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1 October 2021

Embracing Imposter Syndrome


A love letter to all the imposters out there

I have spent years sabotaging my own career. I convinced myself I wasn’t good enough, I wasn’t skilled enough, I wasn’t business savvy enough, I wasn’t clever enough, I wasn’t enough. These were all lies that I told myself, lies that stunted my career and fuelled a plague of depressive and anxious behaviour that seriously impacted my health.

Only recently have I realised that I am the one causing the pain and, therefore, the only one that can fix it. I wanted to write a blog that explores my experience and hopefully helps others embrace imposter syndrome and, in time, OWN it.

What is imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is an internalised experience of believing that you are not as competent as others perceive you to be regardless of social status, work background, skill level, or degree of expertise.

It was first identified in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes who theorised that women were uniquely affected by imposter syndrome. However, it has since been acknowledged that it can apply to anyone who struggles to internalise and own their successes.

What does it look like?

As a UX designer with a decade of experience in the design industry, I am often bombarded with all the characteristics associated with imposter syndrome:

  • Self-doubt — Am I doing it the right way? Was that the right decision to make? I’m not sure I’m good enough to do that role; I’m sure there’s someone else who could do that job better than me… All examples of the stories I told myself (and sometimes still do) on a daily basis.
  • Unable to realistically assess my competence and skills — I often find it hard to believe despite other people recognising my abilities. As a result, I find it incredibly difficult (and frustrating) to do things like write a CV and apply for jobs.
  • Crediting my success to external factors — This can come across as being humble but is actually embedded in being unable to internalise and own those successes.
  • Being highly critical of my own performance — I am my own worst enemy; my standards for myself are incredibly high, and recently I have been trying to be kinder to myself and accept less than perfection.
  • The constant fear that I don’t live up to what is expected of me — This characteristic is exaggerated by my anxiety, which separates reality from fiction. Something which I have learnt to manage by making sure that I have clear guidance on people’s expectations.
  • Overachieving — I always tend to push myself hard, something which I had always attributed to ambition. Taking a step back, I can see that “ambition” was driven by fear.
  • Sabotaging my success — This has haunted me my whole career. I have watched my peers in awe, often wondering why they had what it takes to succeed, but I didn’t. The answer was simple. I had chosen to sabotage any opportunities that came my way rather than embrace them.
  • Being over-optimistic and setting challenging goals — This often leads to disappointment when I fall short or don’t complete the goal to a high standard. I often try and sense check my ambitions with another colleague to help ground me in the reality of what’s achievable and what is good enough.

Let me tell you a story.

I was in a meeting where my role was to coach the team in more agile practices. They were at the beginning of their journey, and progress was slow. As another team member told me what outputs (rather than outcomes), they were working on and the number of meetings (with no defined purpose) they would be in that day, I began to bristle. My tone sharpened, and my patience thinned. I began to march them through what a 15-minute focussed standup should be like as opposed to the rambling, purposeless meeting we were having. Then came the comment that knocked the wind from my sails: “You sound like a headteacher.” This horrified me, I was preaching to the team about how they could be empowered, and we could work in a less top-down environment, only to be compared to a figurehead of authoritarian rule. I had failed. I had become the very thing that I was striving to work against, I was hypocritical, and clearly, I didn’t know what I was doing.

On relaying this story back to my colleague, he laughed. His advice? Just own it. You might be giving them exactly what they need; you’re not here to be friends with them but to shape, guide and coach them. A good coach knows when to play good cop and bad cop. I sat and reflected on this, and it made sense. I hadn’t failed at all, and even if I had, I was self-aware enough to pause, listen to the feedback and pivot. I was exactly where I needed to be.

Still, in the back of my mind, that feedback rumbled away. At the end of my tenure, I made every effort to collect constructive feedback on my performance and give the team space to air their thoughts on my way of working safely. As it turns out, the team thought it was hilarious and laughed on mute. Unfortunately, due to the authoritarian structure, they didn’t feel able to laugh in front of me, which in truth, would have made me feel better. Instead, the wall of silence made way for my inner critique to rear its ugly head and imposter syndrome to take hold.

Owning it

So how did I fight that feeling that everyone has felt at least once or twice in their career? Keep going. Prove yourself wrong and learn from your failures. Everyone is in the same boat and are doing what they think is right. This could be in the form of applying frameworks or methodology or using psychology to engage teams. It’s worth remembering that those frameworks were initially discovered by experimentation. In that vein, become a scientist in your approach to work. Learn through trial and error, reflect on your failures and use those to plan your path forward.

So to all those imposters out there — trust yourself. You are better than you think you are. You just need to believe it.