In December of 2016 I started a new job at the organization where I'd been a software developer for the past five years. My new job played to my strengths and professional goals. It also deeply connected me to the community of other developers within the company. I worked closely with many of them, and the products I created were designed to serve them. On top of that, while my team's charge was temporary and was only ever going to last about two years, we had a generous, set-aside-especially-for-us budget to do this work. We hit the ground running and felt lucky to be where we were, giving back to our company's developer community and getting paid to do it.
But after four months, our budget was no longer our own. The organization, through trying to solve a budget crisis, put my team and several others on the chopping block. In March, we got our first word that things might change for us, but we were optimistic that we'd come through unscathed. Our team had gotten fantastic feedback on what we had already accomplished. By May, it was clear that the ground had shifted and we'd likely be cut, though the final decision was still some months away.
My confidence was broken. I believed that if my products had been better or released faster, the people making budgetary decisions would see our value. The prospect of being "made redundant" (a phrase I’ve always loved for its blunt, polite cruelty) terrified me. The work we did at my organization was all internal and used such specific technologies that I feared, despite having five years of experience as a developer, that I was unqualified to work anywhere else. No one cares about your experience in languages that no one uses anymore, I thought. I bought a book on coding interviews, but I was in tears halfway through the first chapter.
I've since started working for a new company (I received another offer while I was waiting to hear about layoffs) and initially thought that having a new job would make this anxiety about my skills go away. But I spent my first several weeks at this new job completely exhausted by everything I was learning and convinced that at any moment, my new boss would realize what a catastrophic mistake he'd made in hiring me. Some of this was standard imposter syndrome, which I've always struggled with. But a solid portion of the knot in my stomach was left over from telling myself that if I'd been better, I could have avoided layoffs at my last job.
In other words, I'd tied my own self-worth to the forty hours a week I spent at work. When my future in that work was jeopardized, my self-esteem sank lower and lower. I didn't think I was a person who "lived to work" until I was afraid that I wouldn't have anywhere to work anymore. And in my new job, I was still evaluating my own value in terms of how fast I was learning, what I was producing, and new-to-me programming concepts I didn't understand. I wasn't in danger of being laid off anymore, but I was still spending all day feeling scared.
So how do we cultivate self-esteem when what we've based it on becomes unstable?
Journaling. The most valuable step I've taken has been committed, daily journaling. My journal started as a stream-of-consciousness project where I vented my feelings (which were generally crappy). It still serves that purpose several days a week, but the habit has evolved to the point where most days I have specific questions to help me cultivate honesty and clarity. By acknowledging my feelings, asking myself why those feelings might be present and whether they're based in reality, and noting what steps I could take to feel better, I have a better grip on my self-esteem. It's a space where I can note evidence that counters my brain's negative self-talk. I might think, I'll never be as good as my coworkers, but then I remember that a colleague told me he used my code as a template for his own test suite. Speaking of which…
Compliment Log. I thrive on positive feedback and checking things off lists. A compliment on my work can keep me going for a good half-day. Knowing this, I started saving screenshots of nice things people say about me. When I'm having a particularly bad day, I can open my collection of compliment screenshots and be reminded that I've built things people have appreciated, given talks that have inspired, and taught courses that have enabled others to build skills and get jobs.
Accomplishment Tracking. I find it easy to discount my own knowledge and assume I'm a slow learner. No one insults me like I do. So keeping track of what I've learned, from small things like how to change the name of a git branch to more complicated concepts like how to use a new library, helps remind me that in a short time, I've learned a lot.
Who am I? An important part of rebuilding my sense of self-worth has been reminding myself that I'm more than my job. I'm also a pretty good cook, I mentor a preteen girl, I care a lot about my cats, and I enjoy writing letters. I try to spend my weekends away from my laptop. I have a few hobbies that involve nature or animals: I've recently started identifying the birds in my backyard, I take horseback riding lessons, and I just placed my seed order for the vegetable garden my husband and I have planned. I have hobbies, interests, and relationships that do more to nourish me than work ever will. Time spent cultivating those things is money in the bank of my self-esteem.
I've only been a developer for six years. It's likely that at some point I'll be on shaky professional ground again. My hope is that the next time my job feels insecure, I can keep that from making me feel insecure.