew what to do and didn’t need to bother your conscious mind with it… 

Your autopilot took over, and this happens with your thinking too.

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The Thinking Cycle

Key influence of imposter syndrome - The Thinking cycle:
Thoughts > emotions > behaviours > outcomes

The thinking cycle is a Mindspan model for helping you make sense of how your thoughts ultimately impact the outcomes you achieve in life.

It’s how you experience the outcomes of our prior discussions and is so essential to understand, as it helps you to build a solid foundation for improving your mental wellbeing.

This highlights the negative and unhelpful side of the thinking cycle due to the context. However, I’ll explain how we can make it work more positively for us in the next part of this mini-series.

So let’s dive in.

You have thoughts every second of every day, even while you sleep.

A small fraction of those thoughts are conscious thoughts, meaning that you actively choose to think them.

However, as we’ve already mentioned, a huge number of those thoughts are supplied by, you guessed it, your subconscious mind, which is filled with those unhelpful and sometimes damaging thoughts…

You feel the full force of these thoughts when you give them your full attention, link them to your identity and believe them unquestioningly, which many of us do without realising.

So, when you have thoughts such as:

👉 I’m not as good as they think I am…
👉 They’re going to find me out…
👉 I don’t deserve my current role…

Those thoughts are driving feelings of a similar sentiment, that is to say, a cocktail of negative or unhelpful emotions.

Following that around the cycle, this cocktail of emotions triggered by those kinds of thoughts is likely to drive a particular way of behaving too.

For example, If you’re having thoughts about not performing as well as you should be, these thoughts could lead to you feeling (emotions) under pressure, anxiety and stress.

Feeling this way could trigger you to put in extra hours to “catch up” (behaviour), quite possibly at the expense of your mental health and even family relationships (outcome).

It’s fair to say that the outcome in this situation isn’t a positive one. You’ll then have thoughts about your outcomes, too, and the cycle continues…

A quick recap

You have mental habits that have filled your subconscious mind with thoughts, many of them unhelpful.

You’re also harbouring strongly held beliefs that could be outdated and no longer relevant. 

Your subconscious mind is trying to be helpful by making these really fast and easy to access. It supplies you with many of these thoughts, you inevitably pay attention to them and you feel the full force of them via the thinking cycle.

Sounds pretty gloomy, and unfortunately, there’s one more piece of the gloomy puzzle to come…

Thinking Spirals

Key influence of imposter syndrome - Thinking spiral - red zone

Thinking spirals are an extension of the thinking cycle. To keep it simple, sometimes we let negative or unhelpful thoughts take hold and repeat in our heads.

This can lead us to spiral downward into negativity, which we describe as heading toward the Red Zone in Mindspan.

As you spiral deeper, you add another layer of doom…

You start to entertain “What ifs”, introduce fears, worst case scenarios, and as you spiral down, they become bigger and more damning…

You’re catastrophising now, and the problem is that you start to feel the emotions associated with the catastrophes you’ve thought up.

Look, we’ve all done this once in a while, but our brains are super habitual. If you find yourself thinking like this frequently, it could become harder and harder to recognise. This is a big part of imposter syndrome, thinking a particular way without realising it.

And as we’ve described above, you’ll start to behave in a particular way based on those feelings too.

I probably don’t need to tell you that your behaviour is unlikely to be super positive and productive when you’re feeling the results of negative, downward thinking spirals.

As with most things in life, the first step to changing something is awareness. 

Hopefully, you know a bit more than you did before you started reading, and you can start to look out for some of those less-than-helpful thought patterns and beliefs.


We’ve peeled back the 5 key influences behind imposter syndrome and detailed the role each plays in how it takes hold and even grows due to the habitual nature of your brain.

In part 3, I’ll cover more about the impacts imposter syndrome has on software developers and of course, I’ll cover how you can go about tackling imposter syndrome too, although that might end up being a part 4.

In the meantime, be more purposeful about what you expose your conscious mind to, and consider the impact it could be having on your subconscious mind (autopilot)…


It’s not selfish to put yourself first; there’s nothing more important than your own wellbeing!

Know someone that might find this helpful? Do them a favour and share it with them.

Until next time…

How I can help you

Software Developers:

1. Join over 14000 people and follow me on LinkedIn 👉 Richard Donovan.
2. Book a Mindset Power Hour.
3. Improve your mental and physical wellbeing with Mindset coaching.

Software Development organisations:

1. Team Wellbeing Health Check
2. Developer Support Package

Make positive changes for yourself – Sign up and start your wellbeing plan today.

Follow Me

How I can help you

Software Developers:

1. Join over 14000 people and follow me on LinkedIn 👉 Richard Donovan.
2. Book a Mindset Power Hour.
3. Improve your mental and physical wellbeing with Mindset coaching.

Software Development organisations:

1. Team Wellbeing Health Check
2. Developer Support Package

Affirmation - I am not my code

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