I’ve always been a perfectionist. I’ve always striven to be the best version of me that I could be! When I started in university and my journey into cybersecurity, I pushed myself to stand out, be “perfect” and to do it with no mistakes. An impossible task, I realise now, but I kept pushing myself to the point that my mental health deteriorated – and I soon realised I was suffering from the pressure of my own expectations.

I often felt like I was an absolute fraud, and almost everyday lived in a constant state of anxiety. I didn’t know how to say “no” and I barely had second to catch my breath.

Eventually I realised the unhealthiness of this behaviour, and with the support of friends and family – started to tackle my anxieties and take care of my mental health. I still have a while to go, but I am so much better – and I am so much happier too (bonus)!

So this is a blog post close to my heart, and I hope that it will be of use to you. Even if it just inspires you to take a moment and catch your breath.

What is stress?

Stress is a response to feeling under pressure or is a reaction to challenging situations. This may include feeling threatened, anxious or that things are becoming unmanageable. It can manifest in both biological and emotional symptoms, and it’s important to be able to realise when your stress levels are badly impacting your life. Manifestations of stress can start to negatively impact your daily life and cause other mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.

What is burnout?

Burnout and stress usually go hand-in-hand. Burnout usually occurs as a result of excessive and prolonged stress, which may be a consequence of workplace stress and coping with career demands. Burnout usually causes exhaustion and affects the ability to work and complete daily tasks. Those suffering from burnout commonly also feel emotionally exhausted and are negative towards their own work.

Similarly with stress, it’s important to realise when you may be “burned out” or heading towards burnout. Burnout can badly affect your mental healthy and the ability to manage everyday life, and in my books at least the only acceptable burnouts are…

Burnout — Toyota Supra, 3.0 liter, 1996 year on DRIVE2
Source: Drive 2

What is imposter’s syndrome?

Imposter’s syndrome usually entails feelings of inadequacy i.e. “not feeling good enough”. This is usually challenged by evidence that shows otherwise, and inflicts a sense of fraud and self-doubt in one’s self. Imposter’s syndrome (as it says in the name) usually makes you feel like you’re an imposter in your field of work, and that you don’t deserve your successes or all your successes are simply “down to luck”.

I definitely have experienced all of the above, especially imposter’s syndrome which pops it’s head up now and again. But I’m thankful that through the years I’ve picked up some skills to help manage and challenge negative thoughts, as well as manage ongoing stress so that it doesn’t evolve into burnout.

Spook’s Top 10 Tips

Cheer Corner & Journal

Every time you achieve something (big or small) you deserve to cheer about it! This could mean dedicating a whiteboard to your achievements, or perhaps starting a journal. At the end of each day try to note down at least one thing that you were proud of achieving that day. This could be as small as making the PERFECT sandwich, to something a little more spectacular such as passing an exam. A little secret from the Queens… we have a #cheercorner channel in our discord server to celebrate all our victories.

By writing down your achievements and having a little “woohoo!” to celebrate them, this greatly helps challenge thoughts around imposter’s syndrome as you’re faced with black and white evidence that you are in fact doing absolutely fabulously.

Hobbies

Now this one is a huge one for me – and something I sacrificed for a long, long time! As much as we all love the mad hax of InfoSec (personally I absolutely adore what I do) it’s important to take a step back from the chaos of our jobs and simply just enjoy doing something else.

Taking a breather, and immersing yourself in something else for a few hours (or days, or even just 10 minutes) can do wonders to our brains and help us refocus and return to the world of hax with a storm.

For a while, a lot of my hobbies were in fact InfoSec related (things like CTFs, or maybe messing around with scripting) – which isn’t a bad thing at all. But I did find when I invested my time in my other hobbies, such as cars and horses, I was able to “switch off” from security and return to it more engaged and relaxed than if I were doing security things 24/7.

How To Get Started In Drifting — Performance Alloys | by Performance Alloys  | Medium
Source: Performance Alloys
One of my many hobbies…

Eat Well, Drink well, Sleep well

This is a hugely important one, and something that many, many, people have told me to prioritise in the past.

Make sure that you’re eating regularly, keeping hydrated – and getting a good night’s sleep. Easier said than done, but trust me when I say that once you nail that routine it will help absolutely loads! Try set a regular time for meals, and aim to get to sleep at the same time each night (even on the weekends…). About one hour before you plan to sleep, start to wind-down and step away from the tech. Take a hot shower/bath and try to relax yourself before getting into bed.

This will take a while to perfect, and heck – even my routine isn’t perfect yet! But when you’re well-fed, well-watered, and well-rested – you’ll definitely notice a difference in your mood and general happiness.

Tech-free Time

Oh the horror, how will you manage without checking your Twitter feed or Instagram stories every 10 minutes!

Warning Sign No Tech Zone Computers Laptop Tablet Cellular Phone Prohibited  Cool Wall Decor Art Print Poster 30x46: Amazon.co.uk: Kitchen & Home
Source: Poster Foundry

I can confirm however, the world will not end if you turn your phone off for the evening – or even just for an hour or two. Take a step back from social media, anything “techy” and allow yourself to focus on “real-life” instead for a bit.

Personally I have a love-hate relationship with social media and technology, but I have noticed huge benefits just taking myself away from it for an evening. I’m able to spend some quality time with my partner, and it’s great to be able to have a cuddle with my bunny or go riding on my horse without worrying about what’s happening in the social media sphere. Live life a little away from the screen, and you’ll feel better for it – I definitely did.

SMART Goals

Feeling overwhelmed and that everything is becoming a little much? Try planning ahead, and break down tasks by setting SMART goals. SMART goals address five key areas:

  • Specific: Make your goal specific and be exact about what you want to achieve
  • Measurable: How will you know you’ve achieved this goal? Define some metrics to measure the completion of your goal
  • Attainable: Don’t go OTT. Make sure this is something that is possible, and within your reach
  • Relevant: Is this something that will benefit you? Don’t spread yourself too thin by setting goals that aren’t worthwhile
  • Time-based: Set a deadline and timeframe of when you want this goal accomplished by

For example…

I want to improve my cross-site scripting skills. To do this I will complete at all the XSS Portswigger labs. This is something that I have been working on, and it will help me in my day-to-day job. I’ll aim to do this by the end of March.

Not…

I want to be better at web hacking.

Be Smart GIFs | Tenor
Can’t fail to meet goals if they’re SMART goals

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a type of meditation practice which helps you focus on being completely in the present. It’s a really good technique for worry-heads like myself, and helps calm my thoughts about the future or events that have happened in the past. Mindfulness usually involves breathing methods, guided imagery and other exercises that help relax the body physically and the mind. All in all, it’s great for reducing stress and “slowing things down” so you can catch your breath in the chaos of life!

Here’s a neat little video that helps explain it in more detail:

My favourite mindfulness exercise is called hand tracing. Whenever I feel overwhelmed I do this exercise, and it’s great to do in between jobs and tasks! This is a great video that explains it:

Exercise

Exercise is amazing for the soul, and also gets you out the house! It’s actually scientifically proven that exercising releases “happy” chemicals and endorphins in your brain, and helps relieve physical tension too. Now do not worry, I’m not going to suggest training for a 10k marathon! But rather try to get out the house for a small stroll around the block, and if you want to – build it up from there.

If you need some motivational music

Personally I started going to the gym (pre-lockdown 3.0) and found it really beneficial for my health. I felt happier and a lot of the time too tired to worry or stress about things!

Pamper Nights and Self-care

This is my absolute FAVOURITE tip! And one that is fairly simple to do with massive rewards. Once a week, set an evening aside to do all your favourite things and treat yourself to a little rest & relaxation. This could be whipping up your favourite dinner followed by a pick-me-up movie – or setting up a candle-lit bath with some of your favourite tunes.

Personally my go-to is the bath option, with the addition of a face mask and glass of rose.

Primark is selling Minnie and Mickey Mouse face masks and we can't wait to  try one this weekend

It’s super important to grant yourself some relaxation time, and it helps both your mind and body chill out and reboot. After all the hard work we do, we damn well deserve it too!

Social Time

So this is a little bit of a tricky one in COVID-world, but there’s definitely workarounds we can do until the world somewhat goes back to normal.

What I find really helpful for my own mental health is to socialise, I always find myself 100x better after I’ve had a chat with a friend – even if it’s just for 5 minutes. In an ideal world, I usually meet up with pals for weekly coffees and shopping trips, sometimes we even throw in a lunch and a natter! But obviously with the limitations of a COVID-world, this isn’t possible right now. Instead maybe set up group calls and video parties, or perhaps play a game or two with your besties – it’s just good to talk to someone and it seriously helps with the feelings of isolation and anxiety.

Hanging out with friendos (even virtually) also helps as a distraction if you’re worrying over something, or perhaps you’re feeling a little blue. And in my opinion nothing is better than a few drinks (or coffees) and a long ol’ chat with a friend. Even though for now it’s virtual, I can’t wait to do it IRL again soon.

Fact or Fiction

This isn’t necessarily a tip, but rather a technique I was taught to challenge my anxieties and worries (and is very applicable in challenging imposter’s syndrome too!). Often when we worry about something, we catastrophise and think of the absolute worse of the situation e.g. “OMG! I definitely failed that test!” or “I suck at my job, I’m going to get fired”.

Beaker=Jeff | Muppets, Gif, Harmless pranks
Accurate image of me catastrophising literally everything

More often than not, what you think isn’t necessarily true – and this technique is a neat little way to make all those worries be-gone. When you think of a thought, ask yourself – is this fact or fiction? What is actually true about this statement, is this something I’m just catastrophising and making up in my head?

For example…

“I suck at my job and I’m going to get fired”

Fact: “So the facts are no one has actually told me I suck at my job, my manager hasn’t flagged my work as being poor – and I often get good feedback from my peers and clients”

Fiction: “Okay yeah, when I look at the facts of the situation – maybe I am making this up in my head!”

Make sense? I use this technique a lot. Like, on a daily basis.

And that’s a wrap! I hope that you find at least one thing on this list helpful, and just remind yourself – you’re doing absolutely fine.

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Heads Together on Twitter: "Whoever you are and whatever you're going  through, it's important you know that you're not alone. Help us share the  @GiveUsAShout number so that everyone knows there's somewhere

Further Resources:
https://www.helpguide.org/articles/stress/burnout-prevention-and-recovery.html

https://www.nhs.uk/oneyou/every-mind-matters/stress

https://hbr.org/2008/05/overcoming-imposter-syndrome

4 thoughts on “Stressed Out, Burned Out, and a I Feel Like a Fake”

  1. This is spot on – and once again the Spook hits the nail on the head. I’ve been working for more than 35 years and still have moments of imposter syndrome almost every day. I often stress about things beyond my control and have had more than a couple of burnouts one the years. Every piece of advice in this article is absolutely on the money and each technique will have its place in everyone’s day if only they allow it to.

    Keep at it Sophia, as someone who was privileged to watch your career in cybersecurity begin it makes me very proud to see you develop and spread your wings. Our (The CSC Assessors) opinion of you was always that you were ahead of the pack and far more talented than you ever gave yourself credit for. Always humble, alway seeking to help everyone else and always completely surprised when you won stuff or were appointed captain of the UK team for the European Challenge .

    1. Thank you so much Oscar! I truly am humbled to read your comment and receive your positive feedback. I’ll always be forever thankful for everyone at CSC for helping me in my career, here’s to many more years to come!

  2. Fantastic blog post Sophia, nice one! And completely agree with Oscar too (hi Oscar!) – you always stood out at the challenge events in a fantastic way. It seems that the people who are most successful/good at something are the ones that suffer from imposter syndrome. The fact that people rarely talk about it makes others feel they’re the only ones experiencing it, so well done on being so open!

    1. Thank you Andy! Likewise I am super humbled to hear your feedback 🙂 I definitely umm’d and err’d about writing/publishing this, but glad I did it nevertheless!

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