“We’re excited about the new feature, but we haven’t actually seen anything from it.” The entire department sat in awkward silence for a moment. We were having a bi-monthly department retro where all dev teams would get together and review the previous sprint. I was the UX lead on the project, so it was my work they were wanting to see. It’s true, we were early in the discovery process, so there wasn’t much to show aside from some pics of whiteboards and sketches. Still, this was a highly collaborative, agile environment and everyone had both an interest and a say in feature work.
It was a new setting for me. My previous job had been new at agile when I left and collaboration was limited to just the team working on the feature, generally. Other teams didn’t really care about what one another worked on, nor did other departments. But this company recognized the importance of inter-team collaboration when working on a single product – often our work overlapped. And in this case, though this person was not on my team, there was a chance that his feature could be impacted by the one I was designing.
But I suddenly, my mind was blank.
We’d been discussing the product for days. Brainstorming, getting internal feedback, lining up customers to interview and test prototypes with, I knew likely as much as I needed to know at that point in the process. But when put on the spot in front of everyone, I was confronted with both a series of thoughts and nothing to say at the same time.
If I responded about where we were and what we’d been doing, would they recognize I was new at UX? Would they think I didn’t know what I was talking about? I immediately assumed everyone in the room was more advanced in doing my job than I was. It wasn’t until later that I’d realized there’s a name for this type of discomfort: Imposter Syndrome.
What is Imposter Syndrome?
By now, you’ve likely heard the term at least once. It refers to individuals who are convinced they are frauds and that their accomplishments and success are not deserved. Raises, awards, or recognition of praise for their work are dismissed as luck, timing, the efforts of others involved (over their own work) or even a belief that they have somehow deceived those around them into believing they are the able pros they “pretend” to be.
Who Does It Impact?
While high achieving women rank slightly higher on the Imposter Syndrome scale, it roughly affects men and women equally. Studies have found that approximately 70% of all people have expressed feeling like an imposter at some point. In fact, the topic has become so widespread in recent years, that there is even an Imposter Syndrome test you can take to determine where you fall on the scale.
How to Address It?
So, since 3/4 of us are affected by this negative thought process, how can we address it? Well first, there is some evidence that those who are true imposters do not actually suffer from Imposter Syndrome. It is connected with a certain level of personal drive and desire for success, which those individuals apparently do not usually pursue. Those who tend to suffer from it often will be the ones who are perfectionists, overachievers and are driven by a passion for excellence.
- Practice humility – Often Imposter Syndrome flares up when we think we are more important than we are. In my earlier example, I suddenly felt everyone would expect me to have all of the answers regarding the past, present and future of this project. I was nervous about expressing that there were simply things we did not yet know, even though this was perfectly normal at this early stage. It has been said that “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less”, which leads to the next point.
- Focus on value – Not your value, but the value you can offer. You were hired to do a job because you applied for it (meaning, on some level you wanted to offer value through this position) and because others thought you were capable of doing it. Focus on that value. Not what you think they expect of you but what you know you have to offer.
- Don’t compare yourself to others – Do you know that one person in the office who always seems to have the right answer? It doesn’t matter if they’re put on the spot or have plenty of time to think things over. They are the one everyone seems to turn to for advice, always remain calm, are very articulate, and seem to be good at everything. It’s also likely that they too suffer from Imposter Syndrome. Instead of looking at them and pitting your strengths against theirs, lean into their knowledge. Know that they can be a great resource for learning and growing – and you may just find that occasionally they will need to learn from you!
- Put yourself out there, even when it hurts – I can look back now on that moment in our big retro and remember the terror I felt. I went home that night and told my husband that I just knew they were going to fire me soon. I’d been publicly exposed as a fraud because I didn’t have an explanation when confronted about the status of this project. Three years later (still at the same job), I see that the only reason I didn’t, was because I allowed my fear and (incorrect) analysis of what others thought of me to get the better of me. Had this person approached me in a one-on-one setting, I would’ve gladly shared where we were in the project, what efforts had been made so far to discover the user, the problem we were trying to solve, the status of the design and every other detail. But because it was in such a public setting, and I felt so inexperienced, I’d remained frozen.
- Celebrate success, learn from failure – Some would argue, and I agree, that there’s no such thing as failure if you’re willing to try. No one enters this world already walking. We all must crawl, stumble, fall and eventually understand how to steady ourselves. It takes time and practice. Even if you’re just starting out you have successes in your life. They may not all be related to the area in which you may be feeling Imposter Syndrome – or I.S. may be attempting to impact you in all areas. Remember your successes, not because you need to recreate them, but because your brain needs to focus on the positive. And in times where the results were not what you’d hoped, focus on where you can improve for the future.
- Build up others – Studies show that encouraging and helping others can give us both a physical and mental boost. Take some time to offer genuine compliments today to those around you. You may find that they respond with their own concerns about inadequacies and your feedback helps to reduce their Imposter Syndrome. Occasionally, they may even return the favor with positive feedback for you.
Imposter Syndrome affects nearly every type of person. We like to appear as though we always have everything together; our lives are in order, we have the right answers, we have no fears, we will always succeed. This is an illusion and creates a toxic mindset. It is good to do our best, work hard and want to make a positive difference. But the true success is in the effort when it is applied with a willingness to learn and grow rather than simply appear to have it all together.
Holly Reynolds is Product Designer who occasionally relaxes by baking, knitting or reading for hours. Problem solving, crafting great experiences, travel and chocolate are some of her other passions. She lives in Roswell, Georgia with her husband and two hairy German Shepherd rescues.