How to fight imposter syndrome

Even the most successful creatives a little secret we all share – from time to time we feel like frauds. It’s called design imposter syndrome and it is a psychological phenomenon where you have a belief that you’re an inadequate despite evidence to the contrary. In this episode, we will look at why it is something we all have, the 5 different types of imposter syndromes, and what you can do about it.

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Even the most successful creatives a little secret we all share – If we are being honest, from time to time we feel like frauds. Its called imposter syndrome, It happens at all levels of your career, it comes in a lot of different forms and this is another one of those problems that we don’t talk about enough. One study suggest 70% of people experience impostor syndrome at some point in their career. How do you fight it? How do you keep it from getting in the way of your creative process and hold you back?

What is it?

Let’s start with the simple question of what it is? Imposter syndrome is a psychological phenomenon where you have a belief that you’re inadequate despite evidence to the contrary. In real life it can be having one of those days where you look at your work and think, “I hope this is good enough.” or “ What if they don’t like my ideas…”

Maybe you think that when something doesn’t work out exactly the way you expect on a project that you are a failure. Maybe it is some technique you can’t seem to grasp or some work a client didn’t like. You feel like a fake and hope no one finds out how you work because that isn’t how real designers work.

Why do we all have it?

Creating is a personal act which I have talked about a number of times before. Making a mark on a blank page or blank screen comes from who you are and what you have experienced. So that creates an inner dialog and personal connection to our work which creates anxiety when it is judged, commented on or disliked.

Pablo Stanley who also works at InVision had a great cartoon about this very thing I will post in the show notes.

It is also because we rarely ever discuss these insecurities so the internal loop and dialog build up creating these insecurities. It manifests in ways like constantly going back to change something in your design, not because you know it can improve, but because you feel like you don’t know what the best choices are and your design is a mess from your lack of trust in yourself.

This is complicated because real imposters do exist in our industries. Some of the imposters have watched enough YouTube, talk a good enough game, and fake enough of it to look like they know what you are doing – but when the rubber meets the road there is nothing there. In other ways, we are all imposters because we create this false image in all of our social media channels. I say this person all the time that just because someone has a big title or works for a big brand DOES NOT mean they know what they are doing. This makes it harder on the rest of us.

What are the different types?

It takes various forms, depending on a person’s background, personality, and circumstances. As with all of my shows, I do a lot of research and this one had more than normal to be sure I got the subject matter right. Of everything I read Valerie Young had the best insights and approach to the subject from her book ‘The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It‘.

She categorized it into 5 subgroups:
1.) The Perfectionist
2.) The Superwoman/man
3.) The Genius
4.) The Individualist
5.) The Expert

Let’s go into more detail about each one of these, understand what it is, how to tell if it is you and what you can do about it

The perfectionist

The perfectionism and design impostor syndrome often go hand-in-hand. Perfectionists set excessively high goals for themselves, and when they fail to reach a goal, they experience major self-doubt and worry about if they measure up. This group can also be control freaks, feeling like if they want something done right, they have to do it themselves. This obviously that creates a problem as you advance towards leadership and as you need to be more inclusive with their creative process.

Not sure if this applies to you? Ask yourself these questions:
• Have you ever been told you are a micromanager?
• Do you have difficulty delegating? When you do, do you feel frustrated and disappointed in the results?
• When you miss the mark on something, do you accuse yourself of “not being cut out” for your job and beat yourself up on it for days?
• Do you feel like your work must be 100% perfect, 100% of the time?

For perfectionists, success is rarely satisfying because they believe they could’ve done better. But that’s not productive or healthy. Owning and celebrating achievements is essential if you want to avoid burnout, find contentment, and cultivate self-confidence.

To fight perfectionism:
• Learn to take your mistakes in stride because they are a natural part of the process.
• Push yourself to act before you’re ready.
• Force yourself to start the project you’ve been planning for months.

The superwoman / man

People who experience this phenomenon are convinced they’re phonies working along side real-deal colleagues so they push themselves to work harder and harder to measure up. But this is just a false cover-up for their insecurities, and the work overload may harm not only their mental health, but also their relationships with others.

Not sure if this applies to you? Ask yourself these questions:
• Do you stay later at the office than the rest of your team, even past the point that you’ve completed that day’s necessary work?
• Do you get stressed when you’re not working and find downtime completely wasteful?
• Have you let your hobbies and passions fall by the wayside, sacrificed to work?
• Do you feel like you haven’t truly earned your title (despite achievements that say otherwise), so you feel pressure to work harder and longer than those around you to prove your worth?

Workaholics are addicted to the validation that comes from working, not to the work itself. No one should have more power to make you feel good about yourself than you.

To fight superwoman/man syndrome:
• Start training yourself to veer away from that external validation.
• As you recalibrate to have more internal validation you’ll be able to ease off the gas as you gauge how much work you are doing is really needed and healthy.

The genius

People who struggle with this judge success based on their abilities rather than their efforts. In other words, if they have to work hard at something, they assume they must be bad at it. These people set their internal bar impossibly high, just like perfectionists. But unlike perfectionists, they judge themselves not only on ridiculous expectations but on if they can get it right the first time they do it.

Not sure if this applies to you? Ask yourself these questions:
• Do you have a track record of getting “straight A’s” or “gold stars” in everything you do?
• Were you told frequently as a child that you were the “smart one” in your family or peer group?
• Do you hate the idea of having a mentor, because you can handle things on your own?
• When you’re faced with a problem, does your confidence tumble?
• Do you avoid challenges because it’s so uncomfortable to try something you’re not great at?

To fight genius syndrome:
• See yourself as a work in progress.
• Accomplishing great things involves lifelong learning and skill building–for everyone, even the most confident people.
• Rather than beating yourself up when you don’t reach your impossibly high standards, identify specific, changeable behaviors that you can improve over time.

The Individualist

People who feel that asking for help reveals that they are imposters. It’s okay to be independent, but not to the extent that you refuse assistance so that you can prove your worth.

Not sure if this applies to you? Ask yourself these questions:
• Do you firmly feel that you need to accomplish things on your own?
• “I don’t need anyone’s help.” Does that sound like you?
• Do you frame requests in terms of the requirements of the project, rather than your needs as a person?

To fight individualist syndrome:
• Externalize your creative process and share your work in progress
• Share the things are struggling with to a trusted group of people
• Start small so you feel comfortable and share more over time.

The expert

People who feel like they somehow tricked their employer into hiring them. They fear being exposed as inexperienced or unknowledgeable. There’s always more to learn. It helps you professionally and keeps you competitive in the job market. But the tendency to endlessly seek out more information can actually be a form of procrastination.

Not sure if this applies to you? Ask yourself these questions:
• Do you shy away from applying to job postings unless you meet every single requirement?
• Are you constantly seeking out training because you think you need to improve your skills?
• Even if you’ve been in your role for a while, can you feel like you still don’t know “enough”?

To fight expert syndrome:
• Start practicing just-in-time learning. Acquire a skill when you need it rather than hoarding knowledge for false comfort.
• Realize there’s no shame in asking for help when you need it.
• If you can’t figure out how to solve a problem, seek advice from a supportive team member or leader.

What can you do about it?

You may fall into one or more of these different subgroups but the best way to fight imposter syndrome is to have confidence. Confidence comes from not accepting failure, disappointment and knowing that some things are out of your control. It comes from knowing your process, questioning your decisions, and trusting yourself.

Having confidence sounds easy but how do you build it?

Keep asking for feedback
• Empowering it is to openly admit the things you are afraid of, and the empathy and advice you get from others when you do.
• The sooner you are able to identify these fears and voice them, the sooner others will be able to help you through these challenges.

Get out of your area of expertise and comfort zone
• Comfort is the enemy of greatness because being comfortable keeps us limited.
• We need to learn new things, push ourselves and we will get confidence along the way.

Measure yourself by your own standards and palette
• It’s so easy to be consumed by other people’s talents, but comparing yourself to others is an impossible game to win.
• Instead, try competing with yourself. Where were you a year ago? Six months? Can you measure your improvement over time?

Final thought

Confidence will come, and it will go. But know that we all struggle with this so you aren’t alone and having this problem isn’t a problem – unless you don’t work on it. But believe that you can be a great designer, do the work, don’t give up, question your motives and imposter syndrome will be less and less a part of your life and you will have the tools to fight it when it is.

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