Dealing with Imposter Syndrome

Imposter Syndrome is very real and can be debilitating. In those times when I have struggled with it, here are the techniques that helped me pull out of a spiral and move forward.

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Illustration by Sabrina Newsome

The downside of working in a highly creative and talented environment is that it can be very easy to second guess yourself. Like any human being, I’ve struggled with confidence and at times wondered if I deserved to be in my post.

Imposter syndrome is defined as “a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their skills, talents or accomplishments and has a persistent fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’.” Public figures who have acknowledged experiencing Imposter Syndrome include Sheryl Sandberg, Tom Hanks and Tina Fey.

I want to share some tips that have helped me re-balance, celebrate my strengths (and the strengths of others), and move to a more positive mindset during waves of Imposter Syndrome to hopefully help you if this is something you’re experiencing.

Separate facts from feelings

“Facts have no feelings.”

Just because you feel incapable, does not mean you actually are. Chances are you have worked very hard to get where you are, been through a robust interview process, and have the respect and recognition of peers to back it. Take a moment to step back and actually unpick what is happening to separate facts and feelings.

For example, fact: “The meeting I managed ran over time”; feeling: “I am incapable of chairing such an important meeting.” Unpack what happened, focusing on facts. Perhaps the meeting ran over because important topics came up. Perhaps there is an area for improvement such as a better agenda — which can be easily rectified next time.

Try removing yourself from the situation, as we are often too hard on ourselves. If it had been your friend running the meeting, what feedback would you have given? If you need to, ask for additional feedback from a trusted source (more on that later), in this example perhaps a manager who attended the meeting. We all have areas we can work on, so constructive feedback is a gift, but it will also likely put into perspective that you did much better than you think.

In some situations it might be perfectly normal to feel out of place. Perhaps you are the first woman on an all-male leadership team, or a different ethnicity to your colleagues. Perhaps you are just in a new role and those around you have been in position for much longer. Don’t berate yourself for feeling out of place. Acknowledge the situation and how you feel about it, consider and celebrate that you are actually breaking through barriers, then focus on the job at hand.

Weather the storm

“Storms make trees take deeper roots.” — Dolly Parton

Waves of insecurity will pass. In moments of self-doubt, I try to remember this. There are two ways to give yourself authority in front of peers: put others down, or build others up. When I look back on my career and personal life, the moments I most regret usually came from speaking at a time when I did not feel confident. If you feel insecure, take a moment before speaking to ground yourself. Here is the advice I would give if you are feeling insecure in a meeting:

  • If you can’t think of a clever thing to say, ask a question. This shows that you were paying attention; it also gives you a voice and authority in the meeting.
  • If you can’t think of a question, give a compliment. You know how hard it can be to present or share ideas, so if you think someone did a great job — tell them. This will give them a confidence boost, but also keeps you in the mindset of positive thinking, i.e., “They did a great job and I can learn from them” rather than privately stewing, “I’m not as good as they are.”

If you are really struggling, this might even look like staying quiet, collecting your thoughts afterwards and circulating them via email or in a later meeting. If you have a valid point, it is important you find a way to voice it, but if you need some time to collect your thoughts, remove emotion and communicate more effectively, then take it.

Focus on your authentic voice and strengths

“Confidence is silent. Insecurities are loud.”

The next tip is to find your natural voice and strengths. By focusing on your strengths, you are focusing on the positives in yourself rather than the perceived failings.

As a loud American who grew up presenting, I find it relatively easy, even enjoyable, to present my design work and to speak publicly (though nerves hit me just like they would anyone else). On the other hand, a colleague of mine is a very effective presenter, but where I see him really excel is in writing. He is incredibly articulate in written communications such as documents and emails, and I’ve found that to be his most powerful voice. Another colleague finds both writing and public speaking very difficult, but she is an incredible illustrator — her slide decks are beautifully crafted and can stand entirely on their own to communicate ideas.

List out your strengths and what comes most naturally. In management, this falls under authentic leadership, where you manage based on your natural and authentic way of thinking and behaving, making it much more effective. Once you know your strengths, double down on them. Self-growth is never finished; focus on being the very best at those skills.

Find a wing-person

“Stop letting people who do so little for you control so much of your mind, feelings and emotions.”

Pay attention to people who care about you and are invested in you. This could be a manager, mentor, friend or family member, or it could even be a professional coach or therapist. Don’t focus on feedback from people who don’t have your back; it’s not helpful.

How to find a mentor is a common question. I found formal mentoring pairings can feel quite artificial and hard to develop, though I know others who have found success with them. Instead, I built up rapport with colleagues or leaders who I admired and had come to trust. By investing time to gradually and naturally get to know these people better (and they have graciously made time for me), I’ve built up a network of people I trust. I often joke that my mentors became official when I cried in front of them — a sign that I trusted them to the point of being able to confide a difficult situation and knew they would support me through it.

While taking on guidance from your support network is important for perspective and growth, you do need to listen to and prioritise your own thoughts and feelings. Not the emotional, spiralling ones, but the robust ones which form with time and patience. Building the muscles to create and maintain a robust inner dialogue is crucial for moving forwards. You want your inner voice to be the same one you would use with a loved one: compassionate, honest and supportive.

Take things one step at a time

“Focus on the step in front of you. Not the staircase.”

A trigger for Imposter Syndrome can be the size of the task at hand. Breaking a big task or goal down makes it manageable and much less overwhelming. An incredibly effective method I have found is a daily ritual of bullet journaling. First thing in the morning, with a cup of coffee, and before I fire up my laptop, I note down my top priorities for that day and when and how I will get them done (usually this means I actually schedule time to do it). On Mondays this is a slightly longer process as I list out tasks for the week, which I circle back to throughout.

This method grounds me. It also forces me to make decisions about what matters rather than trying to tackle everything at once. I list 2–3 priorities for the day, and I try to keep my mornings free to get those tasks done, as my afternoon is packed with meetings. At the end of the day, I have learned to give myself permission to say “that’s enough” if I get those tasks done. If I don’t complete one, I simply make a note to pick up where I left off the next morning, once again giving myself permission to forget it for now and go enjoy my evening.

Over the years, this has become a larger process. I now create yearly, monthly, weekly and daily goals and tasks. But it started small and lightweight, and has naturally grown into the backbone of my process and a way to calm the chaos in my head. If you’re feeling the weight of a big goal or task, try to break it down into actionable, realistic and time-bound steps to help you move forwards.

Remember the real benchmark: you

“Want to be successful? Focus on your own shit.”

The comparison game will kill you. Recognise the talents and strengths of others (this is actually an incredibly powerful action, as detailed above), but focus on your journey, your strengths, your goals. Celebrate how far you have come and build excitement for learning and developing new skills.

If you consistently experience Imposter Syndrome, it’s important to step back and consider the root cause. I have seen (and personally experienced) two common situations:

  • You’re in the right place, but being challenged: When you go through the steps above and can recognise that this was a moment of self-doubt, but you’re on the right path, then forge ahead. This is common when taking on new responsibilities or skills or when working with talented people — but consider the huge positives of those situations. You are developing and growing; you are around capable and talented people from whom you can learn (which, by the way, means you are capable and talented too and they likely feel the exact same way about you). Steady the course and keep going.
  • You’re not incapable, you’re just not in the right role: I’ve had two jobs that were not a good fit, and I knew it within days of starting the position. If you repeatedly feel unmotivated, uninterested and frustrated about the work, or if you feel culturally out of place to the point that you are miserable, it might be a case where you are just not in the right role. It happens, and can actually be an incredibly valuable way of figuring out what is the right role. After catastrophic positions, I took on roles that I absolutely loved and where the contrast was palpable. In these instances I strongly advise speaking to trusted sources and family, or seeking professional therapy or counselling — which I have also done and benefited from on multiple occasions — to help you form a plan of action to get into a new situation.

Imposter Syndrome is very real and can be debilitating. In those times when I have struggled with it myself, using the tips above has helped me to find a healthier perspective and move forwards. I hope these points resonate and help enable you to accept and embrace your strengths and successes.

UX Designer living & working in London. Currently team lead at Google, previously with Amazon, the Guardian and the BBC.

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