Job posts for experts often rate lots of different skills as “desirable,” which we might interpret as an expectation. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed. There’s always a new tool that someone more skilled has mastered, and we’ll never be able to catch up, right?
This feeling is commonly known as “impostor syndrome,” and is characterized by an inability to internalize your own accomplishments and knowledge. Amy Silvers, a UX researcher, information architect, and product designer currently at Capital One, explains:
“It’s the sense that you are not as skilled or talented as people think you are, and the accompanying belief that at any moment, you’ll be recognized as a fraud. People with impostor syndrome tend to discount their own achievements and attribute them to luck or chance.”
In this article, we’ll go over what impostor syndrome is in detail, its effects on your psychological world, and how to overcome it.
What is impostor syndrome?
Impostor syndrome isn’t just a feeling of insecurity.
“Insecurity might make you hold on to a position that you have outgrown for years simply because you don’t feel comfortable taking action,” points out front end developer Denys Mishunov, author of Confessions of an Impostor on Smashing Magazine. “Someone with impostor syndrome, on the other hand, feels compelled to constantly take action and to be better at whatever they’re doing, but are in constant self-doubt about whether they deserve to be where they are.”
Gavin Elliott, head of interaction design at the Department of Work and Pensions in the UK, believes that impostor syndrome is one of the largest and most damaging challenges we face in our professional lives.
“Whilst impostor syndrome is not classified as a mental illness or disorder,” he argues, “it’s often recognized as a reaction to certain situations—and those situations are often amplified in our line of work. We do nothing to combat it because we end up in a perpetual cycle of fear of not being able to see a way out.”
We do nothing to combat it because we end up in a perpetual cycle of fear of not being able to see a way out.
The term was first used in a 1978 study of high-achieving, successful women in academia. We now know that it affects all individuals regardless of their background, profession, and more. In our industry it’s also prevalent in design, not just development.
Amy Silvers’ research, conducted with her colleague Lori Widelitz-Cavallucci in 2013 (watch them talk about it in “We’re Not Worthy”), found the syndrome among some of the biggest “stars” in UX and design.
“My theory about why it’s common among designers is that our jobs are poorly understood and defined, leading to skepticism about the validity of our work,” Amy argues. “Also, some corners in the UX design world, in particular, encourage the idea of ‘rock stars’ and ‘ninjas’, and it’s hard to measure up. The fact that there are few accepted measures for objectively evaluating the quality of our work just exacerbates the situation.”
My theory about why it’s common among designers is that our jobs are poorly understood and defined, leading to skepticism about the validity of our work.
“It’s because we (and I speak here as an LGBT woman and immigrant) are often told that we are not enough. Being constantly told that can cause you to develop this feeling of impostor syndrome, as if, wherever you are, you’ve done so in spite of who you are, not because of it. Eventually, you think people will realize you’ve ‘tricked’ them somehow!”
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The effects of impostor syndrome
Underestimation and deprecation of your own achievements can have a real impact on you and your professional life.
“You may not ask for a well-deserved raise or you might shy away from applying for a job unless you meet every single requirement,” stresses Denys Mishunov. “It might even stop you from asking to speak at a conference that you’ve dreamed of speaking at, simply because you always think you’re not good enough.”
You may not ask for a well-deserved raise or you might shy away from applying for a job unless you meet every single requirement.
Ivana McConnell agrees and points out that if we focus on being self-critical, it negatively impacts mental and physical health.
“More concretely, it can result in us not developing a particular skill due to analysis paralysis, and devaluing the skills we do have,” she adds.
How to overcome impostor syndrome
So, what can you do if you’re affected by impostor syndrome? Here are some strategies, recommended by web designers and developers who have experienced impostor syndrome first hand.
1. Accept and embrace it
One of the most effective ways to deal with impostor syndrome is to accept and change our attitude towards it.
“Knowing that there’s always more to learn and accomplish drives me to continue to invest in my skillset and teach others,” she explains. “I’ve seen a lot of designers let impostor syndrome paralyze them and harm their self-confidence. The truth is there’s always going to be someone out there who knows more than you. But there are also many more who know less. What value can you provide for those people?”
The truth is there’s always going to be someone out there who knows more than you. But there are also many more who know less. What value can you provide for those people?
Also, allow yourself to fail or stumble when you’re new to something (like a job or a new design tool). It’s absolutely okay not to know everything and accepting that makes it easier to deal with the feelings of being a fraud.
2. Remember you’re not alone
It’s very hard to spot impostor syndrome in others because, as Denys Mishunov points out, those who suffer from it are usually doing very well at whatever they’re working on.
“It’s almost guaranteed, however, that if you talk to your colleagues about these feelings, you will find out that most of them share this feeling to some extent.”
Gavin Elliott agrees. “Even those that seem like they’re the most confident, once you get them behind closed doors, they’re quick to break down the facade.”
Even those that seem like they’re the most confident, once you get them behind closed doors, they’re quick to break down the facade.
Once Amy Silvers started talking to people about her feelings and realized how many people, including many she looked up to and admired, suffer from impostor syndrome, it lost a lot of its power over her.
“If almost everyone has impostor syndrome, it can’t be all that valid,” she exclaims. “We can’t possibly all be impostors! So I’ve accepted that there are going to be times when I’ll feel like an impostor, and that’s not abnormal or weird.”
3. Talk to your peers
If you doubt yourself, talk to your colleagues to get a different perspective.
“[In 2016], someone suggested I should consider stepping up to management,” remembers Si Jobling, Tech Delivery Lead at WorldFirst Limited. “I didn’t think I was good enough and that I was WAY out of my depth. After asking peers I could trust, it turned out I had the necessary skills and attitude, so I took the plunge. Now, I’m part of an amazing group of Agile coaches, learning — even sharing — new skills. Reach out, you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised!”
Amy Silvers also suggests finding mentors. “They can help you recognize what you’ve already achieved, and guide you toward becoming even more successful.”
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4. Reassure yourself
Even if you don’t feel like talking about it, rest assured that others feel the same way.
Amy Silvers recommends looking around the room, when you’re in a situation in which you feel like an impostor, and realize that probably 80 percent of the people around you feel inadequate as well, no matter how competent they might look.
“There’s a funny sort of egotism about impostor syndrome,” she argues. “It requires people to assume that everyone is focused on them, just the one person, and concerned about what they’re doing. In reality, most people are likely too busy worrying about themselves to pay close attention to a single other individual.”
There’s a funny sort of egotism about impostor syndrome. It requires people to assume that everyone is focused on them, just the one person, and concerned about what they’re doing. In reality, most people are likely too busy worrying about themselves to pay close attention to a single other individual.
“Well documented issues like the Dunning-Kruger effect show us that the most unskilled don’t doubt their ability or suffer from impostor syndrome,” she explains. “These doubts and worries that we’re faking our way through our lives might just be our brain letting us know that we’re not doing so bad after all.”
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5. Motivate yourself
Amy also suggests noting your achievements in a journal to track and celebrate your wins.
“I know people who keep a folder full of printed copies of emails praising their work or talking about projects of theirs that were successful,” she says. “It may sound like an odd thing to do, but I’m sure those emails are very calming and reassuring when someone experiences a bout of impostor syndrome.”
Designer and educator Christopher Murphy has developed a tool that he uses to help him address confidence issues. Drawn from the world of sports psychology, he uses “court notes”—short, sharp life-affirming statements—to boost his confidence in moments when he’s feeling low.
“Andy Murray uses ‘court notes’, short self-supporting statements that keep his mind focused during the intensity of a match. As a fellow Scotsman, I’ve developed something similar with mantras: short phrases I refer to when I begin to doubt myself,” Christopher explains.
“My favorite—stolen from [the TV show] Billions—is this one: ‘I’m listening to the voice inside…What’s it saying? That I’m awesome. And to anyone who says that I’m not, do you know what it’s saying? **** you, that’s what it’s saying.’ Anyone who knows me knows that I have a tendency to swear, so this naturally appealed to me.”
6. Be a pioneer
Chris Lienert, web developer and currently a team lead at Iress Melbourne, says that more representation can help immensely here.
“The best counter to the crippling impostor syndrome I’ve found to date is the comfort in knowing that we’re not alone in experiencing this fear. Rely on peer pressure in a good way—if others have leapt into the unknown before us, then we can too. Even one pioneering representative can immeasurably help those who associate with them.”
This means you should speak at meetups and conferences, or engage with peers via Twitter, to drive the path forward showing that it’s OK to feel this way, many are challenged by impostor syndrome, but it does not have to define you.
It’s normal not to know everything
In our industry it’s become kind of trendy to talk about impostor syndrome, and while it’s great that the issue is getting more attention via blog posts, talks at conferences and meetups, and podcasts (check out the impostor syndrome episode on Front End Happy Hour), it’s also worth pointing out that it’s really normal not to know everything. In fact, it’s impossible.
So maybe—as CodePen developer Rachel Smith argues in her excellent article on the subject—we shouldn’t label, “What should be considered positive personality traits—humility, an acceptance that we can’t be right all the time, a desire to know more—as a ‘syndrome’ that we need to ‘deal with,’ ‘get over,’ or ‘get past’.”
Self-doubt is absolutely normal and healthy, and so there’s no need to “suffer.” Enjoy learning and closing the gaps in your knowledge and focus on knowing one thing (maybe a few) really well. People who know everything about everything don’t exist. There simply are no “unicorns.”
Further reading on impostor syndrome
Take a look at these articles to find out more about impostor syndrome and how to deal with it:
- Confessions of an Impostor by Denys Mishunov
- I Haven't Experienced Imposter Syndrome, and Maybe You Haven't Either by Rachel Smith
- Overcoming Not-Imposter Syndrome by Shopify designer Vivienne Kay
- The Impostor Syndrome by Tobias van Schneider
- Impostor Syndrome: Your Brain's Unhelpful Error Message by Jessica Rose
- How to Become a Better Developer by Coding Less by Andrew McDermott
- Beating your Impostor Syndrome by Mustafa Kurtuldu
How do you handle imposter syndrome? Tell us about it in the comments section below.