Overcome impostor syndrome: A guide for designers

Illustration of a designer working opposite their shadow, signifying working with impostor syndrome
Published
August 4, 2021
Category

Strategy

You’ve aced the interview and received some positive feedback from the panel. The recruiter sends you the offer — you accept — and you start at your new job. Your first days on the job are nerve-wracking! You have to learn the systems and processes, master the tools and meet dozens of new people, all while thinking about how you’re going to add value.

Then you get the sinking feeling that you’re not good enough. You’ve tricked everyone into hiring you. You start thinking that “interview you” was a big fake, and at any moment, they’re going to realize their mistake. Even though you’ve done well in the past, it doesn’t matter now. You’re an impostor.

Or, maybe (definitely), you’re suffering from impostor syndrome.

How I developed impostor syndrome

In January 2021, in the middle of the pandemic, I moved to Germany. Not only did I need to adapt to a new country, but a new role and workplace, too. I previously worked in luxury ecommerce and now had to now deep-dive into the world of content management systems (CMSes). This was a significant change, I needed to learn specialized domain knowledge, non-linear workflows, and a complex digital ecosystem. It turns out this was the perfect mix for a strong case of impostor syndrome.     

In those first few weeks, I grappled with extreme anxiety. I struggled to sleep and had a strong urge to quit everything and return to my old, familiar life. I worried I didn’t know enough, or that I would break something with a bad design decision. I shied away from expressing my thoughts in team meetings for fear of unworthiness. 

At some point, a few weeks into my role, I realized that I couldn’t live like this. I decided to get to the root of where these feelings were coming from, and why they had popped up during this critical time. From there, I could make a plan to address and resolve the conflict. 

Signs that you might have impostor syndrome

There are a few telltale signs that you may be suffering from impostor syndrome (sometimes also referred to as the Impostor Phenomenon).

  • You feel like a fraud and that at any moment someone will find out you’re not qualified.

  • You constantly doubt your design abilities and worry that you’re not good enough.

  • You avoid taking risks or sharing your ideas, in case they’re judged harshly.

  • You feel like you don’t deserve your own success and are convinced it will all come crashing down soon.

  • You have tons of negative thoughts about your accomplishments and career.

Can impostor syndrome be overcome?

Anyone can overcome impostor syndrome. It's a process that takes time and effort, but it's possible. With some self-awareness and a willingness to change, you can overcome the feelings of insecurity and self-doubt that come with impostor syndrome.

Remember to be gentle with yourself, talk to someone if you need help, and celebrate your successes. Try new things and push yourself out of your comfort zone. Use the fear of being exposed as a motivator to become a successful designer. Know that you are capable and deserving of your success.

Icon of an easel with paint and a paint brush

9 Ways to overcome impostor syndrome

In my journey with impostor syndrome, I’ve found a few strategies that have helped me. Although these are not exhaustive or prescriptive, I’ve heard that these tips have been useful from other designers.

It’s also important to mention that I’ve never found myself completely on the winning side when it comes to mental health. Wellness is an ongoing battle and always a work in progress. 

With that said, here are nine ways to help overcome impostor feelings:

1. Realizing you have impostor syndrome

This step is key. A lot of people who suffer from impostor syndrome don’t even realize they have it. Recognizing that you have these feelings and acknowledging that they are impacting your work is a huge step in the right direction.

From there, you can start to understand why these thoughts and feelings are popping up for you and begin to address them head-on.

2. Know you are not alone

One of the most isolating things about impostor syndrome is feeling like you’re the only one who experiences these doubts and fears. But this could not be further from the truth. Impostor syndrome is very common and many people, including some of your colleagues, may suffer from it as well.

When you realize that you are not alone in this, it can be a huge relief. You can start to build a support system with your peers and get help when needed.

3. Humility vs fear

A lot of the thoughts and feelings associated with impostor syndrome come from a fear of being exposed. A lack of self-esteem can make you feel like you’re not supposed to be where you are or don’t deserve what you have.

But remember, these thoughts are just fears and they are not based on reality. You have worked hard to get to where you are and you do deserve your accomplishments.

When these thoughts come up, try to replace them with a sense of humility instead. Acknowledge your accomplishments, but also remind yourself that there is always room for growth. Fear will only hold you back, while humility can propel you forward.

4. Don't let “perfect” be the enemy of “good”

This is a phrase that I’ve heard many times and it’s especially relevant when it comes to impostor syndrome. Don’t let the pursuit of perfectionism keep you from shipping your work or sharing your ideas.

It’s important to remember that your first attempt is never going to be perfect — and that’s okay. In fact, it's often the iterations and mistakes that we make along the way that help us learn and grow. So don't be afraid to put yourself out there, knowing that you can always improve on your work.

5. Be gentle with yourself

This goes hand in hand with the last point. When you're feeling down about yourself or your work, be gentle and forgiving. Cut yourself some slack and understand that you are human.

It's okay to make mistakes and it's okay to not be perfect. In fact, perfectionism is often one of the main things that hold us back from succeeding. Give yourself permission to make mistakes and to learn from them.

6. Talk to a manager

When you're feeling down or like you can't overcome impostor syndrome on your own, talk to someone. This could be a manager, mentor, or friend.

I’ve found it can be helpful to get an outsider's perspective for external validation. Talking to someone might also help you gain some more insight into what is going on and how to address it. If you don't feel comfortable talking about these things with people close to you, there are many online communities that can offer support.

7. Celebrate your success

One way to overcome impostor syndrome is to celebrate your successes. Acknowledge the hard work you put in and give yourself credit where it's due. When you do well, reward yourself with something that makes you happy. This could be anything from taking a relaxing bath to going out for a celebratory dinner. Taking time to reflect on and appreciate your accomplishments can help build self-confidence and alleviate feelings of inadequacy.

8. Try new things

One way to overcome feelings of self-doubt is to try new things. Push yourself out of your comfort zone and take on new challenges. Try something unfamiliar, like learning new design trends, and it can help to dissipate the fear and doubts that come with impostor syndrome.

Not only will this help you grow as a designer, but it will also build your self-confidence. The more experience and exposure you have to different areas of design, the more confident you will feel in your abilities and in your workplace.

9. Use it to your advantage

Impostor syndrome can be a powerful motivator. When you feel like you're not good enough, it can push you to work harder to become a successful designer.

Use the fear of failure as a motivator and let it drive you to do your best work. Remind yourself that you are capable and that you deserve to be where you are. Know that these feelings are normal and that many other people have gone through the same thing — likely  some of your own team members.

Illustrated icon of sunglasses

Are designers more susceptible to imposter syndrome? 

After chatting with other productive design teams in the tech space, it seems like I wasn’t alone in struggling with impostor syndrome. Here’s why I think designers are particularly susceptible: 

  • Digital product design (sometimes called interaction design or UX design) is still an evolving field within the tech space. As designers, sometimes we need to fight for a seat at the table for strategic decisions.

  • A lot of organizations aren’t equipped to onboard a new designer like they are with engineers. Management often expects you to hit the ground running and navigate any ambiguity on your own.

  • Designers are often empathetic people — it’s a trait that makes us good at our jobs! We can be very attuned to the headspace of our colleagues and customers, which helps us make better design decisions. It also means we’re introspective and sometimes too self-critical.

  • Like many creative people, designers lean toward perfectionism. In the early days of a job, we might not give ourselves the freedom to explore and make mistakes; we expect perfection from the get-go.

  • Some workplaces may also lack inclusion, equity, and diversity competency. Research reveals that people from underrepresented groups are more likely to experience a more terrifying form of impostor syndrome than people in the majority. This difference originates in the systemic and subtle discrimination against people from underrepresented groups in the workplace. In such cases, the onus is on the organization to identify how it perpetuates microaggressions and make significant efforts to foster an environment where newcomers, especially those coming from marginalized backgrounds, feel safe enough to express themselves and grow.

In my case, multiple check-ins with my manager/mentor helped me to a great extent. His opening line would be some variant of “How are you feeling today?” instead of “What have you been working on?” The question always came from a place of genuine interest and empathy.

We would end our meetings with him asking, “Is there something that you want me to help you with?” This immediately established trust and I could start talking to him without inhibition about ongoing work and navigating the organization, people, and processes.

Colorful Russian dolls

Remember, you’re in great company! 

The strange thing about impostor syndrome is that it happens to even the most accomplished individuals. The internet is full of quotes from successful people who battled impostor syndrome such as Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Maya Angelou, and Michelle Obama. 

Thankfully, most mature companies know that recruits might have this problem. Generally, team members who are humble, are willing to learn, and take their time to adjust within the organization are respected more than those who bring arrogance or cockiness. So overall, we’re on the better side of the spectrum! 

While trying to encapsulate my experience of battling impostor syndrome, there’s one metaphor in particular that stands out. In the rulebook for animation principles, there is one principle called “anticipation.” It’s like when a cartoon character runs on the spot and then zips past at full speed. This preparation for an action tells us that the stronger the anticipation motion, the more fluid and effective the animation will be. In sports, there are similar actions. For example, consider the act of taking a few steps back to build momentum before you take the big jump or deliver a ball. 

The same is true for dealing with impostor syndrome. Uncertainty and feeling not good enough can be a runway. With time, you’ll realize how much you’ve absorbed during this phase of discomfort. Remember to be kind to yourself, and things will start to look up before you know it.

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