Coping with impostor syndrome

View from St. Thomas of beautiful mountains and palm trees
I remember this moment so well, because Rob and I were on vacation in St. Thomas in the Caribbean… and I cried for hours knowing I had to go back to my real job. I was miserable and insecure, and impostor syndrome was hitting me in a huge way (among other things). I didn’t think I was good enough to get any other job… ever. I’m luckily in a better place now!

I’ve been dealing with impostor syndrome my entire life. From as far back as I can remember, I remember feeling terrified of failure, afraid that I wasn’t nearly as good at anything as people thought I was, and insecure in every single way. Impostor syndrome, for those of you who don’t know, is the belief that you’ve fooled everyone so far into thinking you’re as good as you are, but someday someone will find out you’re faking it and you’ll be outed as an impostor. Basically, the belief that you don’t belong, the belief that you can’t do something as well as everyone else.

My day job is a user experience designer, and I’ve been working in the tech industry my entire career. Impostor syndrome is particularly prevalent for women in tech, partly because it’s a high-achieving field, partly because it’s a highly skill-based field, and partly because there’s already the social feeling that women don’t belong. But honestly, it can happen anywhere at any time. I was paranoid in high school about being in advanced classes or doing anything outside my comfort zone!

I’m still struggling with it, but throughout the years I’ve managed to come up with some techniques. I’ve read a lot about impostor syndrome but none of it has really been THAT helpful. Usually articles recommend that you justĀ “believe in yourself,” or “adopt a different mindset,” which isn’t helpful… at all. I mean, sheesh, if it were that easy, then people wouldn’t be so stressed about it! So I’ve compiled a list of things that has definitely helped me.

Push through it

Sometimes, ignoring your fears, buckling down, and just DOING THE WORK is the most helpful thing you can do. You’ve got a deadline, you can’t afford to be afraid. One of the best things that helped me get over myself and do the work was working at a career job, where we had real clients waiting for our work – my work! So I just couldn’t afford to spend any time wallowing.

It involves turning your focus from inwards to outwards. This is really hard sometimes, but as you do it, you’ll build up a list of accomplishments that you can look back on. You can even make a physical list – look at the things you accomplished. It helps so much to make lists of positive feedback you’ve been given, real accomplishments you’ve made, and times where you’ve pulled through despite setbacks. Focusing on the work itself, rather than your feelings, helps you to get things done and build up your confidence.

Start small

When I get overwhelmed, I pick out the tiniest thing I could possibly do… and then I do it. Starting small is advice that many therapists give to people with anxiety, and it works out really well for all kinds of situations (including procrastination). Need to mail out a package? Step one is just organizing what you need for the package – then you can take a break. Step two is getting your box addressed and getting everything inside and taping it shut. Step three is taking it to the post office!

With impostor syndrome, it’s easy to not be able to start because you’re gripped by fear and you feel like everything has to be perfect or else it isn’t worth doing. Doing small things one thing at a time helps you move through your list, so your feeling of accomplishment can overtake your fears.

Help others and forgive the mistakes of others

This is a huge one. Huge. If you’re terrified that everyone thinks you’re doing a bad job, or if you’re terrified that you’re going to be found out as a fraud, but then you treat everyone else’s mistakes with disdain, you’re doing it absolutely wrong. People will treat you the way you treat them, so if you help them through their mistakes, they’ll forgive and forget yours, too.

I used to get horribly defensive anytime I would make a mistake at work. It felt like the end of the world. I’d lash out and make up excuses for why something wasn’t perfect. Honestly, I was probably awful to deal with! But I started making an extra effort to not just tolerate the mistakes of others, but instead helping them to EMBRACE their mistakes, and even encourage mistakes! It’s much easier and more effective, I think, to focus outward on helping out other people and being kind to them, than it is to try to feel more confident and better about yourself all on your own in a vacuum. Helping out other people will make you feel valued, which then will make you feel good. Helping other people work through their mistakes helps me to practice being kinder to myself about my mistakes.

Be humble

Ultimately, impostor syndrome is placing undue emphasis on looking inward instead of living outward. You’re basically expecting yourself to be better than everyone else, more perfect than any other person. If you look at it in a certain light, that’s pretty egotistical, actually. It’s placing so much thought and emphasis on yourself and your ego. Better to acknowledge yourself as a human being, one who succeeds and fails, just like every other human being.

So, when people give you a compliment or a critique, say thank you. When you are successful, remember to thank everyone who made it happen. When you make mistakes, rely on those who love you. And always be humble while doing it – don’t hold yourself to unrealistic standards. Impostor syndrome comes back to me often, but it’s getting easier with every year I practice. I’m slowly gaining confidence in myself and my abilities, and making lots of friends and connections along the way. I’ve come so far in my thought patterns, and I wanted to share a bit about it in the hopes that it will help someone else.

Please share your experiences in the comments!

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3 Comments

  1. Hrm. I think I may have a little bit of an Imposter Syndrome, but I don’t think it’s as severe as yours. Or maybe it’s not that. I remember that one time I was told to do a big project that was due in about three weeks, and I’d started panicking and told my boss that’s not doable. She eased my fears and just said, “It’s doable. We’ll work out a schedule. You’ll be able to do it.” Well, long story short, she was right — albeit I worked my butt off to make sure I met those time-sensitive deadlines!

    But I think those advices you listed above is good to remember whether you have the Imposter Syndrome or not. I’ve learned that it definitely helps to start with the small things or at least break the project into small chunks so everything comes together in the end. And it’s definitely important to push through with the tasks because then nothing will get done! And humble — yes. It’s great to receive compliment, but being humble and thanking all the people who have helped you is very important.

  2. That would be a very difficult experience to try and manage and it’s great that you are sharing your thoughts.

    I have very low confidence and often feel that many of the things I create would never be good enough to be used in a professional manner. I am studying at university and this has been helping me. What I found personally, is that I have to really push myself and try and go as far as I can with my learning, so I can ensure that I am accusing knowledge at a level that really ‘clicks and locks in’. Maybe that sounds weird, but when you have anxiety it can be a hard beast to fight.

  3. I totally get where you’re coming from, as I experience imposter syndrome on a daily basis while attending grad school, where it feels like everyone is as smart or smarter than you are.

    I also think your point about being humble is a great point! I haven’t looked at it that way before, but it’s true that a part of imposter syndrome comes from expecting better out of yourself. Which isn’t a bad way to think about yourself, unless it gets in the way of your confidence.