Learning to work through imposter syndrome one day at a time

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Feeling like a fraud is common, especially in creative fields where things are often subjective. These words of advice can help.

7 min read

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At some point we’ve all had the moment of insecurity: Can I do this job? Will I be good at this? Am I a fraud?

Working through imposter syndrome is a real concern for many designers. It can sneak into your psyche at almost any time, regardless of where you are in your career. Its implications go beyond the anxiety you may feel when starting a new job or role.

However, once you recognize it, working through the pains that come with feeling like a fraud can help you get past it one day at a time. Here are some words of advice on how to deal with imposter syndrome.

What is imposter syndrome?

Let’s take a look at the relationship between design and imposter syndrome.

Creative fields are often subjective, leading to insecurities that can manifest themselves as imposter syndrome. But what does that really mean?

The most recognized imposter syndrome definition comes from a classic study in Psychotherapy published by S.A. Imes and Pauline Rose Clance: “The psychological experience of believing that one’s accomplishments came about not through genuine ability, but as a result of having been lucky, having worked harder than others, or having manipulated other people’s impressions, has been labeled the impostor phenomenon.”

The roots of imposter syndrome come from a study conducted with college women in 1978, who despite success, did not see themselves as worthy and competent as their peers. In the study, they attributed accomplishment to luck, charm, or an ability to please people, but not their skills, leading to self-doubt and a belief that they were “faking it.”

This is the same feeling that many of us–regardless of gender–experience today, and it’s quite common among designers and others working in creative fields.

The topic has been highly debated and talked about in articles on Medium, in TED talks and so on. It’s estimated that up to 70% of creative workers have felt this way at some point in their careers.

So, what does imposter syndrome feel like, exactly?

Imposter syndrome is more than simple insecurity about a new job or career. And while it’s not uncommon to compare yourself to other designers and co-workers with more experience or expertise, imposter syndrome goes beyond this form of self-doubt. It’s worrying that you’re going to be “found out” and that you aren’t really good at design at all.

Yellow piggy bank with the words 'Nothing will save you' printed on

Many of us go through this experience, even designers who earn praise and recognition for their work.

Designers tend to be particularly susceptible, because “good” and “bad” visual design can be a matter of taste, and creative techniques, trends, and processes are changing all the time. It’s an environment that’s somewhat undefined and always evolving, which can lead to insecurity.

Trust the feedback you get from others. If someone tells you they like your work, believe it.

There’s a fine line between a little professional insecurity and imposter syndrome. Designers who feel like frauds may find themselves working in overdrive to be perfect.

You might suffer from imposter syndrome if:

  • Everything has to be perfect. It makes you nervous to share wireframes or sketches that aren’t pixel-perfect and ready to launch.

  • You don’t want to participate or get nervous about design reviews or feedback (even if you have consistently received high marks or praise for your work).

  • Assignments or tasks take an overwhelming amount of time because of an effort to create perfection or compensate for a perceived lack of ability.

  • You question your role or leadership ability and try to avoid opportunities for fear of being “exposed.”

Laptop with the words 'Nobody is following you' on the screen and jug with 'disaster' written on it

These feelings can come and go at different points in your career. While most designers associate imposter syndrome with a career change, that’s not always the case. Consider the following:

  • An unexpected promotion can trigger these feelings, potentially making you feel unworthy.

  • Too much praise can make you feel uncertain. (We all fail at some point.)

  • You admire a colleague’s work so much that you begin to feel inadeq